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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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Urban Youth: A Great Source of Untapped Growth

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions

SOUTH-SOUTH CASE STUDY

The world’s growing urbanization means that a whole generation of youth will have a dramatically different life than their parents. The world’s 3.3 billion urbanites now outnumber rural residents for the first time (UNFPA’s State of the World Population 2007 Report). And the vast majority live in slums or periurban areas, places of sprawl, where public services are poor and housing conditions unhealthy. Most young people working in the urban informal sector live in slum areas: for example, 75 per cent in Benin in Africa, and 90 per cent in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Chad and Ethiopia. Most of this work is just bare survival work: according to the International Labour Organization, approximately 85 per cent of all new employment falls into this category.

Getting youth into quality work and earning more than enough simply to survive is critical to building a healthy society. Young people are bombarded every day with good and bad influences, and as UNFPA found in its Youth Supplement: Growing Up Urban, “the interactions with the urban environment can have an intense impact on the socialization of young people, exposing them to a multitude of influences as they develop, experiment, question, and assume roles in their societies.”

It is predicted that over the next 10 years, 1.2 billion youths will enter the working-age population (UNFPA). But youth unemployment is a huge problem around the world. Unemployed young people make up almost half (43.7 per cent) of the world’s total unemployed (UNFPA). Young people aged 15 to 19 are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as adults. Young people are the future, a resource no society can afford to waste. If their innate energy and enthusiasm is tapped, countries can see significant economic growth.

There are youth entrepreneurs who are defying the gloom and coming up with great business ideas. Five finalists for BBC Swahili’s regional entrepreneur competition – Faidika na BBC (Prosper with the BBC) – offer inspiration for youth across the South. Finalists from Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda were selected for their bright schemes.

The overall winner was 24-year-old Burundian student Ashura Kisesa for a plan to build commercial public toilets in the cities and towns of East and Central Africa. Ashura, who entered but failed to reach the Faidika na BBC finals last year, has 12 brothers and sisters and is studying for a degree in agronomy at Burundi University.

“I am very happy to win the top prize in this competition,” she told the BBC. “The lack of public toilets throughout East and Central Africa is a major problem that needs to be addressed and I hope to make a difference with my business idea. My whole family wanted me to win and they really supported me which makes me especially proud. I cannot wait to get started with my business.”

On June 26 in Kampala, Uganda, Kisesa was awarded US $5,000 to put towards her business.

Kenyan national winner, 22-year-old Witness Omoga from Kakamega, wants to make identity cards for schools. Right now he works as a volunteer at his uncle’s photo studio, and hopes to get into Makerere University to pursue a degree in computer science. “I am very excited,” he said to the BBC. “I have never been number one in my life, but now I have emerged first in this competition.”

The Rwandan winner is a pioneer in the growing field of biomass energy production. A 17-year-old student from Kigali, Rangira Aime Frederick, impressed the panel of judges with his idea to turn domestic waste into energy. The national winner for Tanzania is a private tutor from Dar es Salaam, Apolinary Joseph Laksh. A business education tutor, 23-year-old Apolinary’s idea is to produce charcoal from recycled materials to offer people in rural areas sustainable and affordable cooking fuel.

Ugandan finalist, 23-year-old Dereick Kajukano, is in his last year at Kampala International University doing a degree in business administration. Dereick’s business idea is to make bags out of plastic trash. He was inspired by last year’s Faidika na BBC winner, David Ssegawa from Uganda: “When I heard him defend his proposal on air, I said to myself, why don’t I do it as well. That’s when it all started, and here I am.”

Resources

  • 2008 Global Youth Enterprise Conference: Designed as a participatory learning event, this conference aims to support youth enterprise and entrepreneurship programs and policies achieve greater effectiveness around the world.
    Website: www.youthenterpriseconference.org
  • KickStart is a South African project aimed at inculcating a culture of entrepreneurship among young people between the ages of 18 and 35, by promoting business awareness through training, providing grants as start-up capital and providing mentorship and assistance during the setting up phase of the business.
    Website: http://www.sabkickstart.co.za/
  • iDISC – the infoDev Incubator Support Center – is a virtual networking and knowledge-sharing platform for incubators and technology parks leveraging ICT to facilitate entrepreneurship and new business creation in developing countries.
    Website: http://www.idisc.net/en/Index.html
  • Climate Capital Network: this company offers strategic advice, intelligence and assistance with fundraising for low-carbon solutions around the world. They have 2,000 investors looking for projects to invest in.
    Website: http://www.climatecapital.net/
  • Global Entrepreneurship Week: the website for this event in November has many opportunities for youth entrepreneurs to connect with each other through social networking websites.
    Website: http://unleashingideas.org/welcome

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CASE STUDY 2: Watch Magazine | 1994 And 1996

Expertise: Editing, start-ups, youth media, content development, art direction, design and layout, investigative journalism.

