The year 2017 has been phenomenal—for Bangladesh and for the young people. We have a generation that is growing up with smartphones, internet, and everything digital. Digital Bangladesh is no longer a political manifesto, or merely a popular slogan or a government strategy—it is a new reality binding the majority of Bangladeshis at home and abroad. Interestingly, interpretation of Digital Bangladesh varies greatly depending on who you ask.
For many, it's about Facebook, YouTube and online news—having a platform to be heard and become more aware. For a farmer, Digital Bangladesh is possibly being able to monitor the health of his cattle, receive weather advisory messages specific to his crop, or plan his next crop selection based on national demand forecast so he can get a fair price.
For many urban dwellers, however, Digital Bangladesh is waking up in the morning to find the week's grocery delivered at their doorstep as their IoT-enabled refrigerator has already ordered from an online grocer like chaldal.com. Or an SMS from their backup IPS informing them how badly it needs an overhaul and asking permission to contact the nearest sheba.xyz or HandyMama service agent. A Digital Bangladesh may even be filing tax returns entirely online through an e-governance portal without printing or delivering a single document to the tax circle office because each and every government service is online and fully integrated.
For organisations like Grameenphone, it is about enabling these interpretations for the millions of subscribers we serve today. It is an existential race to keep ourselves relevant in the future and being able to talk directly with our customers and deliver exactly what they want the second they want it.
Notably, one of the biggest differences at Digital World from preceding Digital World events was the presence of NRBs (non-resident Bangladeshis) from all over the world. No longer just as an exhibitor, or a member of the audience listening to the others speak, or a celebrated showpiece as an employee of GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon), but actively driving the agenda, steering the conversation and being part of the future. A reverse brain drain has just begun it seems and a real momentum has been created. Digital Bangladesh has real manifestation and is no longer a concept but a part of our growing reality.
Rise of the startups
Startups have been a big element of the success for our ecosystem, particularly over the last 12 months. One of the ingredients of digital transformation for a country is local innovation—to put it simply, local entrepreneurs addressing local everyday demands using technology that we interact with every day.
The startup ecosystem of Bangladesh is young and has just started to take shape. Presently, e-commerce is the largest revenue driver with a new breed of startups pushing digitalisation of the service industry with a lot of success. Through Grameenphone Accelerator, we too have played a humble role in shaping it. We have actively engaged with every player in Bangladesh and abroad who is our compatriot in building the ecosystem here—the likes of Startup Bangladesh, BetterStories, SDAsia and international partners such as Seedstars and Slush. The Department of ICT, through its IDEA programme, has clearly demonstrated its commitment as a major enabler and a big sponsor of digital growth.
The first steps towards digital entertainment in Bangladesh were taken in 2017. Mobile operators have led a new era in digital entertainment which has revived the local media industry and relieved it from the constant struggle against rampant piracy. Grameenphone launched GP Music which is regarded as the largest local music platform in the country; on another front Robi introduced Yonder Music which offers a large collection of international music for local listeners. These digital platforms aim to secure the industry with strong protection against piracy while letting the artists and producers earn a fair share from their efforts.
Video entertainment has also become a key offer from digital technology. Grameenphone's latest video streaming application, Bioscope, offers live TV to users anywhere, anytime. Other operators have also joined the league with their innovative video services, e.g. iFlix, Banglaflix, while others offer access to loads of digital video content at their users' fingertips.
The great equaliser
The internet is playing a strong role in reducing inequality in our societies. Quality education is no longer limited only to populations near a top school in Dhaka or to only those with the means to pay. Initiatives like Robi's 10-Minute School and Grameenphone's Online School used social platforms and video conferencing technology to spread quality education to the mass, taking it to the remotest parts of the country. A large volume of content from the world-famous Khan Academy has been localised with the help of Grameenphone and now made available free for end-users.
Bangladesh has also seen barriers broken in healthcare access. Tonic, the digital health service from Telenor Health, is already connecting the dots for many in need of healthcare with health information, appointment and consultation services with doctors, and even with the means to pay medical bills through micro-health insurance schemes. Healthcare startups like CMED are also trying to advocate preventive care through low-cost health monitoring schemes for the low-income garments workforce.
The revolution of digital currency
The West has bitcoin but we have something even better in the form of mobile money. Bangladesh has leapfrogged steps when it comes to digital currency. A few years ago, cash was the only instant means to pay for services. With a large population still outside financial inclusion (“unbanked”), credit cards were never a viable alternative for organisations that wanted to deliver services nationally and digitally without being very local. Furthermore, lack of transparency in transactions could potentially lead to tax evasion or other financial crimes.
Operators like bKash and Rocket, capitalising on the strength and reach of the ever-expanding mobile connectivity, are on their way to transforming how we pay for services in the future. Significantly, this is a sensitive area that demands government intervention to remove systematic hurdles to facilitate competition, and encourage investment and innovation that will address both financial inclusion and the ambition of a Digital Bangladesh.
Unfortunately, we are at a crossroads today where the opportunities ahead are time-bound. Incremental success will not get us anywhere. We need moonshot thinking as we enter 2018. Let me explain. “Moonshot thinking” is not about finding an incremental solution or making