Mobile Money Asia

Mobile Money Asia

This blog has been established to share thoughts on the development of mobile money globally, but more specifically in Asia. Over the past six years contributors to the blog have been instrumental in mobile money in Cambodia, the Pacific, Bangladesh, Indonesia and other Asian markets. They have worked in payments companies, start-ups and development organisations, thus providing a unique insight to how mobile money is developing in this region. Thoughts and blogs are those of the authors.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Is it OK to make a profit serving the extreme poor?

De-regulated Britain has a nasty reputation for taxing poverty - the poor pay much more for electricity, get charged crippling interest rates, and get ripped off when they buy things (*see example below); it's been called a 'poverty premium'. It seems repellent but it makes commercial sense and it's all quite legal. The argument for allowing this predatory behaviour is that this is the only way for companies to serve this demographic profitably; the problems stem from the way companies market to people whose maths isn't good enough to work out they're being fleeced, or who feel they have no choices.

The next generation of Ethiopia's farmers
Those of us working in the mobile for development (M4D) sector in poorer parts of the world realise we have to grapple with the same basic issue: serving poor people is risky and if it doesn't cover its costs it won't happen once donor support is withdrawn. But if companies are allowed to profit unsupervised from providing services to quite naive consumers then you risk questionable business practices. But can the economics ever support such services in the long run?

I'm working on an innovative Ethiopian mobile voucher scheme, and it seems perfectly logical to us to hope that lending money to farmers will allow them to buy fertiliser to grow a bigger crop to sell for more money to reinvest in a better future. This virtuous cycle depends however on a few things working out: it needs to rain, the fertiliser needs to make a bigger harvest, the price of corn needs to stay up despite there being more of it, the money farmers earn needs to support a loan interest rate that is more than the lender's wholesale borrowing rate, and the farmer needs to repay the loan.

New and old ways of distributing agri-inputs
But what if I imagine adding another service on top, that might make the farmer an extra $20 on top of all this - if I charge less than $20 for this imaginary new service but still make a profit, then surely everyone's a winner? This is a poverty premium question: what if I have something that I am pretty sure farmers will benefit financially from, but which I need to provide on a commercial basis - what are the limits to the economics of a service that targets poor farmers in Africa and Asia with a useful value-add which needs to make a profit?

In Ethiopia, where farmers can get agricultural advice for free on their phones, the Agricultural Transformation Agency (ATA) [note: I advise them but not about this agri advice service] has had an amazing take-up, getting over half a million registered users in less than 6 months and over 3.5 million calls. But nobody can run a free service forever unless there's some profitable model underlying it. In this article I'm going to ask when it's fair to make a profit, and see if there are price points at which it's possible to improve lives and make money, and how to charge those prices.

Let's look again at a previous blog post where I compared this successful Ethiopian agri info service with a similar one in Mali. Orange Sènèkèla is a value added mobile telecom agricultural service (agri VAS) priced at a discounted $0.10 a minute whose call centre had reached 'few users' and whose USSD service 'had not acquired any customers at the time' of GSMA's own baseline survey. Yet Sènèkèla provides accurate market pricing data that is known to be a pain point for farmers in Mali, so it seems strange that people aren't calling it. Although 95% of focus group respondents found Sènèkèla to be too expensive, surely a farmer selling $500 of produce should want to spend $0.30 on a three minute call that might make an extra few $; but apparently not.

Cash accounting at the cooperative
Clearly price is part of the problem given that the free service in Ethiopia has a massive call volume. Let's make a very unscientific guess at a fair price: just 5% of the focus group in Mali presumably didn't think Sènèkèla was too expensive, meaning that the price is way out right now; if we flipped these numbers and asked what price you'd have to drop to until just 5% of farmers said it was too expensive, then perhaps $0.03 would work. The interesting thing about the Ethiopian service is that the 500k registered users is about 5% of the total farmers in the target area - having worked in mobile services for over 20 years I regard 5% as being close to saturation of a target mobile consumer base. My gut feel therefore is that a price between zero and $0.03 would probably work for this demographic, whose income let's not forget is typically less than $1 a day if earning an agricultural wage, i.e. employed and paid regularly, rather than the even more precarious income of a small holder farmer who gets nothing if the rains fail. In Ethiopia, there were 1.63 million calls to the service 16 Sep - 2 Dec 2014, an average of 21,158 a day. If ATA had charged $0.03 for this service the income would have been $230,000 annualised.

