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Internet rolls into Bangladesh villages on a bike


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In this Sept. 30, 2012, photo, Bangladeshi Info Lady Mehedi Akthar Misty, right, helps Amina Begum, 45, to talk with her husband with Skype at Jharabarsha, in a remote impoverished farming village in Gaibandha district, 120 miles north of capital Dhaka, Bangladesh. – AP

JHARABARSHA, Bangladesh: Amina Begum had never seen a computer until a few years ago, but now she's on Skype regularly with her husband.

A woman on a bicycle brings the Internet to her.

Dozens of "Info Ladies" bike into remote Bangladeshi villages with laptops and Internet connections, helping tens of thousands of people - especially women - get everything from government services to chats with distant loved ones. It's a vital service in a country where only 5 million of 152 million people have Internet access.

The Info Ladies project, created in 2008 by local development group D.Net and other community organizations, is modeled after a program that helped make cellphones widespread in Bangladesh.

It intends to enlist thousands more workers in the next few years with startup funds from the South Asian country's central bank and expatriates working around the world.

D.Net recruits the women and trains them for three months to use a computer, the Internet, a printer and a camera. It arranges bank loans for the women to buy bicycles and equipment.

“Info Ladies” pedal their way to Saghata, a remote impoverished farming village in Gaibandha district. – AP

"This way we are providing jobs to jobless women and at the same time empowering villagers with critical information," said Ananya Raihan, D.Net's executive director.

The women - usually undergraduates from middle-class rural families - aren't doling out charity. Begum pays 200 takas ($2.40) for an hour of Skype time with her husband, who works in Saudi Arabia.

Begum smiles shyly when her husband's cheerful face pops up. With earphones in place, she excitedly tells him she received the money he sent last month. He asks her to buy farm land.

Even Begum's elderly mother-in-law now uses Skype to talk with her son.

"We prefer using Skype to mobile phones because this way we can see him on the screen," Begum said, beaming happily from her tiny farming village in Gaibandha district, 120 miles (192 kilometers) north of the capital, Dhaka.

In the neighboring village of Saghata, an Info Lady is 16-year-old Tamanna Islam Dipa's connection to social media.

"I don't have any computer, but when the Info Lady comes I use her laptop to chat with my Facebook friends," she said.

"We exchange our class notes and sometimes discuss social issues, such as bad effects of child marriage, dowry and sexual abuse of girls."

The Info Ladies also provide a slew of social services _ some for a fee and others for free.

They sit with teenage girls where they talk about primary health care and taboo subjects like menstrual hygiene, contraception and HIV. They help villagers seeking government services write complaints to authorities under the country's newly-enacted Right to Information Act.

They talk to farmers about the correct use of fertilizer and insecticides. For 10 takas (12 cents) they help students fill college application forms online. They're even trained to test blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

"The Info Ladies are both entrepreneurs and public service providers," Raihan said.

Raihan borrowed the idea from Bangladeshi Nobel laureate Muhammad Yunus, who in 2004 introduced mobile phones to rural women who had no access to telephones of any kind, by training and sending out scores of "Mobile Ladies" into the countryside.

That hugely successful experiment drew in commercial mobile phone operators. Now more than 92 million people in Bangladesh have cellphone access.

Nearly 60 Info Ladies are working in 19 of Bangladesh's 64 districts. By 2016, Raihan hopes to train 15,000 women.

In July, Bangladesh's central bank agreed to offer interest-free loans to Info Ladies. Distribution of the first phase of loans, totaling 100 million takas ($1.23 million), will begin in December. Raihan said D.Net is also encouraging the large population of Bangladeshi expatriates to send money home to help Info Ladies get started.    ''It's very innovative,'' says Jamilur Reza Chaudhury, a pioneer of information technology education in Bangladesh.

"The project is really having an impact on the people at grass-root level."

Info Lady Sathi Akhtar, who works in Begum's and Dipa's villages, said she makes more at the job than she would as a school teacher.

She said that after making payments on her 120,000 taka ($1,480) loan and covering other costs, she takes home an average of 10,000 takas ($123) a month.

"We are not only earning money, we are also contributing in empowering our women with information. That makes us happy."

Comments (14) Closed

Muhammad Asghar khan Nov 01, 2012 08:13pm
this should be started in pakistan. who will start ?
Indian Nov 01, 2012 03:55pm
wonderful!!! Superb!! Heartfelt congrats from India, You guys have left India behind by this one innovation. truely powerful and ground breaking.
Parus Nov 01, 2012 12:34pm
its simply a WOW concept.
arya Nov 02, 2012 06:00am
pakistan should stop comparing with india,india is very big country ,see bangladeshi currency also is up than u.jaagoo---
Syed-S Nov 02, 2012 01:14am
If this were to happen in Pakistan. They would at once put a ban on pillion riding. Long live Zardari.
Cyrus Howell Nov 01, 2012 10:49pm
One man in China had a movie projector and a couple of films and went from village to village showing them to the peasants in the evenings.
Nasser Ali Khan Nov 01, 2012 07:07pm
As a human being first and foremost, and then a Pakistani, I am so heartened to read such a positive report on Bangladesh. Just 3% of population having access to the internet is diabolical. Progress and IT are most closely related as it affects nearly every function in life. IT also provides an opportunity for a GREAT LEAP FORWARD for any nation that wants to progress FAST. Individuals need to take action for their own betterment and for the society as a whole. This should be yet another lesson to Pakistanis.
Rumi Nov 02, 2012 06:04am
As they say "if you think you are too small to be effective, you have never been in bed with a mosquito."
Riaz Nov 02, 2012 05:15am
Multinational companies are just making money nothing more than that. These villages lack sanitation facilities, clean drinking water, electricity and basic education at primary level. Will Govt go for it? After that it would be a laudable step, indeed.
karachiwalaaa Nov 01, 2012 06:31pm
very well said syed bhai... pak is gonna change when in the words of jalib " jaag mere punjab ke pakistan chala" i dunno when will they wake up
Syed Hussain Akbari Nov 01, 2012 01:29pm
This should serve as an eye opener for Pakistanis (specially those sitting in the government and our Mullah categories). Like South Korea and India , Bangladesh is now moving ahead of Pakistan. Some years ago South Korea was behind us; not very long in the past India was behind us and now it is Bangladesh which is soon going to surpass us. We will continue saying and taking false pride that some years ago these countries were behind us and we were ahead. Villagers using Laptops ! I remember that when I was working in Bangladesh ( 2000 /2001) I got installed four Desktops (for which donations came from various corners of Pakistan) all concerned in Dhaka were highly thankful to me. It was still something rare to have a computer accessible for masses. Now where they are. It is just because of of continuous policy and the love for the country every Bangladeshi has. Bangladesh is one of those countries which do not go begging at least to that extent as we are.
baba Nov 01, 2012 07:35pm
Thanks Bangladesh for following Indian path..carry on
Wali Mohammad Nov 02, 2012 08:58am
This is a good idea. Such kind of exercise should be done in Pakistan's remote area in addition with "mobile computer institute" so that basic of computer as well as educational knowledge be acquired.
Raj Nov 02, 2012 05:44am
Syed Miya, When India was behind Pakistan??? Are you dreaming man?? We are far ahead of you in everything except jihad from the begaining when pak was born via India. Taliban and religion hardliners will destroy pak completely within next 10 years. Its high time for pak ppl to stand up against taliban and mulahs..