Making purses digital in Bangladesh

Community health workers who work in remote villages in Bangladesh are now doing double duty, thanks to one of the COVID-19 pandemic’s unexpected side-effects. They are helping tens of thousands of rural women understand the value of mobile money systems, as well as providing them with practical health information.

It came about because, before COVID hit, community health workers were paid through banks that often were far distant from their villages. But the pandemic disrupted banking and transportation. BRAC had to find a new way to get payments to its 50,000 workers, and the solution it developed has huge implications for financial inclusion far beyond Bangladesh.

BRAC’s health program collaborated with bKash, the mobile financial service of BRAC Bank. The idea was to set up mobile money accounts for all of those remote workers.

But it turned out that most community health workers did not have their own mobile phones and thus did not have mobile money accounts. And often they were suspicious of mobile money because they didn’t know how it worked. “I thought if someone steals my phone, all my money will be stolen, too.”

Fortunately, their husbands or children generally had a mobile phone, and most community health workers did know about bKash as a banking presence and were willing to talk with the local agent to set up a personal account on a family member’s mobile phone. 

Aided by BRAC field staff and bKash agents, more than 32,000 BRAC community health workers who were not using digital financial systems set up mobile accounts and learned how to use them. They realized that they no longer had to make a long trip twice a month to a BRAC branch office to pick up their payments. Now, they could use their mobile accounts to get their cash at a nearby grocery store – or  leave the funds in the account until they were ready to cash out.

Community health worker Parvin is 26 and lives in the Korail slum in Dhaka. She has two children, aged five and nine. She volunteered to be a health worker on a Gated Foundation-supported community health project run by the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC. Lucy Milmo, DFID. Wikimedia.

Given that BRAC’s 50,000 community health workers reached over 35 million households with COVID-19 information in a few months, the worldwide network of over 4 million community health workers across multiple organizations could theoretically reach billions of households about the benefits of using mobile money. 

Those billions of additional households could be directly engaged in financial inclusion by women from their own communities who they already know and trust. As well as transforming the modality of healthcare payments at the grassroots level, this could extend financial inclusion to a vast population in great need of increased financial security.

BRAC found a range of techniques to introduce digital financial services to remote communities, as well as its own staff. Hands-on training sessions, group meetings, text messages, in-person consultations, and visual content such as stickers and music videos proved useful, BRAC says.

In working with its own staff, BRAC digitized lunch tokens, allowance disbursements and staff salaries so they could see the potential of digital tools. Then they made the transition with relative ease and set an example for others to follow.


Activating a Network of 4 Million: Community Health Workers are Key to Fighting COVID-19 – Here’s How They Can Accelerate Financial Inclusion. Guest article by BRAC in Next Billion, Feb. 26, 2021

Purses made digital: How fintechs can better serve women. BRAC’s Good Feed, Dec. 1, 2022

Cover image: BRAC celebrated its 50th anniversary with an event at the Houses of Parliament in London, England, in March 2023. BRAC photo.