I’m poor and I have a mobile phone.

You are reading an article about an underserved community living in a remote village; left behind when it comes to healthcare, education, and economic opportunities. You feel the injustice, and the article is a call for donation in order for an NGO to set up a vocational programme to get young people to be skilled, with the objective of generating income or gaining employment. Nice, you think. I should probably donate.

You scroll further, and the article ends with a photo of a group of youths sitting outside a dilapidated shack, and one appears to be holding a mobile phone.

What would you think now? C’mon – be honest!

  1. “They have mobile phones! How poor can they be?”
  2. “Didn’t realise the phone, but now that you’ve pointed it out… Are you sure they need our help?”
  3. “Yes they have a mobile phone; and someone probably has a motorbike too. But yes, they still need our help.”

This begs for the question: Are poor people not ‘supposed’ to have mobile phones?

We chanced upon this awesome article, about poverty and ownership of mobile phones. The piece is pretty self-explanatory, and you should read it.

On this note, we’d like to agree with the author that a mobile phone is not a luxury; not for the poor and B40 population anyway. A mobile phone can and is a tool to develop and empower individuals, and ultimately communities.

The Grameen Village Phone programme is one such initiative where mobile phones are providing income to individuals, while inclusively empowering entire villages.

Grameen Village Phone 2

Grameen Bank’s borrowers (95% are women) are able to undertake loans to purchase mobile phones. To qualify as a village phone operator, among the requirements are that their house is located centrally, have access to electricity, and other sources of income (a grocery store, for example).

So what do they do with their mobile phones? In rural Bangladesh, where telecommunications is almost non-existent, operators provide telephone services (making and receiving) to fellow villagers at a market price.

Grameen Village Phone 1

On average, the “Village Phone Ladies” earn a profit of US$2 per day after meeting all costs, resulting in earnings of more than US$700 per year—more than double the annual per capita income.

With connectivity offered by a single item of technology – a basic mobile phone – the impact on villagers have been monumental. Here’s our Top 3 favourite impact areas:

#1. Helping rural Bangladeshis save money! Almost 50% of all calls made with Village Phone Ladies are for transaction of businesses. The phone has saved farmers and villagers time and money as it would typically require physical travel over long distances, costing them 2-8 times the cost of a phone call.

#2. Acquisition of information and knowledge. And because knowledge is power, with it, improved lifestyles and social elevation as a whole. Individuals have benefitted from access to better healthcare (10% of calls are health-related purpose) as well as improved social contact with family members (social calls account for over 40% of airtime) as most Bangladeshi households have one more more family members working abroad. The phone is also very commonly used to ensure that funds remitted by family working in the city or abroad, reach its intended recipients in the villages. Communities in turn have benefitted from improved law and order, and the phone has helped with quicker responses in coping with disasters and calamities.

#3. Societal empowerment for Village Phone Ladies. Reports of increasing empowerment have been confirmed by the women phone operators in rural Bangladesh. As the revenue from the telephone is substantial, this automatically elevates her position in her own household, and enables her to participate in decision-making. On the community front, the Village Phone Lady, a female figure is now a pivotal and important pillar in that village – often times, a go-to point for services, news and information of day-to-day village life and business dealings.

If you’d like to read more about the Grameen Village Phone initiative: Here, here, and here.

So the next time you see a mobile-phone wielding poor person, you’ll know better!



Image Sources: Grameen Phone, Grameen Telecom

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