It’s been for years that I’m keenly reading some of the survey reports, the industry analysis and market insights that is coming out from various local and international organizations/agencies, on Bangladesh. Most of what I have read are based on either a hypothesis that the developed market had experienced and thus Bangladesh being an early middle income country should/will follow or the straight-forward historical data and average market trend analysis and suggesting what’s statistically obvious in the next one or two decades.
Here I am, a mere business school graduate, which makes me more of a jack of all trade as we are often called with love! Meaning, while I may not have the capacity of an economist or statistician or a financial analyst to foresee the future of a country and/or a market, but I have my basic understanding of some of the terms we use almost everyday in our life and often don’t look deeper at them for a better meaning. It means, I may not know or understand data much, but I can use my ability to imagine of what the future could be like.
Without quoting any published report or arguing with them, because I don’t disagree with their point of view given the premise on which they were suggested, I want to take an imaginative approach towards the future of the economy and the market, and share some of my personal observations/opinions in layman’s terms.
To share my interpretation of what the future of the economy or the market should be pictured, I will talk about three areas in this first installation of my series on ‘future economy of Bangladesh’. They are the Financial Services, Consumer Goods and Online Businesses.
‘Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand’ — Albert Einstein
If we were to always depend upon the market data, historical trends and predict what would be the future of financial services, we probably wouldn’t have ‘microfinance’ invented, or ‘mobile financial services’ ‘innovated’ in Bangladesh.
Take for example Grameen Bank. Founder Dr. Mohammad Yunus, ‘pioneered’ the concept ‘microfinance and microcredit’. When the world knew of only one solution to eradicate poverty (by setting up NGOs and giving tons of donor money), and financial institutes knew of only banking for the privileged, Yunus simply invented microcredit, making the term useful than the way it used to be used, and addressed one of the biggest economic challenges of the world to relieve itself of the burden from poverty. BRAC is equally an important example here on microfinance along with Grameen Bank.
Similarly, the world’s largest mobile financial services (MFS) company bKash, ‘innovated’ the use of mobile technology, that too among the least savvy and economically viable consumers (in the language of experts looking at a market for business); and changed the trajectory of how banking is done at scale in one of the most poorest countries in the world (Bangladesh GDP is $1100, positioning us at 153th in the world). bKash has almost 80% share of the market that hit USD 1.2 Billion in monthly transaction in february 2015 alone.
Had both Yunus (Grameen Bank) and Sir Fazle Abed (BRAC) along with Kamal Quadir (bKash) looked into the historical data, and ran some surveys to figure out what was needed for the market, Bangladesh would not have been the home of microfinance, the largest NGO in the world and the largest MFS company in the world. Imagining the future played the key role here.
When it comes to consumer goods, in a country of 168 million people, we have already seen several success stories in building great businesses that are catering to the millions while driving economic changes among both rural and urban population.
Back in early 90s, when I used to make once a year family trip to my home district, in a village called Rampura in North Bengal, I still have my memory of taking my dad’s pocket torch light, walk few kilometers inside the village, and reach at a stranger’s tin-shed house that had a 12 inch black and white tv with poor reception, just to watch the weekly Arabian Nights episode that would fall during our trip week! There would be at least 30–40 people, huddled together, sitting quietly in the silence of the night, watching the evil Giant laugh while making the journey of Sindabad a living hell!
Fast forward to 2017, people don’t get together for watching their daily TV shows at a nearby villager’s house. They have domestically or chinese produced Flat TVs, they are connected to internet with their 50 dollar smartphone, they are not just consuming what’s there in the cable channels, they are consuming the world through internet.
My point here is, we already have a very well established distribution network for most consumer goods in Bangladesh due to the small geographic location that we have. And when it comes to reaching out to more consumers and creating demand by connecting the unconnected, the MNCs and large corporations have already proven their strong ability in doing so. Even till date, be it Bangladesh, or the vast India, or even the most remote villages in Africa, you may not have access to clean drinking water, or a hospital or a school; but you’ll see the people there drink coca-cola.
The only way we can see an economic change in the lives of the mass population, and increase the overall growth of the market and consumption, is when we can solve the distribution challenges that still exist. And sometimes, reimagining the challenges will solve it much better than looking through the numbers and facts window, making the solution a long shot.
Whenever we are talking about the expected growth of online businesses in Bangladesh or e-commerces, problems like lack of infrastructure, lack of user awareness and demand, and the lack of last mile connectivity are identified by the experts. It is, as if, we cannot move forward without going by these few areas being developed first.
I hear the businesses saying, ‘oh the customers are not educated enough’, or ‘the smartphone penetration is still low’, or ‘there is no government support’ etc. But in all honesty, stories like these as we keep telling to ourselves get in the way of making a real change or doing something that is needed the most.
Whether we agree or not, we have online grocery delivery like Chaldal.com which has proved how it’s possible to have great market demand in the city where Agora, Shawpno and Meena bazaars of the world dominate strongly. It showed how even in a city with massive challenge with logistics, an ecommerce startup is capable of delivering within 1-2 hours after order (Pathao, HungryNaki, FoodPanda). We also have examples of telecom operator’s like Grameenphone, that is creating further convenience for it’s customers by delivering their physical store products (namely handsets and accessories) nationwide in the remote areas. It is like a customer from a village called Pachbibi in Dinajpur, ordering online, making payment using her bKash wallet and getting a phone delivered at her doorstep all the way from Dhaka!
Like the previous cases, it is imagining the possibility to make services like 1 hour delivery in Dhaka or nationwide delivery in the remote areas made it happen, not the research data or opinions which would rule out the possibility of such great possibilities.
That’s all for the first installation of my series on ‘future economy of Bangladesh’ and I look forward to publish the part 2 in weeks time!
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