"InfoLadies," are spearheading a revolutionary idea - giving thousands of Bangladeshis women, trapped in a cycle of poverty, health problems and natural disaster, access to information through various information and communication technologies (ICTs) on their doorstep to improve their chances in life.
A typical Infolady is a trained rural young woman, who cycles about five to ten kilometers a day and offers variety of ICT-based and other services at the door-step of rural community she lives in. The infolady carries a range of ICTs with her. These include – but not limited to - a netbook computer with webcam, digital camera, mobile phone with an internet connectivity and a headphone. She also carries weight measurement machine, blood pressure machine, blood testing kit, pregnancy test kit, sugar test kit etc. The infolady is the credible trust agent to thousands of rural women, who visits individuals and different groups of community people. She is supported with a range of offline and online knowledge and useful information for women .
How do infoladies empower rural people through ICT enabled services?
Infoladies offer services to various target groups: pregnant women, farmers, children, adolescent girls. Through various ICTs and offline formats, infoladies offer specific information and communication can provide crucial actionable information related to health, education, farming, job search, specific agricultural input, consulting with lawyers for accessing legal aid amongst other services. Infoladies use preloaded offline Bangla livelihood and audio-visual content, online information through accessing the Internet and connect beneficiaries with experts like doctor, lawyer, agriculturist and so on through mobile phone or iM.
Why info ‘lady’:
In Bangladesh, social, cultural contexts often exacerbate rural isolation. It often leads to non-participation of marginalised communities; their lack of access to key information services and entitlement leading to disempowerment, exclusion and poverty. For example, nearly 88.7% girls get married by 18 years of age and 61.5% of total girls population marry by 15. Nearly 61% of births attended by either unskilled personnel or unqualified physicians with 45% of maternal malnourishment. The project has shown that infoladies can have better access to the conservative households as well as to those disabled people with less mobility who are in some cases tied to their homes.
Tackling triple illiteracy barriers:
Infoladies are credible trust-agents and they help rural women and people living in margins overcome triple literacy barriers: formal illiteracy (social), ICT illiteracy (technological) and information illiteracy (political).
The informal and trusted door-step services – often linked with a local telecentre - increases effectiveness of services offered. As a result, any activities and information exchanges conducted in that informal environment overcome formal illiteracy for marginalised groups, particularly women.
Add this with ICT innovations, the infoladies offer a range of services and serve the poor and marginalised at their door steps without having to travel and waste her day and with help of specifically designed low cost solutions. This win-win situation helps infoladies earn adequate income in a month. Infoladies also provide communication services and technologies to help rural citizens overcome their problems: these services can social (connecting rural women with their husbands abroad using skype), personal (facilitating health services on phone) or any other services.
Infoladies also help families living below the poverty line by providing an instant solution using their database on health and ultra-poor entitlements. Therefore infoladies play key roles in holding local authorities to account and demand transparency.
The uniqueness of this project is that this approach is equally empowering infoladies whose confidence and self-esteem is significantly improved, increased respect shown by neighbours and community elders including men and their economic opportunities improve steadily.
Innovative info-services ensuring financial sustainability:
Infoladies provide health checking services to the pregnant women. These infoladies receive fees for conducting these specific tests. Where possible, they provide advise on nutritious diets during their pregnancy. They also advise on contraceptive techniques and outcomes using their multimedia services.
The infoady also supplies contraceptives and hygiene napkin to the rural women, who never visit shops to purchase for social and cultural reasons. Such unique services ensure both development outcomes for women and income generation for infoladies.
Infoladies project is low cost and viable model for connecting rural people easily to the livelihood. The concept empowers both infoladies and rural beneficiaries.
It creates a trusted pathway for rural women to access services that were previously denied to them. The project systematically creates a self-sustainable knowledge networks in rural Bangladesh. The project currently offers ICT enabled self-employment opportunity for the educated rural women. An estimated 160, 196 women have received livelihood information and ancillary services from 23 infoladies. These infoladies have been the reason for improving income levels of 13,631 beneficiaries and saved cost of livelihood for 43,276 families and their support and advise to people on loss or damage of poverty, life issues, advise on various rights have benefited 2832 rural people. With support from local authorities, communities and government, it is very likely that infoladies will one day support and impact as many women and others to make decent livelihood out of these important services.
Vision: Build an equitable, inclusive and sustainable information and knowledge system in Bangladesh.
Objectives and Goal:
1. Ensure access to information for all especially women and disabled in the community who face social challenges of going out; 2. Create self-employment among rural educated women; 3. Build a viable business model for poor communities with low cost ICTs.