What does it cost to build one of these services? GSMA granted $400k to each of its four mFarmer Initiative winners to 'develop and scale commercially viable' Agri VAS 'for an implementation period of 2 years', so let's call it $200k a year. Round numbers it seems that the economics might support a profitable Agri VAS so long as farmers call it in huge numbers and it's $0.01 a minute to call and calls last just 3 minutes.

This analysis is very superficial - a much bigger problem about pricing this kind of service is that as a poor consumer you need to try before you buy. If the service I call doesn't tell me anything I don't know, it's a waste of my time and money, but I don't know this before I call. Sènèkèla costs me $0.10 a minute even if I hear exactly what my neighbour told me just the day before. This implies that the Ethiopian service is a success because farmers lose just a few minutes of their time but no money to call it up;  they call it back again because they find it useful. This leads me to the conclusion that offering free services and then adding paid value added services on top is a viable approach.

But how much can I charge for this secondary value-added service? If the farmers trust the service, and know it's valuable, what's the right price point? Can I genuinely make a decent profit out of it, once the farmers trust the service I provide? If so, then we can develop economic models that overcome the 'poverty premium'.

Let's calibrate this by looking at farmer incomes. In Ethiopia, a farmer with 1 hectare of land may spend $100-150 on inputs (seeds, fertiliser and chemicals). This might yield a harvest of 25 quintals of teff which he can sell for 1,600 Birr per quintal, or $2,000 for the whole crop. Sure, some of this crop is for the family's own consumption, but a 1% increase in the yield is "worth" $20. If the farmer was also an economist, he'd be willing to spend $19 on value added services so long as he could be sure it would boost his yield by 1%. Even if we discount this by 90%, he should still be willing to spend $2 for every 1% increase in yield. That's three hours of phone calls to the agricultural advice line (at our presumed $0.03/three minute call rate).

What I learned from this exercise is:
  1. There's a chicken-and-egg problem with value added services: if you don't know it's worth calling, you wont call it. Free services overcome this problem
  2. A free service plus a paid value-added service looks like it ought to be sustainable if together they actually add value to people's lives
  3. Even at this subsistence end of the food chain, you can provide services at a profit to the poorest people. There is a win-win to be found in providing basic mobile phone value added services to the poorest

* Poverty premium example
UK, weekly payment plan for washing machine, Dec 2014

Brightpoint total payable Hoover washing machineBHS Direct prive for Hoover washing machine
Total payable to BrightHouse (image: right) if I pay £11 per week for the Hoover DYN 10166P8 washing machine is £1,716. If I buy today from BHS (image: below) it's £444.

I pay more to BrightHouse in each of three whole years than I pay to BHS just once by buying now.

Malcolm Vernon is a consultant with Social Mobile Ventures Ltd, a company that advises on mobile for development in Asia and Africa. You can contact him at

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Are mobile operators institutionally incapable of scaling services that are meant to support the poor?

