Practical Action is a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that leverages technology to challenge poverty in developing countries around the world. Through technology, Practical Action enables the sustainable development of practical solutions, innovative skills and knowledge among poor communities.
In March 2018, The GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities programme awarded a grant to Practical Action and Robi Axiata, the second largest mobile operator in Bangladesh, to develop and launch a digital service platform, called 1Service, through which customers can request and pay for water and waste management services at Satkhira and Magura municipalities.
The billing challenge
The Satkhira and Magura municipalities are located in the Southwest coastal region of Bangladesh, an area that is extremely vulnerable to high groundwater salinity, which leads to increasing levels of arsenic in the water, causing long-term public health issues, as exposure to arsenic is associated with several types of cancer and heart disease.
The three large water treatment plants, which manage 100 kilometres of piped water network, are the only reliable source of water for city dwellers at Satkhira municipality. On a daily basis, Satkhira municipality supplies water to over 112,000 people. For the municipalities, water bill processing requires substantial amounts of effort and time. Customers wait two weeks to receive a physical bill, and then have two weeks to pay the bill through one designated bank branch before the next month. Running the piped water service costs the Satkhira Municipality over £9,600 per month. But due to inefficient billing processes, revenue collection covers less than half of the cost – an average of £8,000 per month, preventing the utility from investing in maintenance and expansion.
1Service mobile bill query and payment
1Service is a cloud-based platform which provides timely water bill notifications to users and enables customers to pay bills using a smartphone or any RobiCash agent.
The core 1Service system has four major components:
- The 1Service android mobile application allows users to register with their municipality details to receive and pay water bills from their smartphone;
- The web interface (www.1Servicebd.com) provides the same service;
- The municipality control pane provides administrative access to municipalities to manage queries; and
- RobiCash integration allows users to pay their water bills using RobiCash from their own account or through a RobiCash agent.
1Service also supports other interactions between citizens and municipalities, such as allowing people to make tax payments. The original scope of this grant was to use the app to facilitate sanitation services as well by connecting households with pit latrine emptying services, however the sanitation infrastructure and institutional operations at the municipalities were not ready for a digital tool to coordinate these services.
The grant impact: Improved billing and payment process for customers, increased revenue collection for municipalities
As of October 2019, use of the tool was as follows:
- 3,633 users in both municipalities registered for the 1Service mobile application;
- 12,176 water bills were requested through the app;
- 3,101 users made a total of 5,500 bill payments via a RobiCash agent or an attendant at the 1Service Help Desks.
RobiCash has limited penetration in these areas with only 1.2 per cent of those surveyed having their own RobiCash wallet, thus the majority of 1Service pay via an agent. However, the ability to quickly receive bills and the convenience of having more efficient and flexible pay points proved strong value for users.
A survey revealed the following outcomes:
- 100 per cent of respondents expressed improved ease of paying the water bills;
- 98 per cent of respondents said that 1Service saved them time (about 30 mins on average); and
- 95 per cent of respondents said that they view the municipality in a more positive light after the launching of the 1Service app.
“I am a primary school teacher in Satkhira and I have two children. Often it becomes very difficult for me to pay the bills in due time. My school closes at 2:30 pm and the banks close at 1:00 pm. Therefore, I previously had to take a half day leave to make the payment. Now I can pay my water bill at ease even in between cooking or on the way to my workplace and save in the additional cost of transportation.”
Mrs. Bilkish Begum, a primary school teacher from Satkhira
Making it easier for customers to receive and pay their bills improved revenue collection as seen in Figure 4, which shows a significant increase in monthly revenue for Satkhira. In October 2019, water bill collection reached 86 per cent, which is the highest ever. The average monthly water bill revenue increased by 42 per cent.
Before 1Service was implemented, the municipality had to manually reconcile bills paid at the bank to update their database, calculate new bills and print bills. The deployment of this technology has supported the municipalities in tracking, collecting and predicting their revenue more efficiently.
Lessons from the grant project
- Partnerships between mobile operators and non-profit organisations for delivering a commercially scalable project with social impact is challenging. Establishing agreed-on components at the start and checking on progress throughout are essential.
- Robi initially intended to charge a 15 per cent service charge for 1Service, however, this would make the service unaffordable. This had significant impact on the commercial sustainability of the project.
- Technical integration with mobile operators is a lengthy process. Improved mobile operator APIs can support smoother integrations, however, time and resources on both sides must still be planned to allow for this.
- 1Service was originally planned to be deployed at another municipality (Faridpur), however, the municipality had conflicting plans to build a similar eCitizen platform, leading to delays in the project.
- The original scope of the project included sanitation services to facilitate pit-emptying. However, the municipality did not have adequate physical infrastructure and institutional capacity to support safe sanitation. Hence, the scope of the work shifted away from this.
- Introducing projects such as 1Service requires significant long-term support from local operatives to encourage adoption and provide customer education.
The grant was able to demonstrate the potential for digitalisation to dramatically improve the billing process and revenue collection for municipalities.
Following the success and lessons learnt from the project, both Practical Action and Robi Axiata are committed to expanding 1Service. Practical Action has secured a grant to develop faecal sludge and waste management facilities in Satkhira, which may eventually be supported by the 1Service platform. Robi Axiata sees 1Service as an important strategy to increase subscribers and brand recognition and is planning to deploy the service to other municipalities.
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.