Ananya Raihan is ushering in an era of information-on-demand in the rural areas of Bangladesh by building a network of locally-run kiosks that offer villagers access to everything from up-to-date market prices for their rice, to health information and legal forms, all through a centralized, Bengali-language information clearinghouse.
Ananya’s idea is simple: Help marginalized rural communities participate in the social and economic mainstream by bringing people the information they need in a format they can use. Through D.Net, an organization he launched in 2001, Ananya is creating the infrastructure for a vast clearinghouse of Bengali-language information and resources that can be accessed through a variety of mediums—telephone, community radio, the internet, even printed materials—at locally-run village information centers, or Pallitathya Kendras (PKs). Because the network is designed around existing technologies, start-up costs for PKs are low, and revenues from the sale of information and related services can ultimately sustain them. And the emphasis on local ownership means a new business opportunity for the community.
As in many parts of the world, the lack of access to communication networks and other information systems in Bangladesh has ensured that rural populations remain on the periphery of mainstream development, unable to break out of endemic poverty and economic stagnation. More often than not villagers have to travel long distances and knock on many doors to obtain information pertaining to their occupations, education, employment opportunities, health care, the judicial system and almost everything to do with securing a better quality of life, both economically and socially.
Innumerable case studies demonstrate this. A farmer in Nilphamari has a problem with his potato crop and needs immediate help, but is unable to contact the block development official. Left with no other option, he goes to the agricultural chemicals shop and, after applying the wrong pesticides, loses his entire crop. A student in a village in remote Bagerhat seeks admission in Dhaka University. He has to make the journey to Dhaka several times—to find out when he can collect his admission form, to collect it, to submit it, to take his admission test, to check the admission lists and, finally, for admission. The stories go on.
The benefits of increased access to information are well established: Ready access to market prices for agricultural products, health and legal resources, education information and more can reduce the costs of daily life for rural people, increase productivity, and minimize the potential for exploitation. The challenge has been making information technology viable in rural areas that have low education levels and lack basic infrastructure. Grameen Communications, Bangladesh’s largest mobile phone company, first tried using communications technology to help rural farmers compete. Its vision, however was too narrow, targeting a specific group of people and employing a single channel of delivery—the internet—that was not widely available. The effort also suffered from language barriers. Limited content had been developed in Bengali, and the information’s use was thus limited. With high start-up and operational costs and low-usage rates, the project was unable to recover expenses and was finally turned into a computer-training program.
Ananya is tacking information access on a systemic level, addressing language, technology and marketability issues simultaneously. D.Net’s strategy is to collect and house Bengali-language information in a central on-line location, and employ pre-existing or low cost technologies to make it available at the local level.
Ananya started by gathering area-specific information that would be most relevant to the people using it. Based on the results of a research survey in rural communities, Ananya and his 18-member D.Net team began compiling content ranging from agricultural and market information to education, employment news, health care and legal resources. Because of the enormity of the task, D.Net also partnered with various government agencies and civil society organizations that develop information and databases but lack the means to disseminate them. The Department of Agriculture Extension, for example, allows D.Net to upload information it collects from 700 markets daily. Other partners include the Bangladesh Rice Research Institute, Ain O Shalish Kendra (Law and Redressal Center), and the Health Department, which is collaborating with D.Net to develop a country-wide health directory. Ananya is also tapping local expertise for content by engaging grassroots communities with in-depth knowledge of indigenous systems.
Once D.Net receives the information, it converts it to Bengali—the primary language in rural communities—for maximum accessibility. In order to streamline the process for such a large amount of material, D.Net had to resolve a number of technical issues, and succeeded in lobbying the government to register the script with the OCR to facilitate automation.
The next step is making the information available through village-level information kiosks, or PKs, that employ existing local technologies to access and distribute it on demand. For example, in places where internet is not available, D.Net will use compact discs, printed materials, or community radio to deliver a customized information package based on expected consumer needs. In other areas, land or mobile phones may be used to access D.Net’s information directly, and Ananya has negotiated with Grameen for mobile telephone service at the information kiosks at a reduced rate. D.Net will also offer a quick-access voice helpline, as well as a frequently asked question database.
Local communities are encouraged to manage and own the PKs. When villagers handle the operations themselves they gain a sense of ownership, develop leadership skills, and learn that information dissemination can be a viable business opportunity. In two of the four pilot project sites, the local groups are eager to invest and share the start-up costs. In other areas, Ananya has had to arrange for initial financing, to be repaid from the revenue generated. Although information will be free at the outset, users will eventually be charged a fee that will help sustain the operation. Compared to the costs in both time and money of either gathering information one’s self or going without, the price will be minimal. However, Ananya acknowledges, “information as a product is still not ready for sale.”
Additional revenues to support the PKs can be generated through ancillary services like fixed line and mobile phones, the helpline, email and use of the internet, printing, couriers, and other information and communication-based services. To sustain its information-gathering activities, D.Net offers Web and information services to outside organizations that lack on-line infrastructure. For example, D.Net hosts research reports from the Center for Policy Dialogue, a local think tank, and receives a share of revenues from sales. Other potential clients include Grameen and government departments like the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, and local civil society organizations that would welcome ready access to the kind of information D.Net collects.
Ananya cites his father, Dr. Idris Ali, and a teacher, Ukrainian scientist V.A Zabrodsky, as the architects of the philosophy that shaped his life and career. While his father taught him to build on his beliefs, his teacher instilled in him the principals of “systems thinking.” Inquisitive by nature, Ananya developed an interest in technology and its role in development through Anushandhitsyu Chakra (The Circle of Inquiry), a science club he joined in his student days. His sense of mission was already beginning to develop, and he took the initiative to translate Popular Science magazine into Bengali so that it might reach a wider audience.
Although on an engineering track as he headed towards college, Ananya dreamed of studying economics as a way to contribute to a society crippled by problems of productivity and resulting social injustices. He got his chance when his parents, concerned about his involvement in the student democracy movement, urged him to go abroad for higher studies. He agreed on the condition that he choose his field, and he secured a scholarship to take his masters in economics cybernetics—a blend of economics, business administration and information technology—at the Kharkov State University in Ukraine. He graduated with distinction.
After receiving a doctorate in economics from the National Academy of Science in the Ukraine in 1994, Ananya returned to join the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. A stint at the Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management and a position as coordinator of the e-readiness study undertaken for TechBangla 2000 gave him the opportunity to explore the synergy between technology and poverty alleviation, and to hone his skills in e-commerce and e-governance. From these experiences, D.Net was born. “This job proved to be the turning point in my life,” says Ananya.