The other day in Addis Ababa I saw some astonishing numbers: since 1st July 2014 there have been over 3 million calls to agricultural value-added service Semanya Haya Simint in Ethiopia. Big numbers for sure, but for how long have Ethiopian smallholder farmers been using this service? It would take years to build a service volume like that, right?
Wrong; the service launched on 1st July this year. in just 150 days from service launch there have been three million calls to a hotline that gives information about on cereal, horticulture, and pulse/oil seed crops, as well as a wide range of agriculture-related activities.
If you've been to Ethiopia recently, you'll have grappled with a monopoly called Ethio Telecom that provides one of the most frustrating mobile phone services on Earth. Coverage is patchy; a "3G SIM", whatever that is, was unobtainable for much of Feb-June this year. To get mobile data these days you need to manually create an Access Point, which is buried deep in your Android settings; I'm not even sure I could find them on an iPhone. Even with your Access Point set up (your APN is, and the MCC is 636, in case you're wondering), data is fitful. The SIM I bought at the official Ethio Telecom store belonged to a number range that hadn't been provisioned on the network yet. When will my SIM work?, I asked. Maybe in a fortnight, came the unconcerned reply.
Even if the mobile phone network is a bit patchy, farmers really do have phones
Of course, the farmers in Ethiopia aren't using smartphones to call 8028 (which is what Semanya Haya Simint means), they're using basic phones whose selling point is they're dustproof and go a week without recharging. But despite the shortcomings of Ethio Telecom, they're calling 8028 in droves. There are over 530,000 registered users. That's a customer acquisition rate of 3,500 farmers per day, on average. There are more registered users of the 8028 service than there are people in any city in Ethiopia apart from Addis.
One of the reasons I was struck by the sheer size of this Ethiopian service is that I'd recently looked at the four mAgri value added services (VAS) that each received of $400,000 grants through GSMA's mAgri mFarmer initiative. The one that had caught my eye was Sènèkèla in Mali, because the GSMA's report showed that Sènèkèla has done a great job of gathering a source of farmer information that addressed a specific problem: farm gate prices are volatile and so farmers can benefit greatly from knowing that the price at a particular place is higher than somewhere else. You can read the full report on GSMA's website and at their partner RONGEAD's site, but in brief the International Institute for Communication and Development (IICD) and RONGEAD created a network of agents to collect market price information from within 5km of markets in the main towns and the surrounding areas then develop market price advisories using some local analysis and some forecasting done in France.
Here is another way farmers can get information about best practice
When farmers in Mali use the service they either get to speak to a call centre staffed by experts, or get market prices by USSD. And how has this service fared? The GSMA is coy about the results, but their own data states that the potential market is 1.1 million farmers, with 86,000 as the target for the funding period. Although the data isn't clearly presented, GSMA states that the "% of target market reached" is 0.01%. If this refers to the 86,000 figure, then that's 8.6 farmers - let's round it up to nine. And if it's the 1.1 million farmers, it's still only 110 farmers. This data was at March 2014, and Mali is a poor country and is suffering from political instability. But it's hard to dress these numbers up as anything other than disappointing.
We should look for systemic problems that may explain the difference between the results in Mali and those in Ethiopia. Ethiopia is politically stable, and has a bigger population - something like 75% of Ethiopia's 94 million people live on the land, while Mali's population is just 15 million. Wealth and literacy indicators are similar: Mali's population hovers around 16% female and 33% male literacy (2003 UN data), while Ethiopia is slightly ahead at 25% female, 40% male literacy (2011 data from Save the Children); GDP per capita seems to be $715 Mali vs $500 for Ethiopia. We can also state that Mali's phone network would have to be truly awful to be worse than that of Ethiopia.
Perhaps the quality of the data being provided makes a difference? Perhaps it is because the people in Mali place greater reliance on personal connections and trust oral information from their peers more than some remote call centre of experts who perhaps only speak French, while Mali has 20 common languages? These aspects are hard to measure, and may be valid reasons, but Ethiopia too has a plethora of incompatible languages and scripts - my office colleagues who speak Amharic can't read what the Tigrayans write, even though it's in the same script; and the Oromffiya have transliterated their language into the Latin script, although the words are similar to Amharic.
