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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

Question Box in Southern Innovator Magazine.
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UNDP In Mongolia: The Guide | 1997 – 1999

Editor: David South

Researcher and Writer: Jill Lawless

Publisher: UNDP Mongolia Communications Office

Published: Between 1997 and 1999

Background: This is the original text from the brochure UNDP in Mongolia: The Guide first published in 1997. It, for the first time, provided a rolling update on what the United Nations was doing in Mongolia, offering key contacts and data to help advance human development in the country. It introduced transparency to the UN’s work in the country and made it easier to hold programme and project staff to account.

Mongolia – Population

With an area of more than 1.5 million square kilometres and a population of 2.38 million as of October 1997, Mongolia has a population density of only 1.5 people per square kilometre, one of the lowest in the world. The country has a relatively low growth rate of 1.6 per cent (1995), down from 2.5 per cent in 1989. At this rate, Mongolia’s population will reach 2.5 million by the year 2000.

Despite the popular image of Mongolians as nomadic herders, it is an increasingly urbanized country – 51.9 per cent of the population is urban, 48.1 per cent rural. More than one quarter of Mongolians live in the capital city, Ulaanbaatar. The other major urban centres are Darhan (pop. 90,000) and Erdenet (pop. 65,000 ).

The country is divided into 21 aimags (provinces), plus the autonomous capital region. The aimags are:

In the centre: Tuv, Uvurhangai, Arhangai

In the north: Bulgan, Selenge, Hovsgul, Zavhan, Darhan-Uul, Orhon

In the east: Hentii, Dornod, Suhbaatar

In the west: Hovd, Uvs, Bayan-Olgii, Gov-Altai

In the south: Dundgov, Dornogov, Omnogov, Bayanhongor, Gobisumber

The People:

About 86 per cent of the country’s population are Kalkh Mongols. Another 7 per cent are Turkic in origin, mostly Kazakhs living in the western aimags of Bayan-Olgii and Hovd. The rest belong to a wide variety of ethnic groups, including the Buryat, Dariganga, Bayad, Zakchin and Uriankhai. Mongolia’s smallest ethnic group is the Tsaatan, about 200 of whom live as reindeer herders in the far north of the country. 

During the communist period, Mongolia was home to tens of thousands of Russians. Few remain. 

More than 4 million Mongols live outside Mongolia, in Russia and the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia.

Human Development:

– Mongolia’s per capita GDP is U.S. $359 (1995). But this fails to take into account the cashless subsistence and barter economy widespread in rural areas.

– Poverty, though widespread, is difficult to tabulate. 1996 government figures put the poverty rate at 19.2 per cent – 19.8 per cent for rural areas, 18.7 for urban areas. But State Statistical Office figures for October 1997 indicate 36.8 per cent of urban residents and 27.5 per cent of rural Mongolians live below the poverty line. 

– Omnogov, Gobisumber, Hovsgol, Ovorhangai and Bayanhongor are the aimags with the highest poverty rates.

– The average monthly household income in September 1997 was 58,516.7 tugrugs (U.S. $73). Average expenditure was 58,124.8 tugrugs. In 1995, 48 per cent of household expenditure went on food. In poor households, the figure was 64 per cent.

Social Data:

Life expectancy: 63.8 years (1995)

Infant mortality rate: 40 per 1000 

Under five mortality rate: 56.4 per 1000 

Maternal mortality rate: 185.2 per 100,000 (1995)

One-year-old immunization rate: tuberculosis 94.4 per cent, measles 85.2 per cent (1995)

Access to safe drinking water: rural 89.9 per cent, urban 46.1 per cent (1995)

Access to sanitation: 74 per cent (1995)

Adult literacy rate:

 men 97.5 per cent,

 women 96.3 per cent 

Primary school net enrollment: 93.4 per cent

Secondary school net enrollment: 56.9 per cent 

Physicians: 26 per 10,000

Hospital beds: 9.9 per 1000

Daily calorie intake: 2278.2

Data 1996 unless otherwise indicated. Sources: State Statistical Office, Human Development Report Mongolia 1997

Mongolia – Economy

An Economy in Transition:

After 70 years of centrally planned economy, Mongolia is embracing free-market principles with a vengeance. Economic liberalization began under the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party government in the early 1990s. The Democratic Coalition government, elected in June 1996, has vowed sweeping economic changes, including  privatization of state assets, liberalization of trade and promotion of foreign investment.

