A farmer uses CellBazaar to post his items. Photo: CellBazaar
The concept of "Brand Bangladesh" has been discussed a lot in recent times -- in seminars, articles and research. Bangladeshi technology entrepreneurs can be crucial in this effort. As a practitioner of micro-finance with a focus on bottom of the pyramid development via small and medium enterprises (SMEs), I am looking closely at the use of technology for economic empowerment. For the last three years I have been watching a fascinating initiative -- CellBazaar, which can be an excellent example of "Digital Bangladesh" and is a part of the government's vision for Bangladesh 2020. Originally designed as a classroom project at MIT, CellBazaar team has been working in Bangladesh for four years. CellBazaar service (http://www.cellbazaar.com) allows people to buy and sell over mobile phones or computers.
Anyone with a computer and internet, as well as 24 million Grameenphone users through their mobile phones are taking advantages of this service. Users can buy agricultural products, such as rice, fish, chicken, as well as large scale items like car, motorcycle, TV, fridge, apartment, land, etc. People can also offer services such as language tutoring (very relevant for migrants going abroad). The service is customer focused, who post items for sale, delete items after they are sold, and even adjust their own prices if they fail to get a buyer. For the first time, the producers of agricultural products can directly negotiate price with buyers and agro-processors. More than a million people have already used the CellBazaar service in Bangladesh.
The technology works on four synchronised platforms -- SMS (send SMS to 3838 to buy and sell), WAP (easy, graphic interface), WEB (viewable by global audience), and IVR (call 3838 to hear latest items).
More new platforms are being added, as advanced mobile phones are becoming more common. As part of the Digital Bangladesh initiative, the government is looking at authorising m-commerce (that is money transaction through mobiles). When that occurs, CellBazaar will have a tested platform and a constantly growing user base that can be the first users of m-commerce.
The diversity of products that I have seen posted on CellBazaar indicates constant innovation and change. As the company grows and matures, it looks set to be the first digital start-up in Bangladesh history to receive global partnership interest. The project received the MIT "Ideas for Development" award, and it was also one of 25 recipients of Technology Award 2007 of Silicon Valley for applying technology to benefit humanity.
In 2008, the company received three major international awards -- the GSMA in Spain (called "Oscars of mobile industry"), Telecom Asia in Thailand, and Manthan in India.
This month, I came to learn that the World Economic Forum of Davos has just selected the Bangladeshi founder and CEO of CellBazaar, Kamal Quadir, as a Young Global Leader (YGL) of 2009. Davos recognises and acknowledges outstanding young leaders from around the world each year for their professional accomplishments, commitment to society and potential to contribute to shaping the future of the world.
Other YGLs selected this year include Tiger Woods, Co-Founder of YouTube Chad Hurley, and Paula Santos of Brazil's Vesta Technologies. Global leaders selected in previous years include Rahul Gandhi, astronaut Anousheh Ansari, and Josh Silverman, the technology guru who is the CEO of popular chat application Skype.
In the official Davos press release, Kamal Quadir is the quoted spokesperson: "I believe this will be a unique opportunity to engage with a community of thought leaders and captains of business, government and other sectors to share the challenges and opportunities faced by entrepreneurs, both working as start-ups and in partnerships with multinationals in emerging markets. The YGL community provides a global network of peers to seek solutions, so that we can collectively contribute to society." I also note that CellBazaar was recently presented as a case study of technology for economic development at Clinton Global Initiative as well as UNCTAD.
Young entrepreneurs, such as the MIT Sloan trained CellBazaar founder, can be the poster children for Bangladesh to the global business media. I have always been fond of the story of YouTube. A globally celebrated technology success story after Google bought it for $1.6 billion. Less well known is the fact that the third co-founder is 27-year-old Bangladeshi origin Jawed Karim, a graduate student who made a fortune as the third-highest equity holder. Jawed already has a track record in technology as an early member of PayPal, which was bought by eBay. We need to leverage the global standing of people like Karim and Quadir.
Because I have an interest in micro-finance, SMEs, bottom of the pyramid development and technology, I come across entrepreneur stories such as CellBazaar. But now we must start grooming our brand ambassadors in a systematic fashion. This should be led by initiatives by the government, the media and the business sector. We need to choose the brightest young entrepreneurs among us, and leverage their global standing to bring in good attention to Bangladesh.
We must deploy our brand ambassadors to attract positive attention, good media, business interest, new partners and financial investment from the world. Individual success stories will drive this phenomenon, and therefore we must deploy those successful entrepreneurs as the frontline for Bangladesh's message to the world. We are eager to be part of the global family of successful entrepreneurs.
That the future lies in Asia and elsewhere in the developing world is exhibited by Davos' focus on Asia among its various programmes. It is also exhibited in a fascinating new book, "Billions of Entrepreneurs: How China and India Are Reshaping Their Futures -- and Yours".
The author is Harvard Business School Prof Tarun Khanna, who is another YGL. The conclusions I reach from his book's many examples are quite optimistic for us. We are in the Asian century, and Bangladesh can have a seat at the table and a stake in the digital future. We can secure that space and establish our brand through global digital projects from Bangladesh such as CellBazaar.
Muzammel Huq, a political economist, is the founding managing director of Enterprise Development Company Ltd, which focuses on SME financing.