I had the pleasure to visit with Grameenphone HQ two weeks ago, in Bangladesh. They are part of the Telenor Group based in Norway, who hold a very special place in my heart, as Telenor was my first public reference, already 2 days after I started my private consultancy in Octorber 2001. We have always had a warm relationship with Telenor and I often refer to various Telenor statistics and findings, partly due to this long-standing relationship. Like most Scandinavian companies in mobile, Telenor is very open and honest with data and information about the industry.
Now, many might have thought that Telenor were crazy to enter Bangladesh as an investment. The country is incredibly poor, how can it sustain a mobile telecoms market and what can Telenor hope to gain out of this difficult market? Actually Grameenphone has been a shining example of how great a mobile network can be in a developing world country, and they just had a very successful IPO, which was oversubscribed by three times (ie three times more people wanted initial shares in the company, than were total shares available). Grameenphone has 21 million subscribers or nearly half of the total in Bangladesh against its two major rivals. Bangladesh has a total population of 160 million people, and their mobile penetration rate is at 29%.
But, lets talk of some stories from this market. I want to talk about the taxis, rickshaws (bicycle-drawn taxis) and motorbikes.
Lets start with the taxi drivers. A taxi driver had two phones. I thought that seemed a bit excessive for such a poor country, and asked why he had two phones - he said, one for incoming, one for outgoing. He is optimizing his traffic on two of the operators/carriers based on their pricing plans. If we do it in the Western World, and think our phone bills are too high, and get two accounts to optimize, of course for a hard-working taxi driver in a poor country, the proportion of his phone spending is even more out of his total disposable income, than our phone bills in our lives. And then the need to optimize is even more important. The customers in the Developing World tend to be very price-sensitive and very smart shoppers. They have more incentive to seek out the bargains, and with less money to spend, they are even more careful shoppers often, in any industry not just mobile. But yes, from another Telenor market, the Ukraine, we see how quickly second and third subscriptions can spread - the Ukraine is at 140% mobile phone penetration rate already. But yes, I remember early on saying that I was not sure if the second subscription phenomenon would be as widely-spread in the Developing World as it clearly is now in the Industrialized World (half of Europeans have two subscriptions) but yeah, the evidence is becoming overwhelming, from Chile to Indonesia to yes, Bangladesh, that we will find second subscriptions in all markets.
Secondly, just a silly story that is not Bangladesh specific, but I happened to observe this while on the journey from the airport to my hotel. There was a motorcyclist, who was texting. Now, we all know that texting-while-driving (a car) is dangerous and in many places now illegal. But still we do it. And yes, I am not a motorcyclist (Alan is..) but yeah, am sure motorbikers do that too. Perhaps not as often, and obviously not with an iPhone haha, you need a good single-handed operation phone, and obviously be quite good at it, but this motorbiker did send a message, then put his phone back in his pocket and speeded away. I tried to take a picture but he was just too fast to get done with his message, that my picture did not turn out.
Thirdly about the rickshaw taxis, the bicycle-drawn one-person taxis. These are quite remarkable right in the midst of the intense traffic in Dhaka, a city which soon will become the second-largest city on the planet in terms of population, and struggling immensely with congestion. The rickshaw bicycle taxi driver/biker, obviously has quite a horrendous job, pulling the passenger in the heat and humidity of the country, all day, without air conditioning. What a way to earn a living. And obviously at very modest income. Yet they have phones! Why would a rickshaw driver have a mobile phone? It is because it is a business tool. It helps the little entrepreneur get more business. Before the only way to get business was to bicycle around, looking for passengers. That meant biking around, sweating, for often half an hour or more at a time with no passengers. Now with mobile phones, the passengers can call the rickshaw driver, and thus the phone brings in extra business. What a wonderful gift to this hardworking entrepreneur. They love their mobile phones.