The foreign investment law now encourages foreign investment in the form of share purchases, joint ventures and wholly foreign-owned concerns. Mining companies are given significant tax holidays. In May, 1997 parliament abolished customs duties expect on alcohol, tobacco and oil products.

All of this has been a shock to Mongolia and Mongolians. The country’s GDP shrank by a third in the early 1990s, though it has slowly recovered since. Inflation topped 300 per cent in 1993, but was brought down to below 50 per cent by 1997. The tugrug fell from 40 to U.S. $1 in 1991 to 800 to the dollar in 1997. Unemployment officially stands at 6.5 per cent – unofficial estimates are much higher.

The government’s ambitious privatization scheme has stalled; manufacturing and exports are down; imports are up. Adding to the problems is the fact that world prices for Mongolia’s major export items – copper and cashmere – have fallen.

The state retains at least 50 per cent ownership of the nation’s flagship enterprises, including the national airline, MIAT, the Gobi cashmere company and the power stations.

Mongolia has a resource-based economy, exporting mostly raw materials and importing mostly processed goods. The top exports are mineral products, textiles, base minerals, hides, skins and furs and animals and animal products. The major imports include petroleum products, industrial equipment and consumer goods.

Mongolia’s major trading partners are its two neighbours, China and Russia, though Korea and Japan are becoming more important – and the number-one export destination is Switzerland. 

Sidebar: The rural economy

Half of Mongolia’s population is rural, and herding remains the backbone of the Mongolian economy. Agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of the nation’s GDP. The number of herding households grew during the economic turmoil of the early 1990s, and now stands at more than 170,000; there are 30 million head of livestock in Mongolia. Herders produce meat, skins and furs; more and more herders are investing in cashmere goats, a substantial money-earner. 

Cultivation of crops, on the other hand, is limited. Before 1990, Mongolia was self-sufficient in cereals and even exported to the Soviet Union. But the sector suffered badly in the early 1990s. The 1997 harvest was 239,000 tonnes, 56 per cent of 1991-95 levels and only 40 per cent of pre-1990 harvests. Mongolia must now import 40 per cent of its cereal needs, a factor that contributes to a vulnerable food-security situation. Cultivation of vegetables is up, but remains minor – only 31,000 tonnes in 1997.

Sidebar: Rich in resources

Mongolia is resource-rich. This vast territory contains 15 per cent of the world’s supply of fluorspar and significant deposits of copper, molybdenum, iron, phosphates, tin, nickel, zinc, tungsten and gold, as well as at least 100 billion tonnes of coal.

Copper is the nation’s number one export. 

Minerals account for more than a third of Mongolia’s GDP and earn half of its hard currency. Gold production is increasing.

Mongolia also contains significant reserves of oil, which could transform the economy. But infrastructure and transportation limitations mean that commercial extraction is limited. The completion of a pipeline to China could change all this.

Economic Data:

Exchange rate: $1 = Tg 808 (Nov 1997)

GDP: Tg 185.5 billion (1996)

GDP per capita: Tg 228,605 (1996)

Inflation: 325 per cent (1992), 53 per cent (1996)

State budget expenditure: Tg 203.6 billion (Jan-Oct 1997)

State budget revenue: Tg 176 billion (Jan-Oct 1997)

Foreign aid (1991-97): U.S. 478 million

Official external debt: Tg 522 billion (Oct 97)

Industrial output: Tg 270.6 billion (Jan-Oct 97)

Exports: $334.2 million (Jan-Oct 97)

Imports: $343.3 million (Jan-Oct 97)

Workforce: employed: 791,800, unemployed 65,700 (Oct 97)

Source: State Statistical Office 

Mongolia – Politics

Seven decades of communist rule in Mongolia began to crumble in 1990, when the collapse of the old Eastern Bloc brought the first pro-democracy demonstrations. The ruling Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, which had already initiated a Mongolian version of glasnost, permitted the nation’s first multiparty elections in July, 1990. 

