Merina Begum was having a video phone call with an agriculture officer when this reporter approached her maize field at Dakkhin Kharibari Char, a sandy area of the Teesta River basin in Nilphamari's Dimla upazila.
“Hello Sir, please see my maize field in the video and suggest me what to do,” the 36-year-old Merina was asking Upazila Agriculture Officer Sekendar Ali, at the other end.
Ali, after having a long look at the maize, advised her to put boron fertilizer as a remedy.
Merina appeared happy and told this reporter that the android phone she got as a gift three years ago has been an important tool for her to solve many farming-related issues.
Merina is one of the 100 women farmers in Dakkhin Kharibari Char, who got the phones in 2016 under a research project called Protic (Participatory research and ownership with technology, information and change). The project was funded by Monash University of Australia with the support of Oxfam Bangladesh.
Local NGO Polli Shree, which has been implementing the project, also provides each of them 500 megabyte data very month.
And this small yet smart device has been empowering poor women in the area, a home of 3000 families, in a big way.
“Every day I get at least 10-12 video calls from women farmers of the char and their phones come as blessing for all as I can solve the problem instantly sitting in my office,” Ali told this reporter afterward.
Farida Begum, 32, another proud owner of the phone, was preparing to harvest lal shak (red amaranth). She made a call to a vegetable wholesaler to know the market price and got a very good response.
Another beneficiary Saleha Begum, 30, said, “After giving mobile sets, project officials taught us how to use it. Besides, useful apps on agriculture like Krishoker Janala and Digital Thikana, dialing to government offices and call centre of project Protic, weather forecast and even entertainment were installed when we got the phones.”
This reporter talked with ten users and all of them said they are getting benefits after using those apps. They also said it allowed their husbands to go to the big cities and work there to earn some additional money for the family.
The women of this disaster-prone char area also said that they could get message in advance on natural calamities and convey it to villagers to take shelter to safer places.
Many of them impoverished families have now built half pucca tin-roofed houses, purchased farm land, have source of pure water, sanitary latrine and can send the children to school, said Rabiul Islam Shahin, the Dimla UP chairman.
Moreover, they are also helping their neighbours to get the benefit of digitalization, Shahin added.
MA Makim Chowdhury, project officer of Protic, said, “Last year, a research team from Dhaka University, comprising a group of students led by Associate Professor Shakhawat Hossain of disaster management department visited the area. They were overwhelmed to see the impact of the cellphones while conducting a survey here.”
Contacted, Shakhawat Hossian said, “Touch of digitalisation with the help of smartphones has brought about basic changes in the lives of the poor, marginal and deprived women in the remote area. It happened not only in agriculture but also in disaster management and entertainment. More importantly, it empowered the women.”
Nazmunnahar, the UNO of Dimla, said she was amazed to see how quickly the women in the char area were learning about and applying those devices in their daily life.
“I have asked several of them to solve a few riddles and they did it using the google search engine with amazing efficiency,” said Nazmunnahar.