On the 29th of April, I flew out of the country to Bangladesh. I had woken up at 2:30 am to catch a 6:00 am flight, only to find out that my flight has been delayed by four hours! I was wondering how to kill time for four hours, when I looked around to see a colleague of mine, Rohan Samarajiva from LIRNEasia, which isÂ a regional ICT policy and regulation think tank active across the Asia Pacific,Â was sitting at the same place waiting for the same flight.
Last year, we worked on a project with LIRNEasia, to understand service delivery and customer relationship management as experienced by Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) Micro Entrepreneurs (ME), in urban India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. We focused specifically on the sectors of Telecommunications, Electricity and Governance. The research we conducted was in nature, and was used to design interventions in the service delivery of the three sectors. Rohan and I were flying to Dhaka, to participate in a dissemination session organised by LIRNEasia.Â Dissemination is the means for LIRNEasia to share their knowledge and data assimilated with a group of decision makers to try and bring about change in the desired sector to benefit the end consumers.
On reaching Dhaka, Rohan and I shared a cab to the hotel. The brief cabÂ ride was interesting as Rohan had some really fascinating insights to share about Bangladesh. I looked out my window, and though I had visited Dhaka before and managed to speak Bangla, I could see the city had grown a little bit since the last time I was there. Dhaka is definitely progressing and so is Bangladesh or maybe it was the effect of the conversation in the cab.
The next day, the 30th of April 2014, the event kicked off at 2:30 pm. It started with a short welcome note by A. R. Khan, the Chief Commissioner of Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (BERC) in Dhaka.
This dissemination session, the knowledge gained in the sectors of Telecommunications and Electricity was being shared with the representatives and decision makers of the two sectors. The room had about 30 people, who were representatives of various telecom companies such as Rabi, Grameenphone and Airtel. The room majorly consisted of representatives from the electricity sector who were from the Dhaka Electricity Supply Company (DESCO) and Dhaka Power Distribution Company (DPDC). There were representatives and the Chief Commissioner of Bangladesh Energy Regulatory Commission (BERC) who was the Chief Guest at the event. Apart from the two sectors, there was media presence to capture the happenings of this event.
After the note by A. R. Khan, Rohan stepped up to talk about economics in the context of Telecommunications and Electricity. He spoke about competition as a necessity for consumer protection, and the need to achieve â€˜caveat emptorâ€™ meaning â€˜let the buyers be awareâ€™ of the various services available to them . In the telecom sector, there is more than one supplier; hence, consumers have various options to choose from depending on their requirements. In case of electricity sector, however, there is just one supplier responsible for providing electricity in the country, leaving consumers with just one option.
Following the presentation by Rohan, Roshanthi Lucas Gunaratne from LIRNEasia and Pial Islam from Pi Strategies Consulting presented their insights about the supply side in the telecom and electricity sector. They spoke about the various strategies adopted by the telecom and electricity sectors for better service delivery and customer relationship management. Roshanthi who focused on the telecom sector, shared a few interesting methodologies including, â€˜Social Network Analysisâ€™ which involves finding the valuable customers of a rival company to come up with special offers to lure customers. Pial spoke about the electricity sector and how Dhaka has had renewable energy for the past 10 years, and what are the various steps taken up by the supply side to serve the consumers better.
After getting a sense of the supply side in both sectors, it was around 4:00 pm and time for a short break where I found myself in conversation with Helani Galpaya, the CEO of LIRNEasia, Roshanthi, Pial and a representative from Rabi, which is a telecom company in Dhaka. The Rabi representative, was curious to know why LIRNEasia decided to have the dissemination for two drastically different sectors on the same date. To this Pial said, â€œWe see the future of the two sectors together; they can help each other by coming together.â€ The Rabi representative didnâ€™t look very convinced, so Pial stepped in again to indicate what lay in store â€œYou need to wait for the rest of the presentation, and you will know how that would be possible.â€
We started again at 4:15 pm with Helani presenting some of the quantitative data that was collected to understand the consumers perception and challenges in telecom and electricity in Dhaka. She also included numbers from the quantitative research conducted in India and Sri Lanka as well to give a more comparative data to the audience. After Helaniâ€™s presentation, Roshanthi and Pial came back to present the qualitative data and the design solutions. This was my moment of joy and pride, as this was these were the solutions that my team, comprising of Namrata Mehta, Charanya Sivakumar, Adithya Prakash, Farid Bhuyan, and I had designed based on data we collected through qualitative research. All of our work was up there being presented to key decision makers and other stakeholders in the telecom and electricity sector. I could feel all the hard work put into it paying off.
After all the presentations were done with, Rohan opened the floor to the audience, who up until now had been quiet spectators. A member from BERC came up to speak about his views about the entire presentation. He decided to talk in Bangla which meant that LIRNEasia would not understand a word of what he was about to say.
He began talking about how consumer complaint redressal was not the only challenge faced by the BoP MEs in the electricity sector, but drastic price hike was also a significant challenge. According to him, there are so many instances in Dhaka where consumers donâ€™t know who to complain to about price hikes, so they end up taking the electricity provider to court. But this in no way helps them resolve their problems. Bribery is also a huge challenge being faced by the consumers, and it is in fact the BoP who pays more than the other consumers. The BERC representative went on to talk about the limits of the some of the solutions presented, vis-Ã -vis larger issues, such as price hikes.
On hearing from the BERC representative, Rohan came up again to ask the one question that LIRNEasia wanted to seek an answer from the audience â€œDo you think there could be a cross fertilisation between the telecom and the electricity sector? Can they actually work together to benefit the target group in question?â€ this question sort of instigated the audience to speak up and ask questions. Once again the audience switched to speaking Bangla, leaving LIRNEasia lost and unable to follow the conversation. I started to take notes for them.
There were representatives from the electricity sector which is government owned, and then there were representatives from the telecom sector which is the privately owned. Both the sectors had different stand points with regards to the above question. The crux of the debate was about how government could actually collaborate with the private sector to help its consumers. The running statement from a lot of people present was that, â€œThere is mobile wallet through which consumers can pay their electricity bills.â€ According to them, this was an example of a solution they had already implemented. The LIRNEasia team, then, explained further possibilities of this kind of customer interaction. For example, the experience of power cuts in Dhaka, highlighted as a major challenge through our research, could be eased by intimating consumers about power cuts well in advance via SMS. Another member of the audience went on to talk about how DESCO and DPDC in Dhaka have the provision of putting up information regarding power cuts on their websites, the problem however, was that not many BoP MEs have access to the internet, which is why the SMS system would work better.
The discussion then shifted to the language of this proposed SMS. Abu Saeed, a Senior Policy Fellow with LIRNEasia mentioned that it has been a rule since 1971 that all information that goes out to the consumers in Bangladesh should be in Bangla. However, this rule has not been followed for the longest time now. A. R. Khan stepped in to say that the BERC was working a system to change the language to Bangla, but would take time to implement it
The entire debate soon shifted to solutions that can or cannot be implemented. This debate finally ended with an Airtel representative saying that, â€œWe need to have a data base of all the transactions being made with regards to all the utility services, there should be enough data available to us to be able to inform consumers.â€ There seemed to be some consensus among the audience.
A. R. Khan appreciated all the research done and the solutions that could be easily implemented into system. He wanted everybody present in the room to think of enhancing these solutions to benefit the supply side as well the consumers, in case of both telecom and electricity. This announced the end of the event, and Helani came up to give her thank you note. LIRNEasia seemed content with their event and its outcome. I towards the end of it, felt absolutely satisfied and pleased with my overall experience at the dissemination in Dhaka.