The Government of Bangladesh, Korea Telecom (KT) and IOM yesterday inaugurated a USD 2.2 million ‘digital island project’, which aims to provide better access to health, education and e-commerce services to the 321,218 people who live on the remote island of Moheshkhali.
The island, located in Bangladesh’s southeast district of Cox’s Bazar, is one of the country’s poorest and most remote areas. It has a population density of 900 people per square kilometre, but only 11 physicians for every 2,000 people and an average literacy rate of 30 per cent, compared with a national average of 70 per cent.
The main issue is staffing. The Government has built enough schools and clinics to cover the population’s needs, but the facilities remain chronically short- staffed. Teachers, doctors and many inhabitants do not want to live in the remote area due to lack of reliable power, jobs and a bridge that connects them to the mainland. Many residents migrate abroad in search of work, often putting their lives in danger.
The Government has partnered with IOM and KT to resolve these issues through the launch of the digital island project, an extension of the Government’s Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021. The 2021 plan aims to improve the quality of its provision of services across the country through technological advances and new partnerships to reach out to its 160 million inhabitants.
KT pioneered the digital island concept in South Korea two years ago and was invited to replicate its success in Bangladesh. The company has installed a fibre optic cable on Moheshkhali that now provides high speed internet to 30 per cent of the island’s population or three of the island’s eight union councils.
KT acted as the project designer and equipment technology provider with IOM as the project coordinator. The UN Migration Agency was active in the community before the project materialized due to its ongoing work to stem irregular migration from the area.
“Today’s launch is one more step towards the Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021, when we will have a prosperous and equitable middle-income Bangladesh by our golden jubilee of independence. What has been done on the Island of Moheskhali can be replicated in other hard- to- reach areas of the country, so that all corners of the country can benefit from the digital revolution,” said Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, addressing the inauguration via video link.
“I am grateful to the Government of Bangladesh for entrusting IOM with this project and supporting it since its inception. I believe that this pilot scheme can set an example and show how the use of technology in remote areas can really bring about social change,” said IOM Bangladesh Chief of Mission and Special Envoy to India, Sarat Dash.
KT’s Chief Executive Chang-Gyu Hwang, who spoke from South Korea using the new network, thanked the Government for its support. “Information and communication technology (ICT) plays a prominent role in developing communities and creating better lives. This project will be a good model for other areas in Bangladesh and even other countries that experience social and digital gaps,” he noted.
In education, the project has enabled the start of teaching English to about 2,000 students across three primary schools this month with the help of e-learning services provided by three teachers from the Jangoo Foundation in Dhaka. Teachers and students interact with each other in real time via digital equipment that includes cameras, projectors and a computer in a specially-designed classroom. The e-learning programme will be extended to another 10 primary schools and two madrasas by the end of July, reaching a total of about 9,000 students.
In health matters, the project is first targeting maternal and neonatal child health needs, given the chronic shortage of female doctors. The project has introduced portable handheld ultrasonic devices in four community clinics and in the Upazila Health Complex that will allow specialist doctors in big cities, such as Dhaka or Chittagong, to diagnose difficult pregnancies and other complications in real-time. This will help reduce the maternal mortality rate, which, at 18 deaths per 10,000 people every year, is above the Bangladesh national average of 17 deaths per 10,000 people.
The project also aims to develop an additional USD 1 million e-commerce element, funded by the Korean International Cooperation Agency, to help farmers connect directly with consumers.
Betel leaf farmer Mohammed Gafun Alam, aged 40, believes he can increase his profit by 67 per cent or an extra 100,000 taka (USD 1,200) a year by selling directly to retail customers via an e-commerce portal. He plans to attend training classes provided by the Government and its partners. “If I can sell to Dhaka or another Upazila, I can earn more,” said Mr. Alam, who currently only sells his product at a local market twice a week.
A newly renovated community IT space will ensure that islanders can access IT training classes to promote equitable adoption of the new technology and to create a space for online surfing and exploration.
The project hopes to create new job opportunities in the local community by teaching interested residents how to care for the 19 kilometers of fibre optic cable and the related technology equipment that KT has provided. Classes will be conducted at a KT-renovated learning centre.