The mobile phone's days as primarily a telephone will be short-lived, with unique value-added services appearing on the horizon.
Syed Zain Al-mahmood
Rahmat Ali, a sugar cane farmer in Faridpur, has entered the digital age. When he bought his basic GSM phone a few years ago, he had no idea it would be of any use other than talking to family and friends. But, these days, his little handheld device is helping him in a myriad ways -- from accessing weather information to selling his sugarcane.
At the height of the sugarcane season this year, Rahmat, along with a few hundred other lucky farmers, have received a text message, which marks the beginning of the crushing cycle for his canes. The message contains "Purjee" information, which is a purchase order from a local sugar mill requesting him to bring his harvest within the next three days for processing. The Purjee sent via SMS means more than the beginning of the crushing cycle for Rahmat and his fellow farmers -- it signifies the end of an antiquated system for the sugar mills in the country.
Farmers in the rural areas will be able to switch on their irrigation pumps remotely using their mobile phones.
The “digital purjee” is just one way in which mobile phones can improve service delivery to the rural population in Bangladesh. A recent World Bank study concluded that mobile phones are the most powerful way to reach and deliver public and private services to people in remote rural areas in developing countries.
The cell phone is the single most transformative technology for development, according to Columbia University economist and emerging markets expert Jeffrey Sachs. The World Bank study has found that access to affordable mobile and internet services creates youth employment, increases productivity and exports and promotes social inclusion. The study says that for every 10 percent increase in mobile phone and high-speed Internet connections, there is a 1.3 percent increase in economic growth.
The Digital Purjee Information Service, a joint initiative of the UNDP- supported Access to Information (A2I) Programme at the Prime Minister's Office, and Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation under the Ministry of Industries, marks a small but important step forward in the effort to create “Digital Bangladesh”.
For over 200 years, Purjee has been sent out to sugarcane growers on paper. Paper Purjee often took an inordinate amount of time to reach farmers, was lost, and even sometimes fell prey to the wiles of better-connected farmers keen to secure a more convenient crushing schedule for their own sugarcane. Farmers receiving late notification would lose the value of harvest significantly as the weight of sugarcanes continues to decline after harvests. Inconsistent flow of raw materials also prevented the sugar mills from operating at optimal capacity.
Late last year, the system was introduced in two state-owned sugar mills -- Faridpur and Mobarakganj -- under a pilot project.
According to Nazrul Islam Khan, National Project Director of A2I Programme, the government decided to introduce the system in the rest of the 13 state-owned sugar mills keeping in mind the success of the system in Faridpur and Mobarakganj sugar mills.
Khan says the SMS (short messaging system)-based digital 'purjee' system will help reduce the sufferings of the sugarcane farmers in getting purjee. Information about loans and the price offered for the sugarcane will also be given to the farmers through SMS, he asserts.
This season, the mills have not run below capacity for a single day, which is exactly the opposite of last year's performance, says Nazrul Islam Khan.
Many of the existing applications that could benefit the poor are still in their infancy in the country.
The Sugarcane season runs for ten months. All growers in an area are listed with their local mill where they sell the produce in advance. The crushing season runs for two to three months during which time growers receive their 'purjee' or purchase orders indicating that they are to bring their promised amount of sugarcane to the mill within three days.
Even those who do not own a mobile phone can receive the same information at some of the local Union Parishads, the lowest tier of local government in Bangladesh. Farmers are now demanding the expansion of similar mobile services to fertiliser and seed distribution.
“The success of the digital purjee proves that the mobile phone can have a real impact on the lives of people in the remote areas of Bangladesh,” says telecoms engineer Muslehuddin Ahmed. “The future is not just about talking to each other -- the mobile phone is a platform that will allow a significant convergence of technologies.”
The mobile phone's days as primarily a telephone were surprisingly short-lived. Worldwide, mobile data traffic surpassed voice at the end of last year, according to telecom giant Ericsson.
“Revenues from voice and SMS have peaked, so value-added services will be the next growth area,” says Ashraful Haq Chowdhury, secretary general of Association of Mobile Telecom Operators, Bangladesh (Amtob).
Until recently, the Value-added Services offered by mobile operators have basically been limited to caller tunes, song dedications, Internet and various alerts. But more innovative applications that could significantly impact people's lives are on the way.
One potentially revolutionary benefit of the mobile phone technology is its use for the provision of financial services. Popular around the world, the “e-wallet” system will allow subscribers to transfer small amounts of money from mobile to mobile.
According to research by LIRNEasia, an Asia Pacific think tank on telecom policy and regulation, the true potential for mobile money in Bangladesh lies among the poor. Real money is converted into e-money, and put into “mobile wallets”. This mobile currency can then be transferred from one mobile subscriber to another, thereby making funds transfer among individuals easier.
Grameenphone's BillPay service allows subscribers to pay their utility bills through their mobile phone. Customers can use the service in two ways: either through an e-wallet, or by visiting an authorised BillPay centre. If the customer intends to do transactions from their mobile, they must register. But registration is not mandatory for over the counter transactions. Banglalink, the second largest mobile operator, also offers a BillPay service with similar features.
Banglalink also offers “mobile remittance” under which subscribers can open e-wallet accounts at designated local banks or Banglalink mobile cash points and can receive remittance directly in their mobile e-wallets.
CellBazaar is a service from Grameenphone that allows customers to buy or sell over their mobile phone. The seller can post information on the CellBazaar website through Grameenphone, and buyers will be able to contact them. When buyers see an item they like, they can call the seller, get additional information, and meet the seller to complete the transaction.
But the smart services available to mobile subscribers in Bangladesh only scratch the surface, according to telecom engineers. Engineer Muslehuddin Ahmed says mobile phone technology can help farmers with agricultural processes that can fundamentally alter the rural landscape. According to one scenario, farmers won't have to get up in the middle of night and travel from their homes to the fields to switch on the pump to water their crops as power is available only at that hour. Instead, they can pick up the mobile phone, punch a few keys and switch on the pump remotely.
“This technology is already in use,” says Engineer Ahmed. “In India, an innovative mobile phone-based application called Nano Ganesh allows farmers to remotely access their irrigation pumps. The system also enables farmers to check availability of power to their irrigation systems. All it needs is a mobile phone, a modem and a starter device.”
Despite technical challenges and regulatory restrictions, Bangladesh is witnessing a small revolution regarding new applications and services available through the mobile phone.
The main application in Bangladesh is still peer-to-peer communication -- voice and SMS. However, the number of subscribers who use their phones to access Internet is steadily growing, which opens up a whole range of new applications and possibilities. Many of the existing SMS based applications that could benefit the poor are still in their infancy in the country. So, what hinders the take off of mobile applications for economic and social development in Bangladesh?
Experts point to a number of hurdles. First the cost of communication must come down -- SMS is still overpriced and so is voice and data traffic. Secondly, many applications and services never reach out to the masses due to design flaws and poor marketing. Subscribers must know what solutions are available, why and how to use them. Thirdly, the government must have a digital mindset where action will match rhetoric, and provide a supportive rather than a restrictive environment.
Despite these challenges, Bangladesh is witnessing a small revolution regarding new applications and services available through the mobile phone. In Bangladesh, like many other developing countries, public services and information used to be perceived as something people can obtain only after traveling long distances, standing in long queues, using personal networks, and going through a lot of red tape. Smarter mobile services looks set to change that culture. Going mobile may soon take on a whole new meaning.
Photos: ZAHEDUL I KHAN
(R) thedailystar.net 2010