What we need is some hard data to unpick what's going on. Fortunately the GSMA has run a market study in Mali to try to figure out the reasons for the low take-up, and the results are both profoundly sad and utterly predictable: "95% found the service too expensive at 10 cents/ minute". OK, so now we know that the service depended on Orange Mali making some money out of it. And you need to know that the Ethiopian service is free to call.
Shall we spend our last 30 cents on a phone call just now?
How expensive is Sènèkèla? Or to put it another way, what is a rational price that would justify a farmer calling Sènèkèla, so he could decide which way to point his cart when he heads to market after the harvest? Farm workers in Ethiopia may get 19 Birr per day, which is just under 1 USD. Let's look again at the per capita GDP: average yearly income per person in West Africa is $309, so allowing for days off and to keep the maths simple, a farmer in Mali might think 1 USD is the value of a day's work. For a household living off the land, 3 USD is a significant amount of money. And how long is a call to the service - three minutes? We know that the service costs 50 FCFA (0.10 USD) per minute to access in the Koulikoro region of Mali, which is less than half the usual network rate (108 FCFA/0.21 USD per minute). So to call the service might cost 0.3 USD for a three minute call, or in the Sikasso region it's XOF 75 (USD 0.16) per message over the USSD channel. For a household for which $3 is a lot, then 0.3 USD is a hell of a lot to pay to get information that might not tell you anything you didn't already know from your neighbour - that prices are down, and that it's going to be a struggle to feed the family over the planting season.
Given these price points, why would Orange Mali want to charge farmers to call the service? Using GSMA's own data, I calculated that if 10,000 farmers called Sènèkèla, then 1,800 of them would be "repeat users" and the call volume would be 55,000 calls, yielding about $16,500 in VAS revenue to Orange Mali. Quite by coincidence, the $400k grant over two years is $16.5k a month.
Always read the small print: "Text-based information on Internet phones only"
What does this tell us? Let me tell you a story from 2000-1, the early years of the boom. My company had developed the first mobile train information service in the UK, and we’d done it by raising venture capital and buying hardware and building a WAP service, that people could call (dial-up mobile internet access!) and get their train times on a basic black-and-white WAP browser. It was very cool; not terribly valuable, but interesting, and one of the few genuinely useful services on a clunky mobile internet phone. I remember taking this to O2, and suggesting they link up to it on their WAP portal (it was called “Genie” and had been part of the infamous “Surf the Net. Surf the BT Cellnet” advert that almost ruined the early market for mobile internet services in the UK.) Genie’s response to me was astonishing. They said, “Yes, we’ll connect to your service – for £20,000 a month”. They wanted me to give them £20k a month, and they'd charge their customers for accessing a service that was mildly useful. I was giving them something for nothing, that had cost us a fortune to develop, that nobody had paid us to build, that the rail companies weren't going to promote, and instead of thanking us for helping to drive up their ARPU and give some credibility back to their internet services, they wanted me to pay £20k - a month.
Perhaps Orange Mali needs to show an income stream in order to satisfy the terms of their grant; perhaps they thought it would scale and make them some proper money. Perhaps they don't care; perhaps they didn't do the maths; maybe Mali is different. However, the facts are there: over half a million Ethiopian farmers have called 8028 more than once, many have called multiple times. It's free today, it may not be free tomorrow; and it's 100% dependent on Ethio Telecom. But Sènèkèla in Mali has a long way to go before it deserves the name "Value-Added Service", and 95% of its users say it's too expensive to call. Still, 95% of Sènèkèla's users was less than 100 farmers ... I really hope this changes, that Orange Mali has found a way since March 2014 to drive farmers to use and value the service, to exploit the data that Orange has spent so much energy gathering, and to use it to increase the income they get from farming in a really tough climate.
Why do mobile operators think like this? 'Bill the customer', 'Information is valuable', 'Callers must pay'. Why not offer the service free for a year while you iron out the kinks, while you figure out what is the info that farmers really want to hear, and what can be dropped. Sènèkèla has invested in a great rural farming outputs price data bank whose analysis can be used for decades to help stabilise the rural economy, helping to drive up household incomes, which in turn will mobilise savings, which provides a platform on which to develop financial literacy, financial inclusion, tax revenues and the rest. Why would you risk killing all this off by charging people 10% of a days wages to call it?
Malcolm Vernon is a consultant with Social Mobile Ventures Ltd, a company that advises on mobile for development in Asia and Africa. You can contact him at

