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Monday, December 13, 2010

A story on how mobile phones has changed the lives of Bhutanese Farmers

Looking through his thick lenses around the busy Saturday market, Birkha Bahadur, 49, signals a vendor at the next row settling back on his tattered stool, “The man was supposed to come by 12 noon and collect the meat but hasn’t showed up.”

Birkha Bahadur occupies a small space in the Centenary Farmers’ Market. He brings mutton from Tsirang and sells it to buyers in Thimphu. He fixes the deal through his mobile phone when the sheep is slaughtered back in Tsirang.

Asked on how mobile phones have changed his business, he said the little device has helped him to sell meat faster and cut down on extra costs and time. He does not have to go around selling, instead he has now saved the number of the clients on his mobile and inform them.

Bhutan’s move from having no mobile phones to a growth in mobile subscribers in 2008 was close to 100%. The technology has been the biggest boon in the microfinance sector and transformed rural society.

Although Bhutan’s mobile banking system is not fully fledged compared to other countries, mobiles have compensated for insufficient infrastructure such as no roads, telephone and post offices making communication easy helping in expanding market efficiency and market behavior.

And service providers are willing to collaborate.

“Bank can provide banking facility and we can provide access,” said Thinley Dorji, the managing director of Bhutan Telecom. He added that the mobile facility takes off better in remote areas. He said there is a need to promote public awareness and educate the farmers and how to make the best use of the facility.

Currently, Bhutan has around 300,000 mobile users and around one-third of the users are from rural areas.

Bhutan National Bank (BNB) launched mobile banking system in March making banking possible throughout the country. BNB tied up with B-Mobile and Tashi Cell. Balance inquiry, transaction details, money transfer and bill payments is at your finger tips.

The service is faster, cheaper and safer way to transfer money than the alternatives, including handing an envelope of cash to a bus driver.

The Opposition Leader, Tshering Tobgay, wrote it in his blog: “Almost half our population, and mostly farmers, now carry cell phones. So mobile banking should now be possible throughout the country. And our farmers should finally find it worthwhile to open bank accounts.”

With rural mobile phone use for business, farmers can now save money and have safe banking facility.

All this have direct impact on economic growth: an extra 10 phones per 100 people in a typical developing country boosts GDP growth by 0.8 percentage points, according to the World Bank. More than 4bn handsets are now in use worldwide, three-quarters of them in the developing world.

A report from the Ministry of Agriculture, states better marketing facilities have resulted in an increase in food production which has raised income and improved the livelihood of the population. Marketing has boomed after the portable device entered the scenario.

Tenzin Chophel, the communication officer of the Ministry of Agriculture told Business Bhutan that, “today every rural household owns a mobile and they can communicate through it with the agriculture administrators in their dzongkhag.”

Villagers in Dungkar, Lhuentse, a one-and-a-half hour walk away from the main road, now have the option to send a message when and how to collect the potatoes and also fix the deals with potential brokers before the yield.

Aum Zam, 58, a Kishuthara weaver in the Bumthang, looking proudly at her Nokia 1100 said, “Business has been going good for me, I get orders from my buyers on my mobile. Once the order is done, I inform and ask my customer to come and collect it.”

Sherab Gyelsten, a gewog administrator explains how the farmers in Tsirang have been using the mobile service to get farming tips. He said, “rather than wasting a day to visit the help center, the farmers can call and get the help.”

A study by the World Resource Institute found that as developing-world incomes rise, household spending on mobile phones grow faster than spending on electricity water or anything.

The Bhutan Telecom managing director said, “Banks should see it as an opportunity to reach out to new customers. Tie-ups between banks and operators will help support the rural customers and expand the scope.”

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