Calling for Change: The 3-2-1 Service in Bangladesh
A toll-free, automated hotline that delivers information on social topics in local languages on even the simplest of mobile phones.
Pitch us on your solution
Today, mobile phones are a Bangladeshi's portal to the world, far outpacing traditional media. However, the country also struggles with a huge digital gender gap that limits women's access to information via mobile. Viamo proposes to expand access to information and digital literacy for women by launching the 3-2-1 Service in Bangladesh.
The 3-2-1 Service creates toll-free hotlines to deliver lifesaving information in local languages. Once the Service launches in Bangladesh, it will provide women with easy access to a variety of content on topics such as livelihoods, digital literacy, healthcare, agriculture, and education.
At Viamo, we believe that information is power. We already partner with local Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) to provide the Service in 16 countries across Africa and Asia, gaining steady traction with 50M calls received in the last 12 months. The ripple effects of the 3-2-1 Service will expand access to information for all Bangladeshis.
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What is the problem you are solving?
The Bangladeshi mobile market represents one of the biggest untapped opportunities for economic and social inclusion in Asia. It is the ninth-largest in the world, with an estimated 90 million users today and growing at 3% per year (GSMA 2018). However, the country also has the third-largest mobile gender gap globally: 87% of men own mobile phones compared to only 53% of women (After Access 2017).
The 3-2-1 Service will tackle three major barriers to women’s mobile phone use in Bangladesh: literacy, lack of relevant content, and cost. 43% of women report reading/writing difficulties as a barrier, 27% report that mobile phones are not relevant to them and 18% report that phone credit is too expensive (GSMA 2018). However, women have even less access to alternative information channels: only 3.5% of households own a radio and 45% own a television (DHS Survey 2016).
By providing free, on-demand access to relevant topics for women, the 3-2-1 Service has the potential to save millions of lives in Bangladesh. For example, prevention information is key to improving Maternal and Child Health in the country, where 33% of children are malnourished and 38% of married women do not use contraceptives (WHO 2016).
Who are you serving?
We aim to reach the poorest half of the Bangladeshi population, specifically women who stand to benefit the most from increased access to information.
Our service is primed for success because it addresses the literacy and cost factors contributing to the mobile gender gap: it deploys voice-based technology, it is free to users, and it can be accessed on any phone.
We will address the third factor—mobile phone relevance—by designing and testing content directly with Bangladeshi women. Viamo takes a 4-step Social and Behavior Change Communications (SBCC) strategy to creating user-friendly and engaging content for the 3-2-1 Service.
Content Development: For each topic on the service (there are usually a few dozen) Viamo creates a Content Committee made of the local experts from governments, NGOs, civil society, etc. to draft a series of “key messages.”
Style Testing: Viamo will record the key messages into various formats and test them directly in communities.
Recording, pre testing and hosting of messages: Once styled with the winning combination of audio formats, the key messages are recorded in local languages and pre-tested for accuracy by conducting focus groups.
Outcome Measurement: When the content is live, Viamo monitors the service to identify and resolve bottlenecks.
What is your solution?
We propose to launch the 3-2-1 Service, a free-to-use, voice-based information service offered in partnership with mobile network operators (MNOs) in Bangladesh. Viamo currently manages the 3-2-1 Service in 16 countries worldwide, 5 of which are in South and Southeast Asia. Over the past eight years, 10 million vulnerable, low-income women and adolescent girls with access to a mobile phone have listened to key public service information on the 3-2-1 Service.
The Service will leverage Viamo’s proprietary multi-channel mobile platform and valuable MNO Service Agreements. Here is how the 3-2-1 Service will work in Bangladesh: At a time and place of their choosing, confidentially and anonymously, users—typically women and girls—will dial a toll-free number (often the shortcode “3-2-1”) and listen to a welcome message in their own language: “Would you like to know about: 1. Healthcare? Press 1. 2. Agriculture? Press 2. 3. Financial Services Press 3. 4. Education? Press 4, 5. Digital Literacy? Press 5. Etc.”
Our platform is based on Interactive Voice Response (IVR), a technology that allows computers to interact with humans through voice tones and number inputs. In a series of “listen, then choose” steps, callers use their telephone keypad to select from a menu of options just like callers in North America do when they call a toll-free 1-800 number (“Press 1 for reservations, Press 2 for ticketing…”) and listen to one of the expert-developed messages on the service.
We will target Grameenphone, the largest telecom in Bangladesh, as our preferred MNO partner. Through our previous experience with 3-2-1, we have found that we are able to reach about 10% of an MNO's subscriber base. Based on Grameenphone’s 74 million subscribers, we expect to reach at least 7.4 million people with the 3-2-1 Service. Within two years of launching the service, we expect to reach 4 million people in Bangladesh.
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Where our solution team is headquartered or located:Islamabad, Pakistan
In which sector would you categorize your solution?