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Bangladesh Pioneering Unique Models & Innovations for Agent Networks

Earlier this year, the Helix Institute of Digital Finance conducted a nationally representative survey of 2,800 mobile money agents in Bangladesh, coupled with qualitative interviews across the country. The 2014 Bangladesh Country Report provides insights into some of the unique models and innovative techniques players in this country have designed to develop an agent network of more than 80,000 agents in under four years.
Unique Leadership in the Market: No Telecoms
The report finds that bKash—a third party provider majority owned by BRAC Bank Ltd, managed by Money in Motion LLC with equity investments from The International Finance Corporation (IFC) and the Gates Foundation—dominates the digital financial services space with 50% of the agents offering their services.  They are followed by the Dutch Bangla Bank Ltd. (DBBL—28%), United Commercial Bank Ltd. (UCash- 14%) and Islami Bank Bangladesh Ltd. (mCash – 6%).  

Beyond the burgeoning competitive landscape in Bangladesh, it is intriguing that none of the above players are telecoms.  Thus far we have seen the majority of the success in the digital finance space lead by telecoms who have large marketing budgets, national networks of retailors already serving them, and usually tens of millions of customers they can entice to register for digital finance.  In Bangladesh the regulation stipulates that telecoms are not allowed to brand their own digital finance services, which has given the opportunity to banks and third party providers like bKash.  This is strong evidence that players other than telecoms can scale agent networks in digital finance.

Distinctive Agency Demographics: Non-dedicated and Male
The different types of institutions leading market growth in Bangladesh are also making distinctive decisions about the demographics of their agent network.   In Bangladesh almost all agents (96%) have pre-existing, parallel businesses in addition to the digital finance service they provide (they are “non- dedicated” to the DFS business). As the below chart shows, this is very different to the leading DFS markets in East Africa, where many more agents are completely dedicated to the DFS business.  Generally, these types of agents can only exist in markets where transactions per day and therefore profits are relatively high, which therefore sustain the entire business.  Hence we might see a move towards more dedicated professional agents, if profits increase in Bangladesh in the future.  Another difference worth highlighting, is that while the majority of agents across East Africa are female, in Bangladesh 100% are male.  More research will have to be done to uncover both the drivers and the implications for customer uptake and usage of this gender difference.

Different Business Model Viability: Low Transactions and Profits
Median monthly profitability ($51) as compared to the leading East African Countries is low, and is a result of low transactions per day for agents.  However, 96% of agents are profitable, driven by very low median operational costs. When asked what the biggest barrier is to conducing more transactions, agents most commonly cited there are too many other agents competing for business, which is often an indication that focus must be shifted towards acquiring more customers, and encouraging them to transact more often.  
Innovation: Liquidity Management
Bangladeshi service providers have created an innovative system to tackle the prevalent issue of liquidity management.  Most agents have their cash and electronic float delivered to them at their outlets, mainly by a ‘runner’ who is an employee of master agent (referred to locally as a distributor or aggregator).  As a result, the frequency of rebalancing (both cash deposits and withdrawals) is higher in Bangladesh than in East Africa. In Kenya, for example, agents do a median of just four cash deposits and three cash withdrawals per month as compared to a median of 12 cash deposits and ten withdrawals in Bangladesh.  As a result, Bangladeshi agents report denying a median of zero transactions daily due to lack of liquidity, in comparison, Tanzanian agents deny a median of five transactions each day, which is equal to 14% of their median daily transactions.

Summary: The Market View
Bangladesh is showing impressive results, and is finding unique ways of achieving them given the different operating environment there compared to those of the pioneers in East Africa.  There are definitely some challenges ahead in terms of increasing transactions and therefore profits at the agent level.  However, it is also important to note that with a liquidity management system that rebalances on demand, and agent demographics where almost everyone has a core business operating in parallel to the digital finance services they are providing, this might be much less important than it is in East Africa.  Further, many transactions in Bangladesh are done over the counter (OTC) and therefore only partially captured by the above statistics.  While this means the transactions and profits might be higher in Bangladesh this OTC system usually does not involve the required KYC verification, is not permitted, and therefore represents much more of a risk to the growth and functionality of the system than profits.  This topic will be discussed in future blogs.