Infolady uses small portable laptops or netbook to store and deliver her key information services to the rural people. It is portable and easy to carry to provide information and ICT services at the door steps of the community people. This ensures women and disabled people's access to information. Its screen size is better than mobile phones for viewing multimedia content.
Multimedia content: The multimedia content plays an important role. D.Net (www.dnet.org.bd) and its subsidiary Multimedia Content and Communications Limited(www.mcc.com.bd) produce digital content in local language in text and picture form, in audio form and in multimedia (animation and video). Infolady uses multimedia contents (video and animation) which are often interactive that increases the impact on understanding. These audio-visual contents demonstrate solutions to livelihood problems which are more appealing to text illiterate target groups. For example, the project has developed a small documentary on safe pregnancy to the pregnant women to create awareness. The project also uses cartoons and various educational videos to children (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WZ2Bh4r8Lfc&feature=related).
Investing in to develop local language content base: The content is called as "Jeeon IKB" (www.jeeon.com.bd) that has various livelihood information on agriculture, health, educaiton, legal & human rights, entrepreneurship etc. All contents are in local language (Bangla) and infoladies can provide instant responses to livelihood problems of local communities. For instance, a farmer can readily access information relating to managing insect problems to protect crops and increase yields from infoladies.
Demand-driven online services to rural communities: Another important life-line provided by infoladies to local communities is to access many important services through online. Key services include villagers can now apply online visa for the USA Diversity Visa Program, download various government forms, check public examination results and searching and applying jobs online.
Extending affordable communication networks to rural people Infoladies use their portable device or use their local centres to use instant messengers or Voice over Internet Phones (VOIP) to connect rural siblings with their relatives and families. Instant messengers and VOIP are also used for connecting various livelihood experts online. This has made infoladies as a credible trust agent between local authorities and people living in villages.
Women find it very useful to use mobile phones services offered by infoladies: increased privacy, and credible knowledge source make an appealing combination to rural women to use mobile phones services for health, government support and other livelihood experts. This is now considered an important lifeline services by rural women. Infoladies will contact a suitable expert when an information demand from a particular women is not known to them. Infoladies use digital camera and photo printer to provide photography services to the community. This service is important for various services such as the micro-credit group members, students, job seekers and bank loansthat require identity photos.
Our infoladies use Telecentre Management Software (TMS) to keep records of their services and income.
Infoladies offer a range of distinctive services to various target groups.
Special support to pregnantwWomen: Nearly 88.7% girls get married by 18 years of age. 61.5% of total girls population marry by 15. Nearly 61% of births attended by either unskilled personnel or unqualified physicians with 45% of maternal malnourishment. According to National Health Policy update in 2008, the informal system of health care provision of by semi-qualified and unqualified providers including village doctors, caters to the needs of “probably 80 per cent” of population, particularly the poor and women. Infoladies address the gap in health care provision through women information intermediaries using ICTs.
Info ladies regularly check pregnant women’s health such as checking blood pressure, recording and observing women’s weight, checking haemoglobin counts and they are trained to conduct urine tests. These training make info-ladies as a credible support agent to community health workers. Through phones and the internet, infoladies can immediately seek expert advise and put women in touch with doctors for referrals and fixing appointment. Such services are valuable to many pregnant women who do have very limited access to transport to access health centres, let alone talking to experts on mobile phones.
Infoladies can now guide them on nutritious dietary intake for pregnant women . They collect a small amount of service cost for conducting these specific tests. Such niche services ensure constant revenue streams for infoladies.
Education related services Edutainment for children: Infoladies offer a range of CD / DVD-RoM based educational content to children studying at pre-school and primary school. These children learn alphabet, rhymes and various in an interactive way which are far more appealing and stimulating than plain text based lessons. Animated and cartoon based content are developed by project staff members and infoladies for these purposes. One of the cartoon series that is popular is– “1 2 3 Sisimpur”, a local adaptation of American Children Cartoon Series “Sesame Street”. These cartoons have a subtle yet powerful social messages for children about good hygiene and the value of education. There have been instances where children have shared these information with their parents which have helped building credibility of infoladies and recognising the real value of their services to local people.
Multimedia content for school children and college boys: Similarly, high school and college students can learn English, Math, science and other subjects using infoladies’ services.
Online content services for teachers and students: Lately, rural students are becoming aware of the use of the internet as a source of information to improve their learning. Several news papers publishe regular supplementary sections for students. Infoladies regularlybrows these pages online and save necessary pages to her laptop and share them with students.
