Although most of my work is with microfinance institutions, I have the good fortune to catch up with great institutions doing quite innovative work every now and then. D.Net is one such institution, who I interned with way back in 2006. Most of their work is in the realm of ICT4D (ICT for Development) and over the years they have pushed out a couple of quite successful technology-reliant solutions.
One of the latest one they are working on is this concept called the Info Lady. It’s an entrepreneurial woman who is provided skills training and a notebook and other digital equipment, who goes around in a bike in her own community and those near it and provides livelihood information, usually for a fee. Sounds a little … far-fetched, right?
Turns out, it actually works and is a sustainable business model. The original idea was inspired by D.Net’s success with Pallitathya Kendras, or Village Information Kiosks where people would come to these centers and obtain all manners of livelihood information for a fee. The Info Lady model simply extends this idea by taking that information to the doorsteps of clients, literally.
There are 90 possible services that could be provided, but based on demand most Info Ladies provide 20 to 25 services. Offerings include everything from health services (blood pressure, pregnancy tests etc.) to information on income generation activities to assistance for workers seeking employment abroad to taking pictures or videos at weddings. In fact, the last one has turned out to be quite popular and is also a good source of income for the Info Ladies.
Info Ladies require a fair bit of training on domain knowledge and technical expertise, which requires an extensive training program over a couple of weeks. The program is being rolled out in a handful of districts. There are 57 Info Ladies in the field at the moment, with 105 undergoing training. The target is to have 300 Info Ladies offering their services by the end of the quarter.
There is an upfront cost to getting the Info Ladies set up. The total up-front cost can vary between $1,500 to $2,000 depending on the equipment options. D.Net is subsidizing a part of the costs, but the Info Lady is expected to come up with most of it on her own, or take responsibility for most of it. One option is a 3-yr loan from the public National Bank that comes with a 3-month grace period and a 9% interest rate (commercial interest rates are around 19%). The average earnings reported is about $150 per month, which makes a monthly loan servicing amount of $50-$60 conceivable. By the way, the highest consistent earnings reported is a little over $600; while this can’t be taken as the average scenario, it does show the earning potential of the practice.
D.Net is also trying to get the Bangladeshi Diaspora involved by getting them to sponsor Info Ladies – another hallmark of D.Net projects.
Here’s an article that came out in The Daily Star (link to an archive because the paper’s website is currently migrating to a new one..). And here’s a powerpoint that gives a bit more detail on what an Info Lady does:
Bangladesh, with a population of nearly 160 million and a landmass of 147,570 square kilometers, is among the most densely-populated countries in the world. It remains a low-income country, with a per capita income of US$ 652 in FY09 and 40 percent of its population living in poverty. Despite periods of political turmoil and frequent natural disasters, in the past decade Bangladesh has been marked by sustained growth(with nearly six percent on an average in past one decade), stable macroeconomic management, significant poverty reduction, rapid social transformation and human development. Foreign remittances sent by expatriate Bangladeshis remain one of the most consistent sources of foreign currency in Bangladesh, which earned Bangladesh 7th position among the top remittance-receiving countries in 2010, as reported byMigration and Remittance Fact Book 2011 of the World Bank.
Still, the majority of the Bangladeshis are unbanked, and access to financial services is very limited. Commercial banks have very low penetration in rural areas, where over 75 percent of the population lives. There are less than two ATMs for every 100,000 adults in the country. All of these characteristics make it a good business case for expanding accessibility to financial services through innovations.
Mobile networks have expanded quite rapidly in Bangladesh over the past decade. Currently, there are six mobile network operators (MNOs) in Bangladesh covering more than 90 percent of the geographic territory and 99 percent (coverage wise) of the population in Bangladesh. Consumer demand in Bangladesh makes the mobile market one of the fastest growing in the world. For instance, over the past 15 months, Bangladesh recorded nearly 1.4 million subscribers per month. The total number of mobile phone active subscribers reached about 73 million at the end of March 2011, with about a 45 percent penetration rate in the whole country. The Government and the Central Bank now recognize that the mobile banking is as a unique opportunity for the banks to increase their presence in rural and remote areas of the country and serve a huge unbanked population.
Banglalink, the fastest growing telecom operator in recent years, is the pioneer in testing out mobile mone initiatives in Bangladesh. The products it has recently launched along with other partners (such as banks and post offices) are as follows: (i) M-remittance (International and Local): which allows people to receive international remittance in the m-wallet account; enables local fund transfer P2P from one m-wallet to another m-wallet; facilitates cash deposit from “cash points” and other sources; and provides for cash withdrawal from “cash points”; (ii) M-payment (Utility): allows payment of utility bills using m-wallet; and (iii) M-collection: facilitates the purchase of train tickets.
