Fatema Begum makes a house call to a neighbour to set up a phone call to the woman’s son who works overseas.
Many families in Dhaluarchar, a flood prone part of Bangladesh, with an average per-capita income of $300, had migrant workers who worked in the Middle East or the ‘tiger’ countries of Singapore or Malaysia. They had all borrowed to pay for the trips, and saved most of what they earned to send money back home. The one luxury they indulged in was in making phone calls home. Few of the homes in Dhaluarchar had electricity. None had landlines, and the calls were made at pre-determined times to the nearest call centre, often far away. It was expensive and with the whole family wanting to talk, difficult to manage. The call centres were hardly the environment where a lonely man could talk intimately with his wife, or joke with his children, but they had no other options. When the line was bad, or the call had to be unexpectedly cancelled, the entire family would trudge back to the home and wait for the next call to be set up.
Fatema Begum was a smart, enterprising and driven woman in her mid 30s. Her husband Badruddin Zaman, was a farmer who had not migrated. Fatema was happy to have her husband with her, but lacking the income from overseas that other families had, needed a way to make ends meet. She saw this problem as an opportunity. The micro-credit scheme of the Grameen Bank was not cheap, but Fatema had done her homework and was convinced she could run a profitable business. She took out a loan for $400 on a payback system of $8 a week, bought a cell phone from the telecom company Grameen Phone, and set up a mobile call centre. While business was good, Fatema saw a better opportunity. She became a distributor for the mobile phone company and helped other women call from home and even helped women in nearby villages set up their own mobile phone businesses. Her clients were other women in Dhaluarchar, who preferred calling their man from the privacy of their home and at more convenient times; and other women entrepreneurs, many of whom combined local call centres with their existing businesses. Within two years, Fatema’s business began to earn her $700 a year, more than twice the national average. Today she is one of Dhaluarchar’s most prosperous residents.
Asked if her husband objected to her ‘free’ lifestyle where she sometimes went far from home to negotiate with men, she smiled. Obviously enjoying her independence, Fatema chuckled ‘He is not always happy, but he treats me well, and he certainly wouldn’t divorce me, I bring in the money!”
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