Similarly, infoladies browse and make note of popular educational websites to share with learners. Infoladies introduce those to students then for a small service cost to use online and offline content on hourly basis like a cyber café
Organising mock exams: Infoladies arrange model tests for public examination candidates (SSC). Infoladies use internet resources and local software to develop this test. Students sit for online model test so they can immediately assess themselves once they have taken the test. Teachers generally find this test useful and they refer students to infoladies.
Information services for youths: Jobseekers also use internet for searching jobs. They also find resources for their capacity building. For example, www.jeebika.com provides job information in Bangla language while www.bcstest.com provides knowledge required for the preparation of competitive examinations. Infoladies browse these websites regularly and therefore they become credible resource points for youths in villages.
ICT Enabled Life Skill, Sexuality Education and Computer training Infoladies form adolescent girl groups. Each group comprises a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 20 girls. Each girl pays 50 to 100 Taka per month. Through video and animation services offered by infoladies, members of these groups have access to life skill information, sexual education, and personal hygiene. Members of these groups also familiarise with non-farm related livelihood opportunities such as soap and candle making, sewing, block-boutique, food processing etc.
Infoladies support serious members by providing initial in kind support such as threads, colour, blocks, buttons, dices etc. Infoladies also have direct market linkages with a company called Faire Price Limited that connects national and international market. Infoladies collect and supply products to the wholesale markets and earn commissions. This information led entrepreneurial action empowers both rural adolescent girls and infoladies through successful self-employment opportunities. Infoladies train these members on basic computing for an affordable cost. Infoladies found that adolescent girls found using the old and bigger key board was easier way to learn basic computing and they were quicker to learn computing in their private spaces. Infoladies offer these services at their door steps which are personally reassuring and less intimidating.
Health checkup for all rural people: Infoladies extend their support to local health institutions: this helps their relationship with local health authorities cordial and their services are seen complimentary and supportive to existing health authorities. Infoladies offer to help with issuing health cards, recording various health data such blood pressure measurement, diabetic levels of patients etc., They also act a bridge between female patients and male doctors when physical check ups are necessary.
Livelihood information for farmers and professionals: Very often factual information on better livelihood practices is useful starting point but it then requires a range of skills to implement them in real life to enjoy its benefits. For example, convincing farmers to produce vermin-compost manure is easier than showing them how to produce the manure. Infoladies have developed several multimedia content in local language that details steps to be taken to benefit from livelihood practices.
Communication services: Info Ladies provide communication services like mobile call, email, skype, messenger etc.The case of Sakila Ferdousy is presented below for instance.
Case study: It’s been over a year since Rustam Ali left his modest home in the small village of Khamar Dhanaruha for a PhD in nano mechanics at Tohoku University in Japan. He left his pregnant wife Sakila Ferdousy behind with her parents in the same village.
Ferdousy, a Dhaka university postgraduate, soon realized they were separated by technology as well as distance. Expensive mobile phone calls were the only way to communicate. Keen to chat with her husband on webcam, she found an internet café-the only one in the area, 20 miles away in Gaibandha. “It would take me over six hours for a round trip, including a train ride in the peak of summer,” says Ferdousy. She finally gave up when she grew heavily pregnant. But after Tahsin’s birth five months ago she was desperate to show him to his father. “I was overjoyed when a relative told me that Infolady provided Skype video-calls on her netbook for an affordable price,” says Sakila.
Ali couldn’t believe his luck either. He first saw his son live on camera at two months old, lying in his cradle in the remote village. His in-laws and parents were equally amazed to see him at the other end. Infolady’s Skype service is now a sensation among families whose men work overseas and who can only afford to visit home every two or three years. “It’s either flood or famine this side, so its nice to have something that keeps you young, says Infolady. “It brings the world much closer for those who are left behind.”
Homestead gardening for housewives: Infoladies provide information about homestead gardening to the rural women. They supply improved seeds and time to time follow up the gardening.
Vaccination for poultry for poultry farmers: Generally every household of rural areas rear poultry. They need vaccine time to time. Info Ladies provide vaccination services for the poultry and they charge a small service cost and this is yet another useful income generating service.
Eye, Cleft and burnt care for disadvantaged: Cleft lip and cleft palate is the second most common congenital anomaly in Bangladesh. A cleft baby suffers from stigmatisation due to facial disfigurement, and often socially ostracised . Girls usually suffer more and they mostly remain unmarried. As a result, parents and other close family members also suffer from stigamatisation and cultural taboo. A successful reconstructive surgery allows an isolated cleft baby an opportunity to enjoy a normal life. Majority cleft babies require multiple operations to correcttheir disfigurements They are best done by highly experienced and qualified plastic surgeons . Most rural parents whose children suffer from cleft palate or lip are often afraid of surgery. Infoladies play an important role to make them aware of that. There are some organizations like Child Sight Foundation, Fast Care, Shohai Bangladesh who provide free treatment for eye, cleft and burnt patients. These organisations are also willing to work infoladies who can easily identify the sufferers, make them aware and refer them to the concerned institutions.