M-remittance services are meant to address widespread issues such as inability to send money frequently, delays experienced while sending money, and issues related to insecure distribution and inconsistent delivery methods. It is also helping small entrepreneurs (agents) use part of the remittances which the receivers often do not withdraw all at once. The use of m-remittance services offered by Banglalink is picking up gradually. Around 1000 transactions are being reported across the country at the Banglalink mobile money agents/points. Users like the service for its fast and cost effective disbursement, as Banglalink found in its own market study.
Among many recent initiatives is the creation of a new organization called bKash — a scalable mobile money platform that will allow poor Bangladeshis to store, transfer and receive money safely via mobile phones. bKash is a joint venture of BRAC Bank Limited and Money in Motion LLC, USA, created out of a generous $10m grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to ShoreBank International, an international consulting firm. The grant forms part of the Foundation’s $500m pledge over the next five years to expand savings and build a “new financial infrastructure” to bring savings services to the poor.
With mobile density of 45 percent and mobile retail density averaging 0.5 in each village, like many other countries such as Kenya, South Africa and the Philippines, Bangladesh also has enormous opportunity for financial inclusion through creating a solid “mobile money ecosystem”. This arguably will contribute to greater efforts at poverty reduction and economic development in Bangladesh.
(The writer/blogger is a Graduate student of Development Economics and International Finance at the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy, Tufts University)
When I first heard about Inclusive Business, I immediately realized how “Fletcheresque” of an idea this was – multi-disciplinary in terms of business and development, cross-sectorial in terms of actors and stakeholders, and producing a two-fold outcome in terms of financial and social rewards. In other words, a new type of business model for Multi-national Corporations (MNCs) which engages not only the traditionally affluent and the top and middle of the economic pyramid but also focuses on the poor and the bottom of the pyramid (BOP) to make profit and deliver social change is Inclusive Business. Originally coined by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) and SNV, a Dutch International Development organization, the term has now become ubiquitous among all of the major international organizations, development consultancies, NGOs and civil societies. As much as the buzz-word has spread like wild fire, so has the related research, incubation and piloting initiative by major MNCs throughout the world.
Inclusive Business model promises to be fundamentally sustainable than what critics would consider as just a ‘fad’. Reasons are simple. As any core course in business would teach (Professor Jacque’s Corporate Finance course at Fletcher for instance) the basic objective of a corporation is to make profit and sustain its free cash flow for as long possible. Inclusive Business model is not just a philanthropic activity for a firm’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiative, but it vows to be bigger and better, and most importantly, profitable and sustainable. Compared to a philanthropic activity which would increase and decrease during economic upturn and downturn, an inclusive business isn’t just a “step child” that can simply be cutoff during harsher times. Inclusive Business is a model in which a project or a firm is built on, based on the inclusion of BOP as a part of the value chain – whether it be through directly employing low-income individuals, partnering with low income suppliers and entrepreneurs or by offering affordable goods and services to the BOP market.
While Inclusive Business promises wonders, it is definitely not free of challenges and shortcomings. Firstly, Inclusive Business model adoption means exposure to unknown political and social risks and, as we have seen time and again that this is a tough nut to crack for MNC’s. Secondly, measuring impact of these types of projects is cumbersome, often times subjective and hence no one standard has been agreed upon yet. Without a proper impact assessment method, returns from investing in an Inclusive Business are not properly quantified. Thirdly, company indices and ratings that go beyond the bottom line is still in its infancy and not common across industry.
Realizing these shortcomings, international organizations and aid agencies have actively partnered with MNCs and other state and non-state actors to promote these models. For instance, United Nations has incorporated Inclusive Business models as ways to achieving several of the Millennium Development Goals. In general, advocacy to adopt these models by businesses throughout the world has increased many folds in recent years. However, as long as impact remains only as an asterix (*) in the footnotes of financial proformas, the potential of this model will only be overlooked. Particularly, executives often fail to look beyond the model’s idealist social impact, which they believe is not-aligned with their firm’s goal. As a result, the golden opportunity of an Inclusive Business to partner with the hardest working individuals and to reach newer and larger markets, obvious dream targets for any businesses, is also largely overlooked.