1Service: Digitising bill payments for piped water users in peri-urban Bangladesh

With an area of 32 square kilometres and population of 153,000, Satkhira Municipality is one of the oldest local government institutions in the Southern part of Bangladesh, established in 1869. Situated in the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna delta, the southwest coastal region of Bangladesh is a prime example of an area vulnerable to increasing salinity. Investigations have reported surface and groundwater sources as significantly more saline than levels acceptable for consumption. This problem is accentuated by high levels of iron, arsenic and calcium, making the water treatment plants and 101km piped water provided by the municipality, the lifeline of the city. It is a daily challenge for the municipality to provide piped water service as the cost of operation is significantly higher than their average revenue.

In March 2018, the GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities programme awarded a grant to Practical Action and Robi Axiata to develop and launch a digital service platform (1Service) through which customers can request and pay for water services and give feedback. The platform allows consumers to query and pay for water bills using mobile money services provided by the second largest mobile operator by connections in Bangladesh – Robi Axiata. It will also help users to apply for new water connections and request plumbing services in future. Though it currently supports Robi’s mobile money services, the services will expand to support other mobile money providers and digital payment channels in future.

In order to see the progress of our grant, I visited Satkhira Municipality, where this project has been deployed in July 2019. During my visit, I met with a number of users, mobile money agents, municipality officials, and brand promoters of 1Service and. I also visited two of their water treatment plants and spoke to people who manage the piped water distribution. This blog summarises some of my key observations from this visit.

1. Despite a slow roll-out there is growing user interest in 1Service

Despite full engagement from all partners, this project started with a few hiccups in the beginning. As this initiative is the first of its kind in Bangladesh, Practical action took extensive assessments of system functionality, taking longer than expected to build robust process flow for the services. From March 2018 to June 2019, Practical action, jointly with Robi, developed an initial version of the 1Service platform, integrated it with RobiCash, and collected water connection & household details from the municipality. They also prepared a new water billing database and market activation plan prior to the launch.

1Service platform has been commercially operating since June-2019. Within a month of launch, around 1,000+ apps have been downloaded, 950+ users have registered. 2,780 piped water users used this service to query their water bill and 1,020 user paid bill by mobile money using this platform.

During my visit, I could already sense the excitement among the users, particularly women. I spoke to a few female ward councillors who think that this app will significantly save time and money for women to pay monthly water bills. During my conversations with the users, one of the urban planners of the municipality narrated an incident about getting a call from a man living in Dhaka who wanted to install 1Service app to remotely pay water bills for his 72 year old mother who lives by herself at Satkhira. “This shows how impactful this service is”, said the planner.

To promote 1Service, Practical Action-Robi have deployed 11 brand promoters across various locations within the city. The brand promoters are responsible for educating the users about the benefits of 1Service platforms. They help the users install 1Service app onto their mobile phones and help them navigate through the application to access different services. Additionally, the Satkhira Municipality has setup a desk for 1Service at their one-stop customer service centres to promote the platform to other non-users who visit the municipality offices.

1Service help desk at Satkhira Municipality

2. Potential to reduce operational losses for Satkhira municipality

Satkhira municipality supplies up to 100 million litres of water per day serving 112,000 people. Currently the total monthly operational expense to operate piped water service is about BDT 22, 000, 00 (~GBP 22,000) whereas average revenue collection is about BDT 800,000 (~GBP 8,000). A major challenge for municipality is to keep this service running as the cost of operation is significantly higher than water revenue collection.

1Service has so far helped collect 20 per cent of their monthly water revenue in its 1st month of operation.

Mr Tazkin Ahmed, The Mayor of Satkhira Municipality shared, “People are happy, especially women. I received many phone calls with appreciation. Public demand for such service is very visible. We want to take it up to a2i for further scaling up this project”.

3. The role of Robi Axiata – a key service enabler and a marketing guru

The mobile operator; Robi, played a vital role throughout the project, beginning from project planning to executing and scaling. The overall system is hosted at Robi’s data center. RobiCash enables the payment collection which is a critical component of this project. Further, Robi also uses SMSs to notify users in real time about their monthly bills, which is useful if the user has disabled app notifications and is at the risk of missing crucial billing information. Robi also operates a full time call centre to provide 1Service related information, water billing info and payment method.

Robi has been a key force behind brand promotions for the 1Service platform and a resultant increase in adoption of the platform. These have been done through SMS broadcasts, co-branded banners, flyers and festoons displayed across the city and particularly at Robi outlet and a short TV commercial aired on local cable channel. Most importantly, Robi have deployed 11 full-time brand promoters across the city to promote 1service since the commercially launched.

Brand promoters spread awareness about the benefits and usage of 1Service platform to Satkhira residents.

Flyer used to promote 1Service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From concept inception to real service launch, it has been a long journey, but it is promising to see the initial enthusiasm for the service in a tertiary city like Satkhira. Practical Action, Robi and the municipality are optimistic that the service will scale and lead to mutual benefit for all – revenue generation for Robi, improved revenue collection for the municipality, and ultimately, better services for water consumers. We look forward to sharing more in-depth insights on the outcome of these services in the months to come.

The GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities programme is funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID), USAID as part of its commitment to Scaling Off-Grid Energy Grand Challenge for Development and supported by the GSMA and its members.

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