Superior organization helped the MPRP win both the 1990 and 1992 elections (taking 71 of 76 parliamentary seats in the latter), but reform picked up speed. In 1992, the country adopted a new Constitution that enshrined human rights, private ownership and a state structure based on separation of power between legislative and judicial branches.

In the June 1996 election, major opposition groups united to form the Democratic Coalition, made up of the National Democratic Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Believers’ Party and the Green Party. Somewhat to its own surprise, the Coalition won a healthy 50 of 76 seats in the State Ikh Hural, or parliament. The composition of the Hural is now: National Democrats 35, Social Democrats 15, MPRP 25, Mongolian Traditional United Party 1.

In addition to their economic reforms, the Democrats have carried out radical restructuring of government, slashing the number of Ministries from 14 to 9.

The government has a healthy majority, but tensions sometimes emerge between the coalition partners. Mongolia’s transition to democracy has been remarkably peaceful, and the young democracy is robust – there are now more than 20 political parties in the country. 

But economic hardship has caused resentments. In the 1997 Presidential election, voters elected N. Bagabandi, the candidate of the MPRP. In the fall of 1997, the government had to face demonstrations from students and pensioners and an opposition campaign that led to a confidence vote in parliament — a vote the government easily survived. 

Political structure:

Mongolia has a parliamentary system of government, with a 76-seat legislature called the State Ikh Hural. The President, directly elected for a four-year term, is second in authority to the legislature, but he appoints judges and has the power of veto (which can be overturned by a 2/3 vote in parliament).

Chronology:

1911 collapse of Manchu Qing Dynasty; Mongolia declares its independence

1919 China invades Mongolia

1921 with Soviet help, Mongolia gains final independence from China

1924 Mongolian People’s Republic declared

1990 pro-democracy protests; Constitution amended; first multiparty elections

1992 second multiparty elections; new Constitution adopted

1996 Democratic Coalition elected as Mongolia’s first non-communist government, headed by Prime Minister Enkhsaikhan

1997 N. Bagabandi from the MPRP elected President

Voter turnout: 

1996 elections: 92.2 per cent

1996 local Hural: 64.0 per cent

1997 presidential: 85.1 per cent

Mongolia – Society and Culture

Mongolia has a unique and durable traditional culture, centred around the herding lifestyle. Herders remain semi-nomadic, moving their animals with the seasons as they have for centuries

Many urban Mongolians retain strong links to the land, both literal and sentimental, and the country’s performing and visual arts often celebrate the landscape and the animals — especially horses — that are central to Mongolian life. Mongolia has several distinctive musical instruments and styles, including the morin khuur (horsehead fiddle), the long song (urtyn duu) and the throat-singing style known as khoomi.

After seven decades of communism, Mongolians are once again celebrating their traditional culture, and embracing the image and legacy of the most famous Mongolian of all time – Chinggis Khan, who in the 13th century initiated the Mongol Empire, the greatest land empire the world has ever known. He gives his name to everything from a brand of vodka to a luxury hotel, and centres for academic Chinggis research have been set up.

In sports, Mongolians favour the “three manly sports” — wrestling, archery and horse racing — that form the core of the annual festival known as Naadam. Mongolian wrestlers have won a number of medals at international competitions and are even entering the field of Japanese Sumo.

The 1990s have seen a flowering of freedom of expression. Mongolia has an extraordinary 525 newspapers and a wide range of magazines, while the first private radio and television stations have been established. 

