|One of the most remote parts of Bangladesh--the char islands of Noakhali.|
Right now they don't look so bad, but once rainy season comes, this will all be underwater....
Past posts include:
My skepticism that mobile money providers will be able to figure out how to reach remote areas, like those I visited in Mozambique
Profiles of satisfied mobile money "users" in Bangladesh who don't really feel a need to know how to do the transactions themselves
Flat out questioning whether mobile money created more problems than it solved, especially for low-literacy users!
A few weeks ago I went on a trip to Hatiya, Nohakhali that essentially convinced my that mobile money is, in fact, a transformative tool for financial empowerment in Bangladesh, despite the USSD menu in English and the many other common complaints.
For those of you who haven't had the pleasure of visiting the place yourself: this is historically one of the poorest and most remote parts of Bangladesh. The families here are forced to move periodically because of river erosion--most moved to this area just in the last 10-15 years. Often the land is controlled by local elites, who don't make it easy for the poor. Schools are few and far between, health services far away. Almost all families are subsistence farmers.
The only electricity for miles is generated by solar panels. Now there are some paved roads and bridges; before, you were reliant on ferries and dirt roads, when they weren't flooded. BRAC field staff here often resort to taking their shoes off, rolling up their pant legs, and walking through shallow water. Every Peace Corp volunteer's dream, right?
Not where I'd expect to find the most tech savvy people.
At yet, for the first time, I met rural women that felt confident using mobile money by themselves. And not only were they confident, but they were excited!! Watch this short video where you can see for yourself.
One of them mentioned that prior to having her own bkash wallet, she had to go to the bazaar (which was a decent walk away) to buy airtime. There she could buy a card with tk10 value for tk12 (i.e. a $0.12 value for $0.15). Now, from her home, she could buy airtime whenever she wanted it "for free."
Better than that, she's now doing all airtime top-ups for all of her neighbors, saving them the trouble of going down to the bazaar and paying the extra fee. I asked her if she'd considered becoming an agent for the cell phone companies, but she laughed at that.
Perhaps more exciting was hearing women talk about how mobile money has transformed their access to cash flows. Last week I wrote about a woman who took a loan for consumption while her husband migrated to another area for work. He's able to send her money regularly by mobile money for her to pay the monthly installment.
Before she had her own mobile money wallet on her phone, her husband sent money to her through the agent in town. That worked okay, but sometimes he wasn't there, didn't have enough cash, wanted some extra money for his troubles, or....you get the idea. She's clearly very happy to be getting the money on her own phone--both for practical benefits as well as peace of mind (which I think we often undervalue).
My colleagues plan to write some pieces on the financial capability efforts that supported these women to get their mobile money wallets and learn to use bkash so confidently, and I don't want to steal their thunder.
But frankly, the biggest light bulb for me was, "Wow! This is what's POSSIBLE!" These women need mobile money, they want it, and they can make it work for them.
Now that we know it's possible, we have a lot more work to do!
At least I can stop pontificating about this now and move onto new topics.