Dawn of a new era
Rahima Begum had a tough year in 2014. The 45-year old widow lost her only son in a road accident that year. All she had left was just a piece of land she inherited. Come November, the local chairman had his goons put a fence around Rahima’s land and with a sign declaring the land was for “property development”. By December, before the year was over Rahima Begum was a landless childless widow with nothing but a small shack to live in and a stack of needles and threads she inherited from her mother. She had nowhere to go or nothing to earn her bread from.
Kuddus Miah is a young entrepreneur of the village that all the youths look up to. Starting his business as a digital centre entrepreneur at the union, Kuddus has already made a name for himself as the ‘go-to’ person for all kinds of internet based services, such as filling government forms and online transactions.
Knowing Rahima’s amazing quilting talent, Kuddus made her an offer. Rahima would embroider and famed and traditional nokshi kanthas — two every month — and Kuddus would sell them through the online marketplace Bikroy. Rahima agreed, naturally.
The first three months were slow. Only two buyers were interested. One even cancelled because the delivery was taking too long. Being the strong woman she is, Rahima didn’t give up. Finally after six months, her first big order came from a boutique in Dhaka which had discovered her work at the online portal. Now, after 22 months of quilting and embroidery and not giving up on her dreams of being independent, the penniless, childless, landless widow of the little village earns more than Tk 22,000 per month. She has trained 5 more girls, renovated her home and is already in the process of retrieving her land from the grabbers.
Imagine if there were a million Rahimas across Bangladesh, who could earn a decent living from products they make by reaching out to people who give them a fair value. Internet alone can accomplish what policies, politics and traditional businesses have failed to do for years — empower the marginalised people and organizations by simply connecting them through e-commerce.
Bangladesh has more than 6 million SMEs, of which only 2% are currently trading online in some form.
The “awareness” problem
With a majority (66%) of the population still living in villages, their economic empowerment is of utmost importance without which urban migration will uncontrollably, resulting in complex social problems.
The solution is to take industry and business opportunity into rural areas and diversify beyond agriculture. The success of “Taobao villages” in China suggests that eCommerce can be a viable solution.
The important factors
It is important to note that “bringing people online” and handing them a digital storefront is not end in itself but merely a means which will succeed with the right combination of a number of other factors. People have to be shown opportunities for benefit, financial growth and convenience in the context of the prevailing culture and psyche. An ecosystem that takes care of multiple components, including, but not limited to, the following is imperative:
– Trust between buyers and sellers
– Reliable payment beyond COD
– Reliable logistical solution for ensuring delivery from and to every part of the country
– Credible ecommerce platforms for rural entrepreneurs for ensuring credibility for their products and maximum outreach into the market
The USAID and UNDP funded a2i programme has been doing just that. It has generated revenue of more than Tk 50 million from more than a 100 centres for ecommerce alone.
The new solution
In the unchartered rural areas of Bangladesh, mobile phone usage is seeing a new revolution. However, the age old cultural norms, language barriers, social practices and resistance of people to behavior change render it difficult for a pure ecommerce model to be successful
Hence, A2i has crafted an “assisted ecommerce” model and will include UDC Entrepreneurs, or Agents, as the facilitating parties in the entire transaction cycle.
OVERVIEW OF THE ECOSYSTEM PROCESS
Intervention 1: Bringing UDC Entrepreneurs as the ecommerce “literacy and transaction process assistants”
Intervention 2: Reducing Cash on Delivery (COD) through ESCROW and ensuring last mile delivery through connecting logistics partners (biggest being Bangladesh Post Office)
Picture: All the interventions of a2i system in a nutshell
With all these factors taken care of, rural e-commerce can be a significant tool for poverty reduction and economic growth in rural areas creating market access and financial inclusion through digital entrepreneurship.