Our solution's stage of development:Growth
Describe what makes your solution innovative.
The 3-2-1 Service is innovative in its approach to sustainability. As the largest public-private partnership of its kind, the Service is sustainable because the MNOs own it and have a vested interest in continuing to offer it free of charge to their subscribers. Despite being a free-to-user information service, 3-2-1 indirectly generates MNO revenue by improving customer retention and cell phone use for mobile network operators. As such, MNOs are eager to offer the 3-2-1 Service and will cover the largest ongoing cost: delivering the key messages to each caller. Gains from increased customer loyalty, higher average revenues per user and the positive image associated with an MNO that cares about their subscribers offsets the ongoing operational costs.
In Madagascar, the oldest 3-2-1 country, the Service has been running continuously for 8 years. Over that period of time, we calculate that Airtel has contributed the equivalent of 25 years of free airtime, more than 42 million SMS, 9 million USSD sessions and marketing/branding/promoting of the service, with a retail value of approximately $3.2 million USD. This contribution embodies the increased role of the private sector in global development and the effectiveness of cross-sectoral partnerships.
Why do you expect your solution to address the problem?
Our Theory of Change in Bangladesh is that IF we use the 3-2-1 Service to overcome three main barriers to mobile phone use for women, THEN they will have increased access to information.
1: Literacy -- The 3-2-1 Service uses IVR technology, which requires no literacy skills.
2: Cost -- The 3-2-1 Service is completely free of charge to subscribers of our partner MNO. It can be accessed on any phone, no matter how basic.
3: Mobile phone relevance -- Viamo will work directly with NGOs, governments, and civil society in Bangladesh to create urgently relevant content for women on a variety of topics. Then, we will test the content with women to find the format that resonates with them.
We are confident that we will increase access to information in Bangladesh because Viamo's 3-2-1 Service has been incredibly popular in our target geographies and populations. Globally, 78% of 3-2-1 users are rural, 52% earn less than $34/month, and 48% are between 18 and 24 years old.
In several countries, such as Mali, Rwanda, and Madagascar, we have more users than Facebook. What's more is that 3-2-1 was 'launched' after FB in most of those markets, which points to a higher growth rate than FB across Africa.
Based on stats from our 16 countries of operation, we have proven that our Service holds the attention of callers. On average, 3-2-1 calls last almost 3 minutes and callers spend ~14min per month on the Service, for a total of ~1.5M minutes per month per country.
Select the key characteristics of the population in Bangladesh your solution serves.
In which countries do you currently operate?
In which countries will you be operating within the next year?
How many people are you currently serving with your solution? How many will you be serving in one year? How about in five years?
Viamo’s 3-2-1 Service is currently in 16 countries, with more than 8 million unique mobile subscribers who used the service in 2018, for an average of 1M unique users per month.
We hope to launch in an additional 4 countries within the next 12 months: Bangladesh, Niger, Indonesia and Myanmar. By 2024, we should have launched the 321 service in 40 countries to reach approximately 1B people.
What are the barriers that currently exist for you to accomplish your goals for the next year and for the next five years?
One barrier to the popularity of the service is the ‘search’ framework under which it operates. This assumes that our users know what they don’t know and look for it on the service. We are currently experimenting with a ‘digest’ service where users are recommended messages based on their demographic, their behavior on the platform, and the behavior of similar users. This helps expose our users to unknown unknowns and has shown to increase usage by as much as much as 3x.
Another barrier is financing. Viamo is a profitable business (we haven’t taken investment for the last 6 years), but because of our mission-first focus, our margins are thin. This leaves little free cash for country expansion.
Finally, negotiations with MNOs continue to make the process quite long. It typically takes ~12-15months from market entry to the launch of the 3-2-1 service.
How are you planning to overcome these barriers?
We are constantly innovating the 3-2-1 Service to increase its popularity. After adding popular dynamic content like weather and news, we are now working on a ‘digest’ format that will automatically curate a ‘my321’ stream of relevant messages users can ‘like’ or ‘skip’. We are also looking to experiment with ‘user generated content’ that will allow users to contribute ‘positive deviant’ stories to the 3-2-1 Service. Those could be stories of farmers who have used improved seeds, or stories of mothers who attended antenatal care services, etc.
In terms of country expansion, we continue to look for opportunities such as this one that help finance Viamo’s expansion to other countries and the scale of the 3-2-1 Service.
In terms of MNO negotiations, we recently hired two employees who had previously worked extensively within MNOs to build Viamo’s expertise in this domain.
If you selected “I am planning to expand my solution to Bangladesh,” please provide an overview of your expansion plans. What is the market opportunity for your business or product in Bangladesh?
There is a list of 50 countries around the world that meet our criteria for expansion:
More than 4 million phone subscribers
Average annual aid budgets above USD 200 Million per year
Human Development Index below Turkey (72nd on the UN’s HDI scale)
Basic levels of security and infrastructure are present
Bangladesh easily meets these criteria and in fact is at the top of the list of remaining countries in Asia for Viamo’s expansion. We estimate this Bangladesh will perform as an ‘average large market’ country for Viamo - yielding revenues of ~$500k/year after 2-3 years.