- Maha Khan & Mike McCaffrey

Mike McCaffrey is a Principle Consultant – Strategic Operations for Digital Finance at MicroSave, and Maha Khan is a Senior Research Manager - Digital Financial Insights at MicroSave. Both Maha and Mike’s work at MicroSave is focused around The Helix Institute of Digital Finance. Founded in November 2013 as a partnership between MicroSave, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), and the UN Capital Development Fun (UNCDF)The Helix Institute of Digital Finance provides world-class training and cutting-edge  data to digital finance practitioners. For more information visit our website

Read The Helix Institute’s Bangladesh report in full here:' Agent Network Accelerator Survey: Bangladesh Country Report 2014'
Note: The blog was originally posted at Mobile Money Asia has agreed to cross promote the blog at the request of the authors. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The big push to launch G2P e-money payments in Indonesia

This week the Indonesian government launched one of its biggest ever pushes towards financial inclusion and the delivery of government services using e-money. The new government has launched a suite on new cards for poor citizens that will give access to health services, education and cash subsidies.
Of most interest to those seeking greater financial inclusion is an ambitious program to distribute cash subsidies to 1 million poor households via e-money. Over the coming months, 1 million households will receive a new SIM card from one of the three biggest telcos in Indonesia (XL, Indosat and Telkomsel) and a linked electronic money account provided by Bank Mandiri. The SIM card and e-money account will come pre-registered with information provided by TNP2K’s Universal Database (BDT). Recipients can then use their phones to receive a One Time Password redeemable at the Post Office, who will act as an agent for Bank Mandiri's e-cash product. 

While the Post Office has been used for social transfer disbursements in the past, this scheme represents a leap forward for financial inclusion because these e-money accounts (known as LKD, or Digital Financial Services) will also be accessible through mobile handsets, agents and ATMs. The program builds on a pilot of approximately 1800 Conditional Cash transfer recipients who received funds through bank-based e-money in October 2014.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Mobile Money in Myanmar: Significant Opportunity Ahead

The self-proclaimed “gold-rush” into Myanmar has generated significant buzz throughout international and investment circles. In what is one of the least developed markets in the world, Myanmar’s obstacles parallel its opportunity for growth, prosperity, and ultimately development for its 51.4 million citizens.
Myanmar is considered one of the last major frontier
economies given its population and untapped potential.
Though the country’s promise continues to unfold, it will need significant improvements in both legal and economic infrastructure before mobile money can be a reality that is utilized by its population.

To give some background, just 1% of the population was thought to be online three years ago. This grew to an impressive 13 million people online in 2013. These astonishing growth rates are expected to continue according to the Myanmar Computer Federation, which expects around half of the population, more than 25 million people, to be surfing the net in the next three years. Although internet connection is a different phenomenon (and, thus, completes a different life cycle) than that of mobile money, it is a decent proxy to understand infrastructure development and access to resources.

In terms of telecommunications, infrastructure and access to mobile phones is growing. Less than 10% of people have mobile phones, but this number (according to Ooredoo) could reach 97% within just 5 years. Myanmar has already seen more telecommunications infrastructure development, increased competition, and dropped prices in the past 4 months than it has seen in its entire history. Qatar’s mobile phone giant Ooredoo, which started services in Myanmar this past August, is now finally confronted with competition of Norway’s Telenor, which launched at the end of September this year. The state-owned Myanmar Posts and Telecommunications (MPT) even entered a joint operations agreement with Japanese telecom firm KDDI and conglomerate Sumitomo to remain competitive against competition.
The price of a SIM card has went from as high as
$2000 five years ago to $1.50 today.

What does all this mean for mobile money? Well to state the obvious, it won’t be happening right away. There is more infrastructure development needed by both the private and public sector, although that’s off to a good start with Ooredoo planning to spend $15 billion over its 15 year license period. Moreover, mobile penetration rates are still way too low. To follow successful parallels in other developing countries, Myanmar’s mobile penetration rate needs to reach a massive majority of the country.

Still, there should be significant interest from the major telecom providers, as well as startups given the presence of major tech companies in Yangon, to provide mobile money services. In fact, this is already starting with some start-ups accepting payment from phone credit.

Legal, political, and geographical challenges remain. These uncertainties will provide major headaches to anyone excited to create and expand a mobile money network. However, the mobile penetration growth rates, increasing competition, decreasing prices, and overall infrastructure development imply that Myanmar has one of the biggest opportunities in the region to successfully leapfrog into the mobile money sphere. If that’s the case, the Myanmar gold rush will be more than just a headline.

