In a country where less than a quarter of the population uses the internet and where access is both slow and expensive, Bangladesh's 'Info Ladies' offer a series of vital services to people living in remote, rural parts of the country. Launched by local NGO Dnet in 2008, the Info Ladies programme offers women the opportunity to purchase a franchise by taking out a loan of about US $ 650 which they use to buy essential equipment - a laptop, a mobile phone, a digital camera and a bicycle. Once they have been trained for three months in using all these effectively they fan out across some of the most remote parts of the country to offer villagers anything from Skype calls to distant relatives and help with filling out online forms to pregnancy tests and farming advice. Bangladesh has a huge diaspora, mainly migrant labourers, with 3 and 2 million living in living and working in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan respectively. Many of these manual labourers come from some of the poorest parts of the country, sending most of their earnings back to their families, and often find it hard to stay in touch with families back home who don't have access to the internet and mobile telephones. Info ladies have become a vital link for many of these families, offering Skype sessions for around US $ 3 per hour, a fortune for many villagers but something they are prepared to save up for and spend to connect with their loved ones.
But while Skype is the most popular of the services they offer, local farmers also benefit from online information the Info Ladies can access on their behalf, students get help with online applications and forms, people can transfer money online and with the digital cameras they carry with them, the ladies often get recruited to take pictures of brides before their weddings and of other family gatherings. In highly conservative rural Bangladesh, the roaming Info Ladies often act as agony aunts and educators among young women who are often too shy to ask embarrassing questions in their own community and value the professional opinion and knowledge of the regular visitors.
The Info Ladies project is a tool of empowerment on a number of levels in some of the most underdeveloped parts of Bangladesh. The farmers improve their farming with additional information available through the internet while villagers are able to access information which the health services simply don't deliver to remote areas. Over and above the benefit to the Info Ladies' clients, however, the scheme has also helped to empower the bicycle riding harbingers of modernity themselves. With an potential income of around US $ 180 per month, they make significantly more than an average farmer, on around $ 80. Though they've come up against strong resistance in the most conservative parts of the country where it is deemed inappropriate for women to be out on the road and to ride bicycles, The project has so far given around 60 young women the chance to work for themselves and make their mark on their communities.