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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 8 October, 2002, 07:55 GMT 08:55 UK
Mobile money spinner for women
Jamirun Nesa
Jamirun Nesa runs a successful business
BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida

Hidden at the back of a pharmacy in rural Bangladesh, its rickety shelves piled high with medicines and condoms, is a thriving mobile phone business.

The only sign of any kind of technology is a 20-metre bamboo pole, topped with what looks like a television aerial.

But this is the workplace of Jamirun Nesa, one of 50,000 Bangladeshi women making a living as Grameen phone ladies, as they are known.

Villagers flock to her phone booth in the region of Gazipur, two hours from the capital Dhaka, to use a mobile to call relatives, friends or business associates, paying for calls by the minute.

Life-changing

Grameen phone ladies provide villagers with a vital link to services such as hospitals and to relatives both at home and abroad, in a country with the lowest number of phones in South Asia.

Mobile phone in Bangladesh
Mobile phone confers respect
The scheme was set up by one of Bangladesh's largest non-government organisations, the Grameen Bank.

It offers women low-cost loans to set up a mobile phone exchange in villages where there are few if any landlines.

"I started the business as there was no other phone nearby," said Jamirun. "I saw it as a good business opportunity."

The mobile has literally changed her life.

"I get more respect now," she says. "Before people in the village wouldn't talk to me but they do now.

"I also have more respect from my husband and family."

Loans to women

Every day dozens of people come to make or receive calls.

Grameen phone ladies expect to earn more than US$1,000 a year, a far cry from the annual average income of US$380.

Chickens in Bangladesh
More chickens on the way
Jamirun has used profits from the phone to build her house, a simple clay building with tin roof and is now setting up a chicken farm as well.

Grameen has a policy of only loaning the funds to women. They are seen as less of a credit risk than the men.

To qualify for a loan, the women have to get the deeds of any property transferred to them from their husbands.

This also reduces the chances of a man leaving his wife as she ends up owning any property.

"If you don't have money they don't love you, be it your brother, sister, husband or daughter," said Jamirun. "If there is money in the pocket, then you get respect. And if you don't have any money you don't get respect."

Global lifeline

Hosne Ara, another phone lady in a nearby village, tells a similar story. As well as increasing her status in her village, she has a better lifestyle than before.

Grameen phone lady Hosne Ara
Hosne Ara: Can pay for healthcare
"I have a colour television and a fridge," she says. "I can send my child to school which I couldn't before. I don't have to worry about going to a doctor as I have the money to pay him."

For villagers, it means they have access to a phone, something taken for granted in the West.

"People who sell to cities can call before hand to check prices," says Hosne Ara. "People can send news about deaths or births."

With many Bangladeshis working abroad in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait or Malaysia, being able to use a phone can be a lifeline.

Sustainable?

The Grameen scheme has been hailed as a successful example of introducing technology to the poor.

"It is an example of rural women accessing mobile technology to alleviate poverty," explains telecoms analyst Abu Saeed Khan.

"You have complex, electronic devices being used by the illiterate or barely literate and earning a living from it."

But some are cautious about the long-term viability of the Grameen phone ladies.

"We should wait and see how sustainable it is," says Partha Pratim Sarker, founder of the Bytes for All technology website.

"In some areas more and more phones are coming in, meaning more competition. And if rural telecoms become cheaper and easier, this could be a possible threat to the Grameen phone lady."


The digital divide

Escaping poverty

Having a voice

Sharing knowledge

Staying healthy

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See also:

16 Aug 02 | Country profiles
01 Jul 02 | Business
04 Jun 02 | Business
14 Aug 02 | Business
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