Saeid Kian works as Business Development Associate in Vientiane, Lao PDR for a consulting firm named Emerging Markets Consulting (EMC). EMC provides management and strategy consulting for private sector firms and development funds with headquarters in Phnom Penh and offices in Vientiane, Lao PDR and Yangon, Myanmar. This blog post does not represent the opinions of EMC and is solely the opinion of Saeid Kian.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Is mobile access a human right - but at what price?

How one mobile operator in Jordan is trying to bring mobile access to Asian women domestic workers denied a phone

If the conservatively-minded patriarch of a household in the Middle East will not let his own daughters use a mobile phone, then why would he let the foreign domestic servant use one?

There are tens of thousands of young Asian women living in households across the Middle East doing domestic work. Many suffer labour rights abuses, from having their passports confiscated to non-payment of wages, 20+ hour a day working & lack of time off. One constant, that every domestic worker wants, is access to a mobile phone - but I interviewed a woman who was taken to the desert in a mock execution just because she had hidden a mobile phone against the wishes of her employer.

One day we may see access to a mobile phone and the internet as a human right. Young women generally aspire to be connected to social networks, and to be free to chat and text with their friends and family. For domestic workers, far from home in a land of which they may understand little, being excluded from contacting anyone outside the house in which they work is likely to damage their well-being.

One mobile phone operator in the Middle East is trying to reconcile these two contrasting
Young women in Bangladesh receive
training on electrical goods found
in Middle Eastern households
needs. On the one hand the desire of conservative households that their domestic worker should be kept away from inappropriate social contact, and on the other hand the desire of these same workers to maintain links with home and seek the comfort online of other women from their homeland who use social networks to build a community in their adopted place of work, or to seek help.

Technology has played an important role in the recent upheavals the Middle East has witnessed. Mobile phones are credited with empowering people and of changing the established order. Even the most traditional minds will understand that mobile phones are an irrevocable part of society, and that teen and young adult lifestyles are deeply influenced by online mobile access.

What Zain Jordan has done is to build a product that combines very cheap international calls with a restriction on the number of local calls that can be made. For domestic use mobile subscribers can only call five Zain Jordan numbers. Internet access can be enabled - or disabled - at the time of subscription, by USSD.

Why is this call package significant? We need to look at it from both sides, that of the employer and that of the domestic. From the employer’s perspective it ensures that the domestic worker has a very limited range of local contacts restricted to a whitelist. In conservative households, this is important - they may believe that women under their roofs should not be associating with strangers, and most particularly with strange men. Without passing judgement on these beliefs, it is not inconsistent that the same conservative household may see the benefit of their domestic worker being able to call home, perhaps believing that this is the ‘right thing to do’, or that it may reduce tension in the house, or encourage better work.

African domestic workers call across balconies
to talk to each other in Lebanon, Beirut
The domestic worker’s perspective is very different. For them the 2.5 piaster per minute call charge (just 3.5 US$ cents) is very cheap compared to the normal discounted international tariff of 37 piasters (about 52 cents per minute). But much more significantly is the impact of being able to use a phone at all. If the restrictions placed on their domestic calling are what makes the difference between having access to a mobile phone and none at all, then this is a step-change for the domestic worker. Unpalatable as the restrictions sound, the net effect is possibly an infinite increase in access.

The way Zain Jordan has dealt with internet access is also interesting. During activation of the package, which is done using USSD, the subscriber can opt in or out of internet access. What this business logic enables is that whoever sets up the subscription sets the rules - this means that a Sri Lankan domestic worker who gets the subscription from a Zain salesperson at the Friday market, or a Filipino at church on Sunday, may opt in to internet access, but if the employer decides to get the subscription on behalf of the worker they can decide to turn internet access off.

The questions this tariff raises are intriguing; there’s clearly a trade-off here in order to balance conservative attitudes with the legitimate expectations and needs of overseas domestic worker, but what is an acceptable balance between restriction and permission? One way to look at this is to consider the following question: would the domestic worker who previously was not allowed a phone but under this tariff can now call home for 2.5 piasters a minute exchange this tariff for another one that charged 37 piasters to call home but had no restrictions on domestic calling? In other words, what price human rights?

Malcolm Vernon works on mobile for development in Africa and Asia. In addition to work with the International Labour Organisation that informed this article, Malcolm consults on mobile agriculture and digital financial services at