Closing the divide with the humble phone

05 May 2008

Telecom Innovation of the Year
1. CellBazaar, Grameenphone, Bangladesh
2. mChek, Bharti Airtel, India
3. Recall, Idea Cellular, India
Last year's winner: not awarded

Owners: Telenor (62%), Grameen Telecom (38%)

Business scope: Voice and data cellular services (prepaid and postpaid), consumer and enterprise solutions, youth lifestyle portal (Djuice)

Financial (2007): Revenue: NOK 4.62b ($930m), up 7%. Operating profit: 1.24b ($248m), down 33% (Source: Telenor annual report)

For all the fuss over HSPA and mobile internet as the future of cellular data, developing markets face a different reality. Mobile outsells landlines exponentially, but it's mostly a 2.5G play, and SMS remains the non-voice service of choice. But that doesn't mean users have to be limited to just sending messages back and forth.

Bangladesh cellco Grameenphone figured that out years ago, and has been looking at different ways to leverage the power of SMS. Its latest effort is CellBazaar, which resembles an SMS-powered version of eBay.

CellBazaar targets a perennial problem in developing countries: market access.

Bad road conditions and poor communications make it difficult for farmers in rural areas to get to the nearest market, which is the only way to get actual market information, says Syed Yamin Bahkt, Grameenphone spokesperson.

'The result is that isolated and uninformed farmers and traders have little bargaining power, which is exploited by middlemen,' he said.

CellBazaar provides a way to access market info and bypass middlemen by going direct to the buyer.

The paradigm is as simple as it is effective: if you need to buy a motorcycle, hire a tutor or get a decent price on produce, send an SMS with the appropriate keyword, and get back an SMS with relevant results and contact details of the seller. You can also post items for sale via SMS.

'If I want to buy a car, I would type 'car' in an SMS, send it to short code, and get back a list of cars for sale,' says Bahkt. 'If I typed 'Toyota', I'd only get Toyota cars. Or if I wanted to hire a tutor, the service would locate tutors nearest to my cell-ID location.'

The CellBazaar products and services database is fortified by the classified sections of the country's top daily Bangla and English newspapers.

Results to date: an average of 40,000 hits a day from buyers and sellers, and 250 new posts a day. The service works with both SMS and WAP, but the former accounts for most of its traffic.

Judges' citation

'Grameenphone's CellBazaar is an Asian-designed and built innovation that has narrowed the digital divide. The low-cost enables buyers and sellers in developing economies to trade goods from their mobile phones.'

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