Banking on vouchers

Happy banker

Happy banker

B-mobile’s strategy to market their cellular phone services in rural Bhutan is aggressive. In Sombaykha, for instance, where they introduced their services recently, B-mobile had a representative traveling from village to village dishing out free SIM cards and offering recharge vouchers at initial discounted rates.

Our farmers were delighted. Everywhere the B-mobile representative went, farmers rushed to welcome him. In addition to giving free SIM cards, B-mobile automatically doubled the value of each farmer’s initial purchase of recharge vouchers, subject to a maximum purchase of Nu 500. This meant that if a farmer was willing spend Nu 500, she’d walk away with a free SIM and vouchers valued at Nu 1000.

Obviously, astute farmers wanted to double the value of their money by buying as many recharge vouchers as possible. And they did. How? By simply getting hold of people – friends and relatives – who weren’t otherwise going to subscribe to the cell phone service, and requesting them to purchase the maximum Nu 500 worth of vouchers.

Take my cousin, Sangay Dorji. He got 7 people, including himself, to get SIM cards. For each card, he purchased Nu 500 in vouchers. B-mobile matched every Nu 500 with an equal amount of free recharge vouchers. So, he ended up getting a total of Nu 7000 worth of recharge vouchers.

“Wai, Sangay!” I chided him, “Do you really need so much talk-time?”

“I’ll need to buy vouchers anyway,” he replied, “so I might as well get them now at half the price.”

“Besides, I won’t use up all the vouchers for talking,” he continued, “or for sending text messages. I’ll use most of it as money.”

“Money?” I enquired, “What do you mean?”

“You see, if I want someone who is in Samtse – say, my neighbour Aum Kunza – to buy me Nu 200 worth of tea leaves, I can just transfer that amount of talk time to her phone, instead of sending her cash. It’s simpler. It’s quicker. And it’s much safer.”

“Similarly, I can transfer my talk time to Ap Nado when he ploughs my fields, or to Ani Gaki for a bottle of her ara, or to Zow Samdrup for husking my paddy. And naturally, they could use their talk time to pay me for using my mules.”

Voucher banking. The possibilities are endless. And for our village folk, who still don’t have farmers’ banks, this unintended service might become essential.

It’s good thing that B-mobile is aggressive.