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<x-flowed>Date: Fri, 31 Mar 2000 04:58:43 +0600
Subject: Grameen phone in rural areas of Bangladesh
Grameen Phone: Beacon of hope for rural women
by Farid Hossain
Sitting outside her mud-and-thatched hut Jamirunnesa picks up her Nokia
cell phone to know the latest poultry prices.Monir Chowdhury, her
neighbour, arrives panting to receive a long distance call from his brother
working in Malaysia. Next in the line is Tofazzal Hossain, a village doctor
who wants an early appointment with a specialist for one of his patients
afflicted with renal fever.
At the farming village of Jolarpar, 20 miles(35 kilometers) north of Dhaka,
Jamirunnesa, a 38-year-old housewife-turned business woman runs cell phone
service for villagers who still commute through dirty roads.The phone,
which is still a privilege for the rich in Bangladesh, also helps the
mother of four children earn a fair profit from the poultry farm she
runs."There are buyers who want to cheat me. But they can't because I've
the phone that comes handy to know at what rate the chickens are selling in
the markets," said Jamirunnesa waving her Nokia handset.
She bought the phone in February last year after borrowing 18,000 takas
from Grameen Bank that provides poor women small loans to start small
businesses such as cow rearing, grocery stores, poultry farms and vegetable
gardening. The cell phone was provided at subsidised prices by
GrameenPhone, the telephone arm of Grameen Bank.
Grameen Bank was established in 1976 by Muhammad Yunus, who left teaching
economics at a Bangladesh university. The bank now operates dIrs 2 billion
for 2.3 million Bangladeshis, most of them poor rural women.
The Grameen Phone is one of the four commercial cell phone operators in
Bangladesh. In 1997 Grameen Phone made a surprising move in reaching mobile
phones to mostly illiterate village women that sets it apart from the three
other companies which operate only for urban users. Grameen Phone selects
the cell phone operators from the bank's borrowers who have already
demonstrated their business talents and earned trust in regular repayment
of the loan.
"A telephone is no longer a luxury for villagers. It helps farmers to get
fair prices of farm products; relates to know about the remittances sent
from migrant workers abroad and patients to arrange appointments with
doctors in the cities," said Mehbub Chowdhury, who heads the marketing of
the cell phones."It's a toll for economic growth," Chowdhury said.
Consider Jamirunnesa, who earns an average net profit of 2,500 takas( dlrs
50) a month by selling her cell phone services. This means dlrs 600 a year
- twice the county's annual per capita income. When she borrowed 3,000
takas(dlrs 60) from Grameen Bank first time 10 years ago Jamirunnesa's
family could not afford enough meals a day like half her countrymen. She
invested the money in buying a milching cow and quickly repaid the loan by
Three years ago the woman with little schooling qualified to borrow higher
than the first loan to start the poultry farming. With the additional
earnings from the cell phone she has bought two fans, added a piece of farm
land besides keeping a part in bank savings.
"Ten years ago we had lost all hopes. Today, I find life worth
living,!',said Jamirunnesa in her new cotton sari, one of dozens she
The cell phone service has brought similar confidence for another 1113
village phone operators across Bangladesh. The first village mobile phone
was introduced in 1997 and since then it has reached to 1114 operators in
many villages. GrameenPhone plans to reach another 886 villages this
year. The achievement looks great in a country, where fewer than one
percent of 125 million population has telephones, including 100,000 cell
Grameen Phone conducts a day-long training session for an operator before
handing her the phone. One of the preconditions is that at least one member
from the family must recognise the English alphabets.
"In my case I've learnt how to operate the phone in just four hours," said
Hosne-ara, another village phone operator at the northern village of
Porabari. She passed on the skill to her schoolgoing son and daughter, who
operate the phone in her absence.
The cell phone service has generally been received well in the villages.
Still, the women operators are objects of envy mainly from the rich who
have traditional control over rural economy and politics.
"There are some rich people who come to us demanding that they be given a
cell phone," said Abdus Sabir, a Grameen Bank official who heads the
operation in Jamirunnesa's region."We tell them, the phone is for the poor
who are members of Grameen Bank and not for the rich," said Sabir.
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