Religion:

Mongolians have been Buddhists since the 16th century, when the Mongolian king, Altan Khan, was converted by Tibetan lamas. In the pre-revolutionary period, Mongolia was ruled by a series of Living Buddhas, or Jebtzun Damba. The eighth, and last, Jebtzun Damba was removed after the communist takeover.

Traditionally, monasteries were centres both of learning and of power. It’s estimated Mongolia had 100,000 monks, or lamas, in 1921 — one third of the male population. In the 1930s, this power became the focus of a ruthless series of purges that reached a climax in 1937. Most of the country’s monasteries were destroyed, and as many as 17,000 monks were killed.

Today, Mongolia is once again embracing its Buddhist heritage. Monasteries are being restored, and are once again crowded with worshippers. The Dalai Lama is an enormously popular figure and has visited the country several times.

For many Mongolians, Buddhism is flavoured with traces of Shamanism, an even more ancient spirituality.

Mongolia also has a significant Muslim community — about 6 per cent of the population. These are mostly ethnic Kazakhs living in the far west of the country. The opening-up of the country has led to an influx of Christian missionaries, and this remains a source of some tension and debate.

A Young Country:

Mongolia is a remarkably young country — more than 60 per cent of the population is below the age of 30, and 40 per cent of Mongolians are younger than 16. This young generation, with its embrace of Western styles and ideas, is changing the complexion of the country. Western pop music and North American sports like basketball have a huge following among Mongolia’s youth. So, too, do homegrown artists like the pop groups Nikiton and Spike and the singer Saraa. 

Social Data:

Television sets: 6.2 per 100 (1995)

Newspapers: 2 per 100 (1995)

Number of telephones: 82,800

Marriage: 10.9 per 1000 over 18

Divorce: 0.7 per 1000 over 18

Number of pensioners: 287,200

Crimes reported: 20,454 (Jan-Oct 97)

As percentage of same period in 1996: 114.4 per cent

Data 1996 unless indicated. Sources: State Statistical Office, Human Development Report Mongolia 1997

More from Jill Lawless:

Read a story by Jill in The Guardian (9 June 1999): Letter from Mongolia | Herding instinct 

Read a World Health Organization (WHO) report on substance abuse and alcohol consumption (WHO Global Status Report on Alcohol 2004) citing Jill here: https://www.who.int/substance_abuse/publications/en/mongolia.pdf?ua=1 

Further Reading:

Modern Mongolia: From Khans to Commissars to Capitalists

The Mongolian Economy: A Manual of Applied Economics for a Country in Transition

The transition to a market economy: Mongolia 1990-1998

Wild East: Travels in the New Mongolia

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2018  

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Microwork Pioneer Transforms Prospects For Poor, Vulnerable

A pioneering technology social enterprise has found a way to connect people around the world to the new digital economy, transforming their lives and providing long-term employment opportunities. It is closing the digital divide in a very practical way, teaching new skills and, most importantly, providing income to the poor and vulnerable.

The San Francisco, USA-based non-profit social enterprise Samasource (samasource.org) uses what it calls microwork – a virtual assembly line of small tasks broken down from a larger project so they can be completed over the Internet – to outsource work to its network of workers around the world.

The tasks in this virtual piecework range from writing to transcribing to organizing online content.

The company organizes the projects using its own online work distribution system connecting workers around the world to the SamaHub in San Francisco. Most of the workers are women, youth and refugees. When they complete their task, it is sent back to the SamaHub in San Francisco where the staff check it and assure its quality. Once approved and completed, the project is returned to the client.

The company was founded in 2008 and draws on experts in “distributed work, economic development, and outsourcing.”

The microwork is divided into three areas: content services, data enrichment and transcription.