Location: Toronto, Ontario, Canada 1994 and 1996

Editor-in-Chief: David South

Click here to view images for this case study: CASE STUDY 2: Watch Magazine | 1994 Images

Abstract

In 1994 I was hired by start-up Youth Culture to be Editor-in-Chief of Toronto’s Watch Magazine, a bi-weekly distributed to the city’s high schools and to all youth hang-outs. In 1996 I was hired again to help with preparing the magazine for its national launch. 

About

In 1994, the Internet had not arrived in any great form (though Watch Magazine was on top of its emergence as Internet cafes popped up in the city) and the digital economy was still minimal. There was no such thing as ‘start-up culture’ for youth. There was an urgent need to create opportunity for youth, to create new markets, and to change the business culture of the city of Toronto, which had been hit hard by an economic crash and austerity. 

Watch Magazine had had a brief false start prior to my arrival in 1994. The previous format had not worked and the magazine needed a vision and somebody with the experience and dedication to see it through. It was also entering a competitive marketplace for readers, with already existing free magazines capturing most of the advertising spend for youth-oriented marketing in Toronto (though failing to offer a genuine youth content experience as could be found in Europe – the UK especially – at that time). As an example, Toronto lacked sharp and credible coverage of youth popular culture in the early 1990s. Drawing on my extensive experience as a journalist (including at Toronto’s established alternative weekly, Now Magazine) and editor, I assembled a team of youth editors and writers to work on making the content and magazine’s design appealing to the youth demographic in Toronto. The magazine needed to turn a profit in short order and become credible to advertisers, its main source of income (in Canada, 64 per cent of magazine revenues come from advertisers)*. The design and content needed to appeal to a youth audience but work with a tight (but increasing) budget. It was doing this in a tough economy with high unemployment, austerity, business failures, and a generally negative business environment.

By having an actual youth editorial team, Watch Magazine quickly developed an authentically young 1990s voice. The magazine also benefited from its youth team’s ability to spot trends bubbling under the surface ready to explode into mainstream society. As an example, they had this to say on the Internet in a piece on Toronto’s coffee shops, “Some mean places for bean”: “The powers-that-be think we should cocoon in our houses and rent videos, play with the Internet and order in food …” 

Youth unemployment was high in the early to mid 1990s in Canada. It reached 19.3 per cent for those 15 to 19 years old in 1993. “It should be noted, however, that youth unemployment relative to that of adults has worsened since the 1990-91 recession (Youth Unemployment in Canada by Kevin B. Kerr, 2000).”

The Canadian economy overall severely contracted and unemployment was at 11.4 per cent by 1993 (Statistics Canada), and as Statistics Canada said, “Because employment recovered at a snail’s pace after the recession of the early 1990s, the decline in the unemployment rate was delayed until 1994”.

As the Bank of Canada also said: “In early 1994, Canada’s economic situation was not that favourable—our economy was facing some rather serious problems. … the recession here was more severe than in the United States.

“Working their way out of these difficulties was disruptive and painful for Canadian businesses. Defaults, restructurings, and downsizings became the order of the day. With all this, unemployment took a long time to recover from the 1990–91 recession …” *

And the media in general could not avoid the crisis. According to the book The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000), Canada’s media was also in a crisis throughout the 1990s, as declining resources, staff layoffs and media closures reduced the breadth and depth of news coverage.

In less than a year, Watch Magazine had gone from being an unknown quantity, to being a fast-growing and profitable youth publication, significantly increasing its advertising revenue: a key metric for a magazine reliant on this as its main source of income. It had expanded in size and audited distribution and was able to make a move to new digs (the Watch Magazine “crib” – a studio and work space) at innovative “arts-and-culture hub” start-up space 401 Richmond Street in Toronto – at the centre of Toronto’s emerging media and design neighborhood in its former fashion district.  All the contributors were high-school-age youth drawn from talent across the city; many had already shown their ability by starting their own publications and media. They gained first-hand experience in investigative journalism skills, business skills in a start-up, and magazine and media production skills. 

“… thanks to David [South] for all his hard work on Watch magazine! I learned a lot from him and it was a great experience.” William White

In 1996, I was hired again to help with preparing the content format for Watch’s expansion to a national magazine – further proof of its success as a publication and a business. 

* (Bank of Canada: Canada’s Economic Future: What Have We Learned from the 1990s?)

* The Missing News: Filters and Blind Spots in Canada’s Press (Robert A. Hackett and Richard S. Garneau, Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, University of Toronto Press 2000)

Brief descriptions of sample issues are below: 

Youth Gangs Cover

In 1994, with Canada’s economy still in the doldrums, Watch Magazine exploded into Toronto’s high schools. Staffed by talented youth, it shook up the staid publishing scene and proved young people did have something to say. This first issue still remains relevant, with its exploration of youth gangs and violence in the school system.  

