A rural revolution

Meet the Infoladies of Bangladesh, the women delivering a digital lifeline to rural communities.

At just 21, Soma Khatun is an entrepreneur. Her customers wait anxiously for the ring of her bicycle bell, her purple and white uniform distinct against the lush green fields of the village. The sound heralds the arrival of high-tech equipment by low-tech means: a laptop, digital camera and medical testing kits, carried by bicycle, that connect remote, rural Bangladesh communities to the world. 

Soma is the Infolady for eight villages north-east of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. She visits each village three times a week, cycling between communities. The service she provides offers a vital lifeline to many villagers, but they are not the only ones to benefit.Being an Infolady has given this housewife-turned-entrepreneur her independence, dignity and an income. 

“Once I was an ordinary housewife. Nobody knew me,” she says. “Now everyone eagerly waits every day for me. This is my proudest moment.”

Soma is one of 50 Infoladies, trained and supported by Bangladesh-based social enterprise Dnet. The programme, which was piloted over a number of years before its launch in 2010, aims to tap into rising levels of telecoms connectivity in rural Bangladesh.

This technology has the potential to empower impoverished and remote populations – if only these communities had the equipment to make use of it. With an eye on the growing number of educated young women in these communities, executive director Ananya Raihan saw an opportunity. 

“The Infolady model includes women on both the supply and demand side,” he says, explaining its ‘women for women’ approach. “They have better access to rural households, so it’s the best approach for creating jobs and autonomy for women.”

The benefit, he adds, for women living in conservative areas, and prohibited culturally from travelling to access services, is clear. 

“We hope to close the gap that exists for villagers,” says Laura Mohiuddin, head of the Infolady programme. “People living in remote villages don’t have access to the internet and many cannot afford or operate a laptop.”

This gap is what gave rise to the idea behind Infolady, she says: if people cannot access technology, then technology needs to travel to them.

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Infoladies work in remote communities, travelling village-to-village by bicycle to bring technology and other services to communities.

The women of Infolady crisscross the countryside, carrying equipment able to take and send test results to medical clinics, offering prenatal checks, or setting up Skype sessions for villagers.They also carry offline content on their laptops, such as educational videos about farming.

The scheme is not charity. Instead, the women charge a small fee for each service, allowing them to earn an income and invest back into their business. 

“Dnet believes that when there is no other solution, charity may work,” says Raihan. “However, for sustained improvement of the lives of marginalised people, we need to create opportunities for them through entrepreneurship.” 

Most Infoladies are between 18 and 35 years old, married, living with their in-laws and from very poor families. Many have never seen a laptop before.

New joiners undergo at least nine days of training in basic skills, healthcare and technology, before deciding on the suite of services they want to offer to their rural customers. 

Infoladies can pick from services such as blood pressure tests, priced at about $0.13, pregnancy risk assessments for $0.06, or internet browsing for $0.39, for customers who want to job-hunt or check their exam results. Infoladies also offer Skype calls at $1.30 an hour, providing a chance for families to contact male relatives who often work overseas. 

“All the health-related services are popular,” says Soma, who also offers mHealth for pregnant women, where advice is sent by mobile phone. “There are no well-equipped community clinics in these villages for getting proper medical treatment.” 

“For sustained improvement, we need to create opportunities for marginalised people through entrepreneurship.

Ananya Raihan, executive director, Dnet.

Soma earns between $100 and $125 a month, a typical income for an Infolady that stretches up to $150 for some. She also pays back $30 each month for her loan. Infoladies purchase their equipment using a mix of their own savings and a bank loan with preferential terms.

“Currently, the National Bank Limited, Bangladesh provides loans where Infoladies pay 9 per cent interest,” explains Raihan. “Commercial interest rates in Bangladesh are usually between 15 and 17 per cent.” 

The average set-up cost is between BDT35,000 and BDT75,000 (about $440 to $945), including the cost of a bicycle. 

Dnet operates a franchise model, which sees each Infolady buy her equipment from a local hub. To date, these hubs have been run by NGOs, which has slowed the growth of the programme, says its head, Mohiuddin.

Nonprofits have been less eager to take up the social enterprise approach and reluctant to pay the franchisee fee. Infolady hopes to court other social enterprises, to persuade them to invest in, and help scale up, the programme. 

Rolled out on a larger scale, Infolady could reach many more rural communities. Now with 50 Infoladies, the scheme covers 300 villages and has impacted more than 300,000 rural citizens in Bangladesh.

By the end of 2016, Dnet hopes to have three Infoladies per sub-district across Bangladesh – some 13,500 in total.

For Soma, the impact on communities’ wellbeing is tangible. When one of her customers was woken up in the middle of the night by pregnancy complications, she gave Soma a call. Soma connected her to a doctor through the mHealth service she had installed on the woman’s mobile phone. “Today, when I see her baby, my heart fills with joy,” she says. – PA