Content services can include writing descriptions for online business listings, organizing large databases on information or creating brief descriptions of existing content to make it easier for search engines to find it. “Data enrichment” tackles the vast quantity of information on the Internet that needs to be kept up to date and reliable. It also includes ‘tagging’, where text or images on the Internet need to have appropriate ‘tags’ or labels. And finally, transcription services include digitizing paper documents like receipts or books or transcribing audio and video files for the web.

All these tasks are labour intensive and require high attention to detail. And they are critical to any online business’s success if it wants a reputation for accuracy and consistency.

Samasource is optimistic about its future potential because of the sheer size of the market for business process outsourcing: estimated to be worth over US $100 billion. What Samasource does, called ‘impact sourcing’ – outsourcing to people in the developing world living in poor or remote communities – is a market worth US $5 billion, according to Samasource’s website.

It differs from conventional business process outsourcing in a number of respects, including the educational background of the workers. Most conventional outsourcing goes to college graduates in cities in India, China and the Philippines. Impact outsourcing is done by people with at most a high school education.

The digital economy needs these workers to handle the many millions of detailed tasks required to link together information. It is easy to take this for granted because it is hidden from view, but it is what enables the Internet to function and businesses to thrive. Samasource provides outsourcing services including content moderation and data entry to clients like LinkedIn, Intuit and the US State Department.

“We bring dignified, computer-based work to women, youth, and refugees living in poverty,” said Samasource’s founder and chief executive officer, Leila Janah.

Janah has a background in development studies and formerly worked for the World Bank. This experience convinced her that much foreign aid was failing to target what poor people are really looking for: a job that pays well.

Samasource sees what it does as work, and not handouts.

It also believes it is changing perspectives, proving people from the poorest places on earth can become trustworthy, hard-working knowledge workers.

The Internet is a unique medium because it transcends borders and smooths contact between people with varying linguistic, cultural and educational capabilities.

“The Internet reduces the friction of collaboration across all of these centres and time zones, and with a highly distributed workforce,” said Janah.

Samasource claims to have paid out US $1 million in wages to more than 1,500 workers around the world. Ambitiously, it wants to expand this to reach some of the 144 million youth between 16 and 24 living on less than US $2 a day.

Youth are a particular focus for Samasource. Samasource targets young people who are literate and have received an education but still can’t get a job.

As for the many women employed by Samasource, they were either unemployed or earning poverty-level wages doing precarious work in low-level manufacturing and not building their skills.

Samasource currently has 16 partnerships in Haiti, India, Pakistan, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa. Criteria to work with Samasource includes being in a high-poverty region. Another criteria is for most of the money earned to stay within the region where the work is done and adhere to the standards laid down by Samasource.

Samasource’s success means it has attracted further funding. In December 2011, it was given a US $1.5 million grant from Google.org – the Google.com search engine’s charity. It has also raised US $5 million from non-profit investors, including the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the eBay Foundation. The challenge for the Samasource model will be to prove, with this new funding, that it can scale its operations to pay out more to its workers than it is taking in to meet its operating costs.

Microwork is turning out to be big work indeed!

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

Published: January 2012

Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.  

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Gobi Desert Wine to Tackle Poverty and Boost Incomes

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

In the arid Gobi Desert spanning the two Asian nations of China and Mongolia is a bold attempt to make wine and reduce poverty. The environment is harsh, with temperatures swinging from sub-zero winter cold to sweltering summer heat. The desert is also home to high winds and notorious dust storms that plague China’s capital Beijing every year.

China’s wine industry is booming as people have embraced the drink’s perceived health-giving qualities and are using it to celebrate new-found wealth as the economy has flourished. Current wine consumption in China is half a litre per person per year, low compared to the French average of 55 litres a year. But this is growing quickly.

Well-known brands include Great Wall, Dynasty and Changyu (http://www.changyu.com.cn/english/index.html), which is considered the world’s 10th largest wine producer.

One innovative winery is using this wine boom to tackle poverty and increase local wealth.

