Empowering entrepreneurs with access to digital services

6 September, 2022

Source : Edison Alliance

Reading Time: 7 Minutes

Char Kukri Mukri is located in Bhola, the southernmost district of Bangladesh. Char means ‘riverine island’ in Bengali, with several rivers flowing through this beautiful but poverty-stricken sub-district. Its +150,000 inhabitants live on just 25 sq km of low-lying land, and at high tide, extensive portions are under water. Born in a thumbprint of a country with a population of over 160 million, they have settled there because they have nowhere else to go.

As a result, the people of Char Kukri Mukri find themselves on the frontline of the struggle against climate change, battling daily river erosion and living under the constant threat of losing their homes and crops. Disconnected from the mainland, they also find themselves excluded from basic public services, banking and commerce. During the monsoon season, it is often not safe for people to travel to the mainland to avail essential services.

a2i, the flagship digital transformation programme of the Bangladesh Government with support from UNDP, set out to transform the way public services are delivered to these communities.

Housed within the Prime Minister’s Office, and in collaboration with the Cabinet Office and all line ministries, a2i set up one-stop shops known as Digital Centres in all +4,500 union councils. The Digital Centres were jointly launched by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, from Char Kukri Mukri itself.

Micro-entrepreneurs, typically high-school graduates from the local community, assist people at the Digital Centres to access digital government services. Since they do not receive any salaries from the government, they charge a small fee for each service. The services themselves come from multiple ministries and agencies such as land, passports, education, and social welfare. The Digital Centre entrepreneurs also bring in private sector services such as mobile money and agent banking that have market demand in their location.

The concept and scale of the Digital Centres across Bangladesh disrupted all the norms traditionally associated with government and bureaucracy. From decentralizing the work, to bypassing the established hierarchy, to empowering local administrators, to convincing two prime ministers to launch the initiative to garner the political capital and publicity crucial to success; it took a small but dedicated team that had the weight of the Prime Minister’s Office behind it – and serendipity.

Whether it’s providing assistance to secure social safety net payments, apply for passports, engage in e-commerce, or make the most of mobile money, the Digital Centres have transformed the way people – especially the poor living in remote, rural areas – look at and access services.

And the numbers speak for themselves:

  •  +9,000 micro-entrepreneurs have delivered more than 700 million services to over 60 million Bangladeshis since 2010.
  • Aggregated, citizens of Bangladesh have saved more than $16 billion, nearly 12 billion workdays, and 7.5 billion visits in the last decade due to the more efficient delivery of public services alone.

All this means that the broader socio-economic condition of these remote communities is being developed. People can access vital services when they need them, quickly, reliably and sustainably, enhancing their resilience to shocks and enabling them to take advantage of opportunities to improve their lives.

Ritu’s story is an excellent example demonstrating the daily impact of Digital Centres in remote communities.

On her 16th birthday, Ritu got a sewing machine as a birthday gift from her aunt. She was filled with joy and excitement about the possibility of realizing her dream of becoming a fashion designer and supporting her family. She worked day and night to create the perfect dress. Finally, when it was ready, Ritu and her mom undertook the long, perilous journey to the nearest bazaar on the mainland by boat. Unfortunately, the customers either did not appreciate the craftsmanship or couldn’t afford to pay a fair price. The following weekend, Ritu and her mom tried again traveling to popular marketplaces in other towns. While some traders saw how much the dress was worth, the prices they offered wouldn’t even cover the cost of materials let alone the value of Ritu’s skill and labour.

When Mita, the Digital Centre entrepreneur from Ritu’s village in Char Kukri Mukri heard about it, she snapped a picture of the dress and uploaded an ad on ekShop – an online e-commerce aggregator that combines the physical network of the Digital Centres with all major e-commerce marketplaces in Bangladesh. The ad for Ritu’s dress popped up on all popular sites and another young woman in the capital city of Dhaka bought it.

This is not just the story of Ritu. This is the story of millions of marginalized rural youth, artisans and farmers in Bangladesh unable to secure a fair price for their products as they lack the means to reach new, urban customers directly, bypassing multiple layers of traditional, high-cost intermediaries.

The advent of the Digital Centres has not only improved equity in delivering public services, but also created a sustainable model for access to markets. Doubling as banking agents, it has also enabled access to affordable finance, which is one of the critical constraints to the growth of CMSMEs in Bangladesh. Furthermore, Digital Centre entrepreneurs like Mita also assist in opening virtual shops, connecting and negotiating cheaper prices with logistics partners, as well as receiving and making payments digitally.

As part of its commitment to the EDISON Alliance’s 1 Billion Lives Challenge, the Bangladesh government will connect more than 5,000 rural and urban local government institution-based one-stop service shops i.e. the Digital Centres with fibre optic by 2022 and 200,000 public facilities (including over 100,000 schools and more than 18,000 health clinics) with fibre, 4G/5G, as well launch the country’s second satellite and go cashless by 2025.


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