September 2006

New Step In Telecentre Movement In Bangladesh

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Using technology, mainly mobile phone, as communication media has been widely spread all over Bangladesh and Grameen Phone (GP) in Bangladesh has a direct role to bring the service in the rural areas.

ICT4D is an emerging area of development agenda in Bangladesh, and its relevance to economic and social development is well-acknowledged although adoption of ICT based development initiatives is slow in compared to some other developing countries. ICT for Development has become a common phrase in the development world, and till now telecentre is the only focus initiative of ICT4D in Bangladesh and many  developing countries. However, the boom of mobile telephony in Bangladesh has shown the people the power of information and instant communication in their businesses and their daily lives. Using technology, mainly mobile phone, as communication media has been widely spread all over Bangladesh and Grameen Phone (GP), the leading mobile phone operator in Bangladesh has a direct role to bring the service to the rural areas. Society for Economic and Basic Advancement (SEBA), a local NGO, mainly focusing in livelihood activities, has experience on developing a sustainable model for telecentre through an action research project.

Community Information Centre : The journey begins
In recent days, various initiatives from different stakeholders, mainly NGOs and private sectors have been taken in the establishment of telecentre or Rural Information/ICT Centre. Most of these initiatives were donor funded and few of them showed positive potential to replicate as successful model. At this point in time, a partnership has emerged between SEBA and GP to establish Community Information Centre (CIC) in rural areas of Bangladesh to bring the benefits of ICT to the rural people. Based on SEBA’s experience on operating telecentre at field level and GP’s country wide connectivity with the vision to serve the rural community in a profitable way, the newly developed CIC model is now in implementation phase. It is expected that the CICs will bring the benefits of ICT to the rural communities and will contribute to bridge the digital divide gap in Bangladesh.  

CIC at Bamansundar: Demonstrating impact
SEBA launched the first CIC at Bamansundar, a rural location in Chittagong district, about 220 km from the capital city of Dhaka and only within 3 months opera-tion, the centre reached break even point to sustain from its own revenue at centre level. The soft launching of the centre created huge impact on the local community as the local communities were actively involved in the whole setting up process and represented in the event. Meantime around 1000 local users availed services from the centre and the trend is increasing. The most popular service in the CIC is digital photography (mainly for micro-credit, job and trade license application), and desktop publication and use of information service (Internet based) are other commonly used services.

SEBA is implementing GP’s CIC at field level along with other partners and the CICs will be established all over the country by the end of 2006. The penetration of CICs will be expanded in deep rural areas by 2007.

The Business Model: Entrepreneurship is the key
Entrepreneurship is the key component of Business Model of Community Information Centere (CIC). Basically, CIC is a composite model of information technology enabled services (ITES) under one roof from where a bundle of services can be delivered by using ICT for the rural people. The services include communication facilities, business development services and social information services. A ‘CIC’, owned by the private sector, is a physical infrastructure with basic ICT facilities (phone, computers, printer, scanner, Internet connectivity through an EDGE-enabled modem to access the Internet using the GP Edge technology, digital camera, etc.) in a rural set-up. To establish a centre, an entrepreneur will require approximately USD 1500 to cover all fixed costs. CICs will promote entrepreneurship and create self-employment to at least one to two youths in each location and it is expected that this will contribute to build advanced knowledge based ICT services in rural areas served by the centres.

Services – A basket with wide varieties
Understanding the information demand of the rural people and offering need based services was the key strategy of service development for CICs. Based on the recommendations of various study and reports, multiple services for CICs have been developed. And, field experience on telecentre operation was specially considered during service range selection. The CICs are now offering a range of information and services mainly in 3 categories, communication services by using mobile phone and Internet, ICT based services including digital photography, desktop printings, job openings, citizen services along with disseminating business development services mainly information for the local businesses, information on businesses & networking, and comprehensive information on some selected sectors that are dominantly present in project localities. ICT related and value-added services of GP are also dispensed at this centre to make the enterprise financially viable.

Presently, access to passport forms, birth and death certificate forms and other related information are available through the government websites. Market prices of agricultural produce are also available through the website of the Agricultural Extension Department.

CICs are also of help to students and professionals to gather reports and news suiting their requirements. Information relating to local and foreign job search and government forms would be available. Many services which would continue to remain beyond the reach of an individual would now be available at the Community Information Centres.

Health and medical information and advisory services will also be made available through the CICs soon. In addition, SEBA is working to develop an information portal on businesses in partnership with SME Development Forum (SDF) to serve the broader agriculture sector. Other useful content will also be added gradually in the CIC service line.

Target groups: Reaching the unreached
Inclusiveness is the core approach adopted for CICs to set its target groups. Since, the CICs are located in a common rural setup, in general, all walks of people of the vicinity visits the centre for different purposes. These wide groups include rural farmers, businesses, teachers, local government officials and other professionals, journalist, students, women, unemployed youth, and considering this practicality, CICs have been designed to serve all.    

The CICs help rural people to stay in touch with their friends and relatives abroad using email, fax and instant messaging. Through web cams, it is now possible for them to see their near and dear ones staying abroad.

Since the CICs are located in the rural areas and services (information and advice) are available for the local businesses including agriculture, inevitably the micro and small enterprises are benefiting from the centres and ultimately will increase their productivity which leads to economic empowerment of the rural people. This will also contribute to the national economy as the economy of Bangladesh is still largely agro-based.

Serving in a sustainable way: Strength of partnership
SEBA is involved in entrepreneur selection, training, distribution of kit and marketing materials for CICs.  GrameenPhone provides GSM infrastructure and supports the initial technical support services. Soon there will be a Coordination Unit to ensure smooth flow of information among SEBA – GP and CIC operators. Working jointly to build the capacity of the entrepreneurs and operators, developing operational handbook, promoting CICs at local level and building network among all stakeholders are making the CICs an integral part of the community. This participatory approach is also creating ownership feeling among the local people. 

Challenges and threats: In implementation phase
During the initial phase, SEBA tackled few critical challenges to develop a mechanism to select location, entrepreneur and bundling services. Through initiating open and competitive approach to select the location and entrepreneur, it was minimised. Also some other issues are yet to be resolved and SEBA developed a continuous process to overcome the issues like capacity of the operator, networking and awareness building of the rural users.

The major challenge of developing local and relevant dynamic content needs more concentration from both GP and SEBA. Otherwise, CICs may twist towards an ordinary communication service provider like many other mobile phone shop or cyber cafes. 

Also development of service providers to provide support service and to ensure consistent supply of content will be another challenge in Bangladesh if no initiative is taken to address these issues.

e = Easy: Making rural life easier
Usually e stands for electronic but in CIC practice in the field, ‘e’ is turning as ‘easy’. Making life uncomplicated and prosperous is a continuous effort from SEBA in the implementation of CICs. Also GP hope the centres will become a natural place for people in rural areas to meet and get services relating to their health, education, communications and information needs. Once the country wide network of CICs established and support information service is developed, SEBA envisions that the rural people will be exchanging their knowledge on livelihoods with people in other location, empowered economically and actively involved in social and political decision making processes.

In this process of expansion of CICs in rural areas, the benefits could be multiplied if government comes forward with the electronic citizen services and implements e-Gov at local and national level, in phases. This will ensure better services to the citizens, establish transparency and accountability, and also the CICs may become the local service delivery channel.

GP and SEBA has planned to roll out all over the country and reach the remote rural communities of Bangladesh, and surely it requires support from various stakeholders, and it is believed that only joining hands together can ensure broader development impact.

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