Chateau Hansen (hansenwine.com) in Inner Mongolia has been operating since the 1980s, but recent expansion and modernization have significantly increased its earning power and the number of people it employs. Located in an area with high levels of poverty, it has developed a successful wine business in the desert by tapping the plentiful water supplies from the Yellow River. The area is now considered one of the best for growing wine grapes in China.

Located near Wuhai city (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wuhai), 670 kilometres west of Beijing, Chateau Hansen has 250 hectares of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Gernischt grapevines.

The vines are buried under the sand to protect them from the harsh weather in the winter.

“The lowest temperature gets down to is below -20 degrees C (Celsius), but in summer, it can reach 38 or 40 degrees C (102 or 104 F),” Li Aixin, Chateau Hansen’s head of viticulture, told MSNBC. “Here the four seasons are good for the growth of the grapes, but in the winter we need to bury them in the earth” to keep them from freezing. Hansen has been ambitious in its approach. It has a European-style chateau, hotel and even a French wine expert, Bruno Paumard, on site to help with the wine making. The chateau’s cellar now stores 1,000 barrels of wine.

Paumard arrived in China in 2005. He has thrown himself into Chinese culture and tasted and tested the country’s wines. Hansen has produced 400,000 bottles of wine, mostly sold in China, where red wine drinking has become a big part of the culture of celebration.

Hansen sells the majority of its wine to government organizations and regional enterprises. It has seen its profits double to 100 million yuan (US $18 million) in 2011 and hopes sales will double again in 2012.

“Eighty per cent of the market in China is really the local governments who encourage the enterprises in their cities to consume red wine, of a certain brand, at their banquets in the place of Chinese ‘baijiu’ for their incessant and never-ending toasts,” said Paumard, referring to China’s home-grown rice wine. “So it’s actually a market that’s totally unique.”

Hansen’s Cotes du Fleuve Jaune du Desert de Gobi has become one of the biggest award-winning wines in China. It received a bronze medal from the International Wine Challenge of Blaye, near Bordeaux, France.

China now stands as the world’s fifth-largest consumer of wine (International Wine and Spirit Research study) (http://www.iwsr.co.uk/). The market in China is forecast to grow by 54 per cent from 2011 to 2015, adding up to a billion bottles.

A map of China’s vineyards and their terroir or soil conditions shows a diverse wine-making sector (http://www.hansenwine.com/english/vineyardlink.html).

In this busy marketplace, Hansen prides itself on being organic. It also has the goal of turning the arid desert into green vineyards using irrigation from the Yellow River and groundwater. It wants to create employment and raise living standards in the region and is fitting into a national strategy to raise living standards for poor regions.

There is a training programme for the around 400 workers employed by the winery. No pesticides are used and only sheep dung is used as a fertilizer provided by 3,000 sheep on site. Trees also play a role in providing humus (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Humus) for the vines. There is also accommodation in a nearby village for the employees.

There are 250 hectares of vineyards and the grapes are harvested by hand. Expansion began in 2001 when the chateau and winery were built. It is strategically located just 500 metres from an airport and the chateau has a luxury hotel. Around 20,000 people visit a year, according to Hansen’s website, bringing in further income for the winery. The winery also uses Mongolian culture and cuisine as a selling point to attract tourists.

The chief executive of Hansen is Han Jianping, who made his first fortune in real estate development.

Han believes that “the momentum of growth in the wine industry is huge.”

“With a great foundation of more than 1 billion people as we have in China, and (the industry) growing at 20 or 30 per cent a year, there is a huge potential for more growth,” he said.

Resources

1) China Wine Online: An information service that also produces the China Wine Business magazine and runs the China Wine Study Tour. Website: http://www.winechina.com/en/index.asp

2) The 10th Shanghai International Wine and Spirits Expo 2013: Website: http://www.winefair.com.cn/sugar/en/index.asp

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More on the Gobi Desert here:

Development Profile: UNDP In The Southern Gobi Desert | May-June 1998

Kommunikation total: Der siebte Kontinent

Wild East 17 Years Later | 2000 – 2017

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2021