No Electric Grid, Network Connectivity or Typing Skills-Rural Bangladeshis are still Smartphone Users

Bangladesh is half the size of France and has around 160 million people making it the most densely populated large country in the world. Therefore being there is like no other place in the world. I had the plan to visiting remote areas and communities in the country with the purpose of learning more about their lifestyle and their use of tech if anything at all. Thanks to the startup company Avijatrik who are promoting community sustainable tourism in Bangladesh and to MD. Nadim Sarker for the photography. I managed to meet tea plantation families in the Sreemangal area and two tribes named Khasia and Garo.

The Khasia and Garo Tribes

Khasia is the indigenous tribes of Meghalaya in northeastern India, and Garo is a Tibeto-Burman ethnic group in Meghalaya. These communities share in common living under one or two dollars a day, and their families could go up to six in some cases. Also, most of their houses don’t have water or electricity and they rely on solar panels alone.
Since 2003, Idcol a government-backed Bangladeshi energy and infrastructure has installed solar panels in 3.95 million off-grid homes, reaching 18 million people. In terms of individual units served (rather than total wattage), Bangladesh has become one of the world’s largest markets for home solar systems. Bangladeshis now have a way to illuminate their house, sometimes watch TV, and most importantly charge their phones. Therefore, solar has played a huge role in providing a better standard of living for millions of families around the country.

I noticed in Africa just like in Bangladesh people charging their phones in other people’s homes. Actually, a huge amount of activities play a collective and not an individual role. Everyone helps each other out. For example people visit other neighbors homes and watch TV together even though without letting them know. They basically just arrive and watch TV together. The villages I visited don’t have 3G connectivity at all, and not everyone owns a smartphone.
But, despite these limiting constraints people in these villages manage to watch video offline in a smartphone. They share these video files via Bluetooth or with USB sticks attaching them to the phones. Also, kids play games that were previously downloaded at the nearby village where 3G connectivity or WIFI is available.

People in these villages also don’t have a bank account but they still use BKash, which is the Bangladeshi mobile money platform. I met at Khasia woman who was receiving money from her husband working in Dhaka through BKash. Mobile money works significantly well in Bangladesh. Yet, without any form of a micro loan offering.

The Rickshaw Driver Using Just Voice

I met a rickshaw driver who didn’t know how to read or write and therefore he didn’t have any typing skills, yet he was using whatsapp through voice only. The reason he learned how to use it is that it allowed him to communicate with his wife who emigrated to Oman for work. He also knew how to post photos on Facebook and chatting over IMO.

The Fisherman Consuming Video

While exploring the area I encountered a group of young fisherman catching fish using nets only, and they mentioned that large school of fish come at night. Therefore, fishermen go out fishing at night until the break of dawn. And as a form of entertainment, they use their smartphones offline and watch videos while they sleep on a boat catching fish. These videos are pre-downloaded as there is no 3G connection in this area. They don’t seem to use the phone for communication purposes but purely for entertainment only.

Tea Plantations and The Day by Day Subsistence Problem

Sreemangal is known as the tea capital of Bangladesh. It covers an overall of 450 sq. km, and It has overall 163 tea plantations.

I met and talked with several families that work on these plantations, and it is clear that they are stuck in the so called the lower income trap. They earn on average one or two dollars per day and they have to sustain a whole family of two and in some cases of six members. Thereby, whatever they earn they just spend it that day for food, and this cycle doesn’t allow them to have any savings or engage in other activities that would allow them to break this cycle. Like learning English.

The only way I see a lot of these families getting out of this lower income trap is by having some form of extra income and savings. For example being able to fish more and as a result have a surplus yield that will bring extra income which transfers into the possibility to buying goats or cows, and as a consequence have more money to eat and let children go to school.
I have seen the day by day subsistence cycle problem in many developing countries, and the children of these families many times don’t go to school even if they had the possibility to do so. And the reason being that their parents have a day by day subsistence mentality. Which means that they prefer their children to go out working and bring some money versus going to school and bring nothing back home.

Can Technology Break The Day to Day Subsistence Cycle Problem?

One example where technology is breaking this cycle is the electric rickshaw. I met a driver who would not consider driving just a standard cycling rickshaw except an electric one. This is the first time I see a rickshaw powered by a battery installed below the back seat and an electric command control device for acceleration. These electric devices are all manufactured in China. Electric rickshaws are making jobs easier for a lot of people in many villages in Bangladesh and it is enabling more income as a consequence. Now, the challenge I see with these type of technologies is the barrier of entry and the initial investment necessary to start operating one. As I mentioned previously most of these families and communities earn a low income and don’t have any savings at all.

One way to solving this problem I believe is through a micro loan service powered by mobile devices and credit histories. Sesame Credit from Ant Financial is an interesting widespread example from China. Most people in the developing world have no bank accounts, but their sim card will be their ID and credit history record. Thus, enabling loans that would be be possible before.

Not Enough Opportunities

Eusuf Ali is the name of the guide who brought me to these communities. Eusuf was born in Sreemangal Bangladesh, and he told me that he has met so many people in these regions with great potential to do more than just working the field, fishing or driving a rickshaw. But despite this potential people don’t have access to better opportunities and develop any form of more diverse skills like dancing, language training, or IT skills.
Eusuf basically gave me a bleak picture for the future of these communities and the unlikelihood of getting out of this low-income trap and all this potential will just be wasted.

I agree and totally disagree with his perspective. Many of this children and families will not get to escape this low income trap, but there is a percentage of people within these communities for which technology is already pushing them out of the cycle and empowering and making their life’s a little better. Ultimately, I’m a strong believer that high technology and the internet is the best tool we have invented so far to empower all humans on earth. Including those at the bottom of the pyramid.

Technological Empowerment

Technological empowerment will not be provided just by the tech private sector alone, but a multi stakeholder approach is required. Yet, one thing is clear to me. We are going through a multi-tiered technological wave in emerging markets and this means tech is not just being copycatted anymore, but startups are building solutions that solve a real problem in the local market. Mobile tech has become hyper global and local simultaneously -Transforming society at large and creating also new forms of economic opportunities like never before.

We need this transformation to happen at a faster rate in emerging markets. Youth unemployment is on the rise as there are about 71 million unemployed 15-to-24-year-olds around the globe, many of them facing long-term unemployment and bleak prospects in life.. These families and children are my inspiration and a strong and constant reminder to work on something way bigger than myself. My mission in life is connect communities and the worlds emerging tech ecosystems.

Global stability depends on bringing opportunities for everyone in the world including those at the bottom, and all of us who work in the tech sector have the chance, opportunity, and responsibility to provide these 3 billion with more options in life.

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