Successful creation of information based jobs for rural women:
The most significant achievement of the program is the creation and establishment of a new information based profession using ICTs, for the educated rural women. Generally women with an education of up to class XII or less than that find it difficult to get a decent job as opportunities in rural areas is not much in rural areas. This profession creates self-employment opportunities for them. An infolady can earn, depending on her capacity and local demand, up to USD 300 per month. The minimum earning is USD 75 per month.
Building trusted pathways for, of and amongst rural women: A 'trusted pathway' has been created for rural women. They are not passive beneficiaries but they are now part of a trusted networks that have fellow women who offer a range of ICT based information services to improve their lives. If poverty is all about isolation, then infoladies’ trusted pathways and relevant technologies bring in inclusive networks.
Change behaviour of rural women is key to infoladies’ success: The door-step service increases choice of rural community and helps changing behavior as the infolady visits them regularly and 'reminds' about certain things like such as regular health check-up, contraceptive use and sexual health, maintenance of hygiene etc.
Scalability: The 'infolady' project concept is now ready for scale-up as it is well experimented in terms of benefit to the community people and income generation for 'infoladies'. The benefits generated through this program are both tangible and intangible. Tangible benefits are: a. improved existing income opportunities: e.g., a woman gets better price for her dress sale as she can get new design from infoldaies; or a farmer uses better quality seed and gets better yield and hence more income. b. new income opportunities: many women now sell pufffed rice and earn money as the centre linked with an infolady buys it and sell it to urban buyers. Some women cultivate mushroom at home and earn money for the family. c. saving cost of livelihood: Pregnant women can assess risk during pregnancy and visit a doctor; or take photograph of her child for school at home and at a cheaper price than in township. d. Saving from damage or loss: Community people could save their lives during cyclone 'SIDR' in Mongla, Khulna as the infoladies motivated people to leave their house and take, Khulna shelter in cyclone shelter with their property and livestock.
During the initial phase, 160,196 beneficiaries receive livelihood information and ancillary services from 25 centres and 23 infoladies. Target groups have so far received benefits in 3 ways after application of the information and services, i) increased their family income ii) Saved cost of livelihood iii) Prevented loss or damage of property, life and rights. Among the total beneficiaries, the benefit status are as follows:
• Increased family income for 23% of beneficiaries (13,631)
• Saved cost of livelihood for 72% of beneficiaries (43,726)
• Prevented loss or damage of property, life and rights for 5% of beneficiaries (2832)
Benefit on Investment (BOI) analysis was conducted by D-Net in the program area. BOI analysis showed that the total estimated benefit from 25 centres and 23 infoladies was BDT 759.70 million. Total investment (including project operation, centre establishment and operation cost) was BDT 47.6 million (approximately US $ 10.7 million). The estimated BOI is 15.97, which means for each BDT investment for 36 months of operation period of the system the community benefit BDT 15.97. The BOI is 44.55 considering only local unit cost (centre establishment and operation cost), i.e. community received benefit BDT 44.55 for each Taka investment in the system of center and infolady.
Various awards: The Mobile lady project, the stage one of ‘infolady program’, won first Innovative Seed Grant Award launched by the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) in 2004.
This initiative became Champion and won Global Gender and ICT Award 2005 (http://www.genderawards.net) at the World Summit on the information Society (WSIS) for its innovative approach of using ICT for rural women. This award was hosted by the Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) in association with Association for Progressive Communications Women's Networking Support Programme (APC WNSP), Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Microsoft Corporation and the Department for International Development (DfID).
After successful implementation of the pilot phase, this program received financial support from Manusher Jonno Foundation, where the ‘mobile lady’ matured into ‘infolady’. Manusher Jonno Foundaiton is a local donor agency supporting initiatives to promote human rights and women empowerment. Currently, MJF supports ‘hub-spoke’ model, where focus shifts to ‘info-lady’ for testing franchise model of ‘infolady’, where potential infolady also invests to become an entrepreneur.
Bangladesh NGOs Foundation, a government body supporting small NGOs has replicated Infolady project through its partners and is going to expand it further.
D.Net has initiated dialogue with Ministry of Women and Child Affairs in Bangladesh to replicate the model countrywide. This proposal would include roll-out of 50,000 infolady all across the country.D.Net also initiated discussion with Central Bank of Bangladesh to provide special loan for women to become ‘infolady’.