As one of the world’s poorest nations, Bangladesh has often been left on the sidelines of social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter: According to recent Unicef data, only 4 percent of its citizens have regular web access. But with the advent of low-cost cell phones, that reality is changing. As of this summer more than 95 million Bangladeshis own basic mobiles, and despite the country’s lack of 3G (or high-speed) network coverage, citizens are using SMS and audio services in record numbers. This fast-growing mobile sector means new and better options for communication—especially among youth—and greater opportunities for social change.
Building on this boom, Souktel is excited to announce an expansion into Bangladesh in partnership with the US Department of State—with the launch of its PeerNet mobile networking services for youth. These services are delivered together with the non-profit International Education and Resource Network (iEARN), and they follow the partners’ earlier launch of similar services in India and Pakistan.
Souktel’s mobile peer networking platform will mainly be used by young Bangladeshis who’ve taken part in the State Department’s Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange & Study (YES) programs. YES offers a unique chance for students across the globe — including those in Bangladesh — to visit the U.S. as part of a year-long cultural exchange. The challenge, though, is to ensure that these youth stay connected with each other once they return home: Poor infrastructure can make face-to-face meetings difficult, which is where the mobile PeerNet platform comes in.
The idea behind PeerNet is simple: First, mobile users join a themed chat group by sending a sign-up SMS. Once they’ve been approved for membership, they can send SMS questions or comments to the entire peer network for the cost of a regular message. Anyone in the group can reply to all members, or just to the member who posed the question. By promoting simple, low-cost communication among closed groups of peers, PeerNet creates a safe and effective way for youth to share ideas, plan events, or ask for mentoring advice.
“Given that over 90% of Bangladeshis don’t have good web access, SMS-based networking is an ideal solution,” explains Dalia Othman, Souktel’s Project Manager for the new service. “And the option of having ‘closed’ messaging groups means that youth can have more meaningful interactions, because they’re with people they know and trust: If you’re a youth leader who’s planning a community event in your village, you want your peers to give you advice that you can rely on”.
Rajib Lochan Das, an iEARN and YES program coordinator in Bangladesh, agrees—noting that the platform’s ability to create groups of specific mobile users helps build trust and communication: "We've conducted important surveys with our alumni and received results within a few hours,” he explains. “Now we're preparing to use Souktel's service to contact a group of school leaders and [organize] prospective applications for next year's [YES] program."
Several hundred YES youth have already used the PeerNet platform to exchange advice and connect with peers. “This is only the beginning,” says Souktel’s Othman. “We’re really excited to see how this service grows across South Asia”.