Therapy Cover

After its successful launch, Watch Magazine was grabbing readers and getting the attention of advertisers and television. It was time to improve the design and introduce the latest in graphic design software. The results paid off: the magazine looked sharper and quickly ran from its cheeky launch, when we had basically avoided all traditional approaches to a launch (like actually having a designer).

For anoraks out there, this photo shoot with Irish band Therapy took place outside the former Wellesley Hospital emergency department in Toronto. And, yes, that is a genuine restraining ‘straitjacket’ used by psychiatric hospitals to restrain mental health patients. 

Digable Planets Cover

By this issue, Watch had hit its stride: we were the first to seriously review the ballooning zine culture, get immersed in the rave and late-night party scene, and dig deep into “chopsocky world”: Hong Kong and Asian film fans. But “Hip-Hop Comb-munism”? What were we thinking?

It was also the biggest issue to date. 

Beck Cover

Highly talented Beck gave Watch his eloquent thoughts on the media’s infatuation with Generation X and how it always desperately needs to sell young people more stuff. Watch took on Ontario’s film censors over the GG Allin documentary, Hated: GG Allin and the Murder Junkies, and let students across the city blow off steam on life in the 1990s. 

Bass is Base Cover

By October 1994 the magazine’s investigative powers were in full flow. Two investigations – a sex scandal at an alternative school, and whether the Battle of the Bands contests, a fixture at most high schools, are really worth it – joined a profile of the band Bass is Base and more coverage on the growing rave scene in Toronto. 

Oasis Cover

In 1994, Oasis were still an indie band with a lot of bottle and big mouths. Riding a tsunami of hype from the UK, they washed up in North America to face their biggest challenge: could they become as big as The Beatles or The Rolling Stones? Lead singer Liam Gallagher does not disappoint, as he gives me an expletive-laden exposition on everything under the sun.

This was the first published print interview with the band in Canada.

Sloan Cover

Canada’s answer to the ‘Madchester’ scene of the early 1990s, Sloan, played the pop game with gusto. In the photo shoot for the feature, it was pants down and prayer hands to an unseen religious icon.

Timeline 

1994: Hired to re-launch and expand Watch Magazine in Toronto.

1996: Hired to re-develop editorial content for Watch Magazine’s national launch.  

Testimonials 

“As one of those high school kids and the guy who wrote (most of) this article, I’d like to say thanks to David [South] for all his hard work on Watch magazine! I learned a lot from him and it was a great experience.” William White

Impact

Micro 

  •  Toronto’s first youth culture media start-up. Introduced ‘youth culture’ concept to Canada
  •  oversaw two format re-launches of the magazine as it expanded and grew
  •  assembled talented youth editorial team
  •  grew magazine and its profile as the main media source for reaching Toronto’s youth
  •  writers trained and appeared on TV as youth commentators
  •  first profile in Canada of British band Oasis, among many other story firsts
  •  became first stop for anyone wishing to target the youth market, or seeking intelligence on the youth market 

Macro

  • created youth culture market in Toronto
  • first magazine to be based at new start-up hub in Toronto – pioneering concept at the time 

A sample of published stories is below:  

Freaky – The 70s Meant Something

Oasis Has Arrogance, A Pile of Attitude and the Best Album of 1994

Citations 

Other Resources 

GOSH Child Health Portal 2001 to 2003 Resources

Note: Complete issues of the magazine’s first year await professional digital scanning. This could be of interest to a library, scholar or university interested in archiving this authentic artefact of 1990s youth culture. Please send an email if you would like to get in touch or share a thought: mailto: davidsouthconsulting@gmail.com.  

Media

Youth culture magazine Watch goes national, Wendy Cuthbert, September 1, 1997, Strategy, Canada

“Free teen publication Watch Magazine is going national this month – promising to more than double its high school penetration. 

The self-described youth culture magazine, which last year at this time went province-wide – delivering copies to 350 high schools across Ontario – plans to send out 125,000 copies to 800 participating high schools across Canada. 

Going national only four years after its inception (the magazine started as a Toronto-only vehicle in 1993) could make national advertisers interested in reaching the elusive teen market very happy.”

Ryerson Review of Journalism, Page 34, 2003, Toronto, Canada

“Owned by marketing company Youth Culture Group, these gender – specific magazines attempt to construct a teen image that is built on spending.”

Watch Magazine Editor-in-Chief David South
Watch Magazine Editor-in-Chief David South photographed at Toronto’s Beaches neighbourhood in 1994. Watch Magazine was Toronto’s first youth culture media start-up and led the way on Toronto’s revival after the economic crisis of the early 1990s. Photo: Margaret South.