Viamo now has a mature recipe for opening a new country office. It starts with the recruitment of a country manager, who undergoes Viamo’s standard onboarding process. Their first priority is then to setup a technical integration with the local Telecoms by installing a Viamo server in the data centre of the Telecom. This allows Viamo to send and receive local calls from our cloud-based platform. Next, the focus is on setting up the 3-2-1 service. Finally, the focus is on new business development and sales. This usually triggers income (cash) by the end of their first year.
Select an option below:Hybrid of for-profit and nonprofit
How many people work on your solution team?
While Viamo has over 100 employees globally, there are four people on the solution team:
1) Louis Dorval, Asia Regional Director and COO
2) Abdullah Saqib, South Asia Regional Coordinator and Global Telecom Partnerships Lead
3) Sohina Singh, Senior Project Manager, Asia
4) Leah Newman, 3-2-1 Product Director
For how many years have you been working on your solution?
Why are you and your team best-placed to deliver this solution?
The Viamo team has the right mix of experience in building technology for social innovation, MNO partnerships, product management and project implementation in South Asia.
Louis has over 10 years of experience building technology organizations that address social issues across Africa and Asia. He will bring strategic guidance and business development support to the Bangladesh expansion.
Abdullah is currently spearheading Viamo’s efforts in South Asia. He is the Pakistan and Bangladesh Country Manager focused on helping international nonprofits strengthen their interventions by leveraging mobile technology. During his tenure at Telenor Pakistan, the leading MNO in Pakistan, Abdullah designed and launched innovative value-driven information and financial services for rural masses across health, education and agriculture sectors.
Sohina has 3 years of experience assisting social organisations implement mobile solutions in South Asia. She is an expert in using Human Centered Design to tailor the Viamo platform to the needs of users.
Leah oversees quality and scaling of the 3-2-1 product globally. She will bring her insights from each Viamo operating country to continuously improve the product in Bangladesh.
With what organizations are you currently partnering, if any? How are you working with them?
Viamo provides the 3-2-1 Service in 16 countries through partnerships with MNOs, such as Orange, Airtel, and MTN.
Our clients include some of the largest donors in the world, including USAID, DFID, GIZ, the World Bank, and the UN System. They trust us to disseminate information quickly and efficiently using our mobile platform. We also partner with leading NGOs and country governments to create relevant, reliable content for 3-2-1. Some examples of partner organizations are Oxfam, Save the Children, World Vision, Catholic Relief Services, and Plan International.
Viamo will seek to expand these partnerships to Pakistan once the 3-2-1 Service is operational in the country.
What is your business model?
The 3-2-1 business model is simple. First, a donor or investor (namely TigerIT) acts as the anchor partner to pay the costs of setting up and launching the service in a new country. Then, Viamo signs a Service Agreement with an MNO partner to make public service content available for free and promote it to their users. Next, Viamo clients, typically mission-driven organizations (UNICEF, WHO, Gates Foundation, etc.) pay Viamo to develop the content and maintain the service (this is how we generate revenue). Finally, Viamo tests the content and hosts it on our servers where any subscriber can access it free of charge.
The Service is completely sustainable and has been running continuously in all of our countries of operation. Despite being a free-to-user information service, 3-2-1 indirectly generates MNO revenue by improving customer retention and cell phone use for mobile network operators.
We measure 3-2-1's impact in two ways: number of listeners and behavior change. More than 8 million unique mobile subscribers used the service in 2018, with an average of 1M unique users per month. There is also evidence to support that the 3-2-1 Service is effective at changing behavior and attitudes of our listeners. For example, the GSMA Connected Women Program conducted an evaluation of gender empowerment content on the 3-2-1 Service in Malawi based on a random sample of 300 users. They found that 96% of females and 94% of males reported increased awareness of women’s rights and gender-based violence as a result of the content.
What is your path to financial sustainability?
Viamo will become financially sustainable through a mix of direct sales and investment capital. Currently, we are generating enough sales revenue to break even. However, we are actively looking for equity and debt investors to help us expand to new markets. We are also attempting to get startup capital for new country offices through funders such as Tiger IT.
Why are you applying to the Tiger Challenge?
We are applying to gain funding for our Bangladesh expansion. Financing from Tiger IT will allow us to hire a country manager and solidify an MNO agreement to launch the Service.
What types of connections and partnerships would be most catalytic for your solution?
With what organizations would you like to partner, and how would you like to partner with them?
We are seeking to partner with MNOs in Bangladesh and specfically Grameenphone. We are also eager to collaborate with NGOs, international donors, and the government in Bangladesh. A key partner would be BRAC, the largest charity in Bangladesh.