CellBazaar: A SMS Marketplace in Bangladesh

Posted by CorinneRamey on Apr 28, 2008

Imagine you're in Bangladesh and you want to buy a cow. You pull your mobile phone out of your pocket and start sending text messages to 3838, the shortcode for CellBazaar, a mobile phone marketplace which some have called the "Craigslist of Bangladesh." You look through the relevant ads and look at the ages, locations, and number of teeth of the 187 cows that are currently for sale. After another SMS, you are connected with the phone number of the the seller, ready to make your new purchase. What could have taken days to coordinate was made easy by a series of simple text messages.

Kamal Quadir, the founder of CellBazaar, sat down with MobileActive for an interview. Quadir said that he first got the idea for CellBazaar when he was a graduate student at MIT. "I was surrounded by technologically sophisticated people," said Quadir, who is originally from Bangladesh. "I saw all this technological possibility and heard one top-notch scientist mentioning that a very cheap mobile phone had the same capabilities as a NASA computer in 1968."

"A country like Bangladesh has 35 million NASA-type computers, and most importantly, they're in people's pockets," he said. Inspired by the untapped potential of all these mobile phones, and motivated by the lack of information that he believed was impeding business in that country, Quadir first created the idea at MIT Media Labs and eventually signed a contract with GrameenPhone.

CellBazaar launched in July of 2006, and, after a year of beta testing, the team started to actively market the service in August of 2007. Quadir said that although there are six other operators in Bangladesh, he choose Grameen which has 60% of the market share. "Their network is larger than others," he said. Although people can post and view ads on the CellBazaar website or the mobile WAP site, users need a Grameen phone number to register with the site. CellBazaar keeps a portion of the fee that Grameen charges for each SMS.

One of the challenges that they've faced, said Quadir, is introducing CellBazaar into the daily lives and set routines of the Bangladeshi people. Quadir said that many people have trouble conceptualizing the idea that they have a worthy item to sell, and that a few simple text messages can connect them to a virtual marketplace. "In the past, a rural village person couldn't even imagine that they wanted to sell something and the whole world would be willing to buy it," he said. "The biggest challenge we have is people blocking that audacity and courage." So far over a million people have used the service since launch. Bangladesh is a country of 150 million people. "Fundamentally the real issue is about changing people's patterns," he said. "But once they learn how to use it people start doing it really frequently."

Quadir said that although many people have assumed that language would be an issue -- you can only search the CellBazaar database via SMS in English, although the WAP site does have some Bangla -- he said that language hasn't proved to be a problem. Because of the way that the search is conducted, a user only needs to know two English verbs -- "buy" and "sell" -- and the names of the items or services, such as "chicken", "fruit", "motorcycle", or "book" -- that they'd like to exchange. "They just need to know commodity names," said Quadir. A user begins the process by texting the word "buy" to short code 3838, and can then browse the categories and follow the instructions to view individual postings. "It is a remarkably easy process and takes only a few minutes," writes the Daily Star, a Bangladeshi newspaper.

CellBazaar's content is wide ranging. Items for sale include food, animals, housing, and various services. When this article was written, top categories were 1446 listings under Bangla tutoring, 998 listings under repair, and 995 listings under computer parts. Sheep, with four listings, came in last. Quadir said that creating the listings has been a learning experience. "We had 'chicken' and we were noticing that people were posting cattle under the chicken category. We were initially baffled, but then we realized that the demand for cattle is so high. It shows how desperate people are to have a service like this." The demand for tutoring, said Quadir, has also been surprisingly high. "The reason for that is that college students in countries like Bangledesh make money by tutoring. We don't have McDonalds'-style jobs and it's an easy way to make money."

Although there is no data showing that CellBazaar has improved the economy and well-being of users, Quadir said that, anecdotally, the service has made commerce easier and more efficient by eliminating unnecessary time and increasing access to information. "It's a far more efficient way of finding things. In the past you have to go newspapers, magazines, and find the best match." With CellBazaar, trading goods and services is just a text message away. As the service grows, the demographic that uses it has also expanded. "Young people were the early adopters," said Quadir. "Initially urban people used it more, because we didn't market very aggressively initially. Word of mouth spread faster because of the higher concentration of people in cities. But now it has spread to rural areas as well." CellBazaar has won a variety of awards, including a 3GSMA Global Mobile Award 2008 in the "Best Use of Mobile for Social & Economic Development" category, a Tech Museum Award, and a Telecom Asia Innovation of the Year Award.

Studies on the effects of mobile phones on marketplaces support Quadir's assertions about increasing efficiencies. A study of grain traders in Niger found that "cell phones reduce grain price dispersion across markets by a minimum of 6.4 percent and reduce intra-annual price variation by 10 percent." According to the study, "The primary mechanism by which cell phones affect market-level outcomes appears to be a reduction in search costs, as grain traders operating in markets with cell phone coverage search over a greater number of markets and sell in more markets." The much-reported Jensen study of South Indian fishermen in the Quarterly Journal of Economics showed similar results. "Once mobile phones became available to Rajan and his compatriots, fishermen’s profits rose by eight percent on average and consumer prices fell by four percent on average," notes a summary on NextBillion.net.

In the future, Quadir said that he hopes to expand the service -- currently East Africa, Eastern Europe, and South Asia are all possibilities. He said that one problem with the service is that it is operator-specific. Unlike a website such as Craigslist, where anyone can access information for free, CellBazaar is dependent on relationships with mobile carriers. "The Internet belongs to everybody -- like highways and like fresh air," said Quadir. "Mobile networks are privately owned." However, he said that CellBazaar's interactions with carriers had been generally positive. "So far the operators we have worked with have been very good," he said. "We are very selective in terms of what operator we work with." As CellBazaar looks to expand, Quadir is focusing efforts on places that have high mobile penetration rates and low web penetration. "We're looking at any place that has less Internet. No matter how good the application is, having Internet and high computer penetration doesn't help us," he said. "And mobile is everywhere."

Photo credit to CellBazaar, Inc.

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