Note: Complete issues of the magazine’s first year await professional digital scanning. This could be of interest to a library, scholar or university interested in archiving this authentic artifact of 1990s youth culture. Please send an email if you would like to get in touch or share a thoughtmailto: davidsouthconsulting@gmail.com. You can also fund this goal through our PayPal account here:

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UN Ukraine Web Development Experience | 2000

In November/December 2000 I worked in Kyiv/Kiev, Ukraine for the United Nations mission on the strategic re-launch of the mission website as a portal, whilst also advising the UN Resident Coordinator/UNDP Resident Representative Douglas Gardner on communications strategy. It was an extraordinary experience on many levels. It was a time when the Internet was fast evolving and required quick thinking and an ability to innovate; it was also a key moment in Ukraine’s history. 

The dangers at the time for communicating on the Internet were starkly clear: on September 16, the Ukrainian journalist Georgy Gongadze was murdered. In 2013 Aleksei Pukach, former head of the surveillance department in the Ministry of Interior, was convicted of the murder. 

But despite those dangers and clear threats from the government of the time, there was a flourishing and inventive Internet and digital economy. The magazine Internet UA (whose editor I enjoyed meeting) gave a great overview of the scene in Ukraine and its creativity. Just as now, the creation of Internet stars who can exploit the medium (in this case sexy videos: a very large online market today) was driving viewers and subscribers. But there was also a vibrant online news media, blogging, commerce and gaming presence as well.

Internet UA magazine: Sex sells and the sex industry has always had pioneers seeking new ways to get eyeballs for their content. The Internet from its early days has been driven by the search for nude pictures and sex videos. In this cover feature, “Internet + TV: Double Impact”. That content mix has become the foundation of websites such as Pornhub etc.

According to ain.ua, the Ukrainian digital economy today is ” … ‘local’ only just figuratively speaking. Ukrainian startups are initially focused on international markets. Product companies are included into international industry ratings. Outsourcing works with clients from all over the world. Global players enter Ukrainian market, opening R&D offices, acquiring and investing into local companies. There are no boundaries.” 

A magazine feature on ‘Natasha’s’ Internet content offering.

It is easy to take digital freedoms for granted now but there was great resistance at the time and, unlike today, many governments were openly hostile to digital technology, online communications and e-commerce.

50 websites to bookmark in 2000.

The UN itself was evolving and embracing the communications and design revolution being driven by digital change. This was the first “dot.com” boom, which had begun in 1997. I had played a key role in pioneering online content for Mongolia (1997-1999) and could bring this experience to Ukraine. In particular, I launched an award-winning web portal for the UN Mongolia mission in 1997 (www.un-mongolia.mn) and also the country’s first web magazine, Ger

The UN Ukraine brief involved creating content that was accessible to users with low bandwidth, dial-up connections (few had mobile phones in 2000). I had been building new media experience throughout the 1990s, tracking the cable and satellite TV and mobile/Internet revolutions for the Financial Times as a journalist, as well as launching websites for various media clients. 

The Terms of Reference for the UN/UNDP Ukraine assignment.
The assignment business card.
The UN/UNDP Ukraine website before launch as a portal.
The first iteration of the new UN Ukraine portal.

Key content created and launched on the UN Ukraine portal included critical information on the HIV/AIDS crisis in Ukraine, UN Ukraine’s first online magazine to explore perceptions of volunteering and NGOs in the post-communist period, and content preparing for the visit of the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, by showing how Ukraine was engaging with global development priorities, for example the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), and bringing together UN agencies and entities into a cohesive web and “One UN” experience.

The first UN Ukraine online magazine.
Bringing together UN agencies and entities into a cohesive web and “One UN” experience.

One highlight of this assignment was working with the “UN Chornobyl Programme” to develop its web content. This included visiting Pripyat (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pripyat),an abandoned city because of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant disaster in 1986. I have visited many abandoned and “secret” cities and towns in the course of working with the United Nations but this particular visit had the added dimension of an environmental and human health disaster hanging over it (and as a former healthcare worker at Canada’s top cancer hospital and research institute, I couldn’t forget the impact of high radiation levels on the body).  

UN Chornobyl Programme website in development, 2000.
UN agencies in Ukraine.
UNDP in Ukraine.

The power of the Internet and the digital economy to engage people, especially the young, despite living in a country with significant political repression of free speech and even physical intimidation and murder, stuck with me. This work also contributed to laying the foundations for Ukraine’s growing freedoms and greater engagement with Europe. 

As this chart shows, increasing connectivity had a profound impact on living standards in Ukraine and Mongolia post-2000. The extreme turbulence Mongolia experienced in the 1990s – after the collapse of support mechanisms from the Soviet Union – calmed down as Mongolia integrated with the global economy, especially a booming China.

Read about my work in Mongolia in the late 1990s:

High Impact Communications In A Major Crisis: UNDP Mongolia 1997-1999 | 18 February 2016

CASE STUDY 4: UN + UNDP Mongolia | 1997 – 1999

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