Info Ladies and Question Boxes: Reaching Out to the Poor

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

Quick access to accurate and useful information is crucial for development. With the remarkable spread of information around the world via the Internet – one of the greatest achievements of the 21st century – more than 1.5 billion people now use the Web to boost their incomes and opportunities (Internet World Stats).

For those lucky enough to be able to afford regular access to the Internet – as well as a computer and electricity – this new technology is a powerful tool for economic and social advancement. But what about people who are overlooked by technology companies because they are too poor, or too remote, or who are illiterate?

Two initiatives are bringing the benefits of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to the poor and the illiterate in ingenious ways.

Bangladesh’s (http://www.virtualbangladesh.com) ‘Info Lady’ scheme is the brainchild of D.Net (Development Research Network) (http://www.dnet-bangladesh.org/), a non-profit organization formed in 2001 to use information and communication technology (ICT) for economic development.

Info Ladies typically come equipped with a mobile phone, laptop computer, Internet modem, headphone, webcam, digital camera, and photo printer. They roam around remote villages on bicycles and are a one-stop access point for the rural poor for information, telephone calls and digital services like photography. And Info Ladies can also be Info Men, though this seems to be a problem because women have an easier time being invited into people’s homes.

One Info Lady is Luich Akhter Porag. She travels the countryside on her bicycle, equipped with a laptop computer, modem and a mobile phone, and can provide a commercial phone service, photography, livelihood information, knowledge services, international and local voice calls, video and animation and Internet resources.

When farmer Dula Miah had two of his cows bitten by a rabid dog, he was puzzled as to what to do. According to Bangladesh’s Daily Star newspaper, Info Lady Luich Akhter Porag came by to help. By using a software programme called ‘Jeeon’ (http://www.dnet.org.bd/MultimediaSoftware.php?BookType=8) – software designed to provide nine essential services to rural people –  Porag was able to identify the solution: a vaccine and a trip to the Sundarganj Veterinary Hospital.

Around 24 Info Ladies are now working in various villages in the districts of Gaibandha, Noakhali and Satkhira. The concept is effective: after receiving training in how to use the laptop computer and resources, they are dispatched on bicycles to remote villages to connect the poor and uneducated with crucial information.

D.Net started with something they called ‘Mobile Lady’ which used just mobile phones, but became frustrated with the limits of the service and decided to combine the phones with a laptop computer, effectively turning the women into mobile ‘telecentres’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecentre).

Dr Ananya Raihan, executive director of D.Net, told The Daily Star that each Info Lady now earns between Tk 2,500 (US $36) and Tk 20,000 (US $290) per month. It has proven to be a good business for rural women, he said. And things are set to grow: “We are planning to increase the number of info ladies to 1,000 by year-end (2009).”

While traditional technology companies have stayed away from rural villages because it isn’t worth it for them to go there, the Info Ladies are simultaneously making money in the villages and connecting people to the outside world.

Porag says she has provided services to around 6,000 villagers.

“Now I earn more than Tk 2,500 (US $36) to Tk 3,500 (US $50) per month after becoming an info lady,” said Porag who started working as an Info Lady in June 2007.

Another initiative that is filling the gap between the needs of the poor and powerful information technologies is the Question Box (www.questionbox.org).

Pioneered in India – home to the largest number of illiterate people in the world: 304.11 million (Human Development Report) – the idea is brilliantly simple. An intercom-like white tin box with a phone inside is placed in a village’s public areas. Using the existing phone networks, the user just has to hit a simple button to get an operator at the other end. The operator sits in front of an Internet-enabled computer. The user just asks their question, and the operator turns these questions into search queries. When the computer’s search engine gives back answers, the operator selects the best one and then replies in the user’s native language and in layman’s terms.

The Open Mind Program’s Question Box Project opened its first Box in September 2007 and now operates in Pune, Maharashtra.

It has also expanded to Uganda, where the Question Box and Grameen Foundation (http://www.grameenfoundation.org/) have partnered to bring what they call AppLab Question Box (AQB) to rural Uganda. AQB is a live, local-language telephone hotline service that brings the Internet to the fields and market stalls in Uganda where there are no computers.

The Question Box is based on an idea from Rose Shuman, a business and international development consultant. Shuman had become frustrated that with all the clever people and vast sums of money going into information technology, few were developing low-cost ways to take the power of computers to the people.

Following the constant improvement approach favoured in information technology, the Box is now in its third iteration. One of the adjustments made has been the switch to solar power for the boxes because the electricity grid was too unreliable, according to Shuman.

Resources

1) The Question Box project in photos. Website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/73495762@N00/ and Website: http://www.questionbox.org/ and blog: Website: http://questionblog.posterous.com/
2) Info Dev (www.infodev.org) has a quick guide to low-cost computing devices and initiatives for the developing world. Website: http://www.infodev.org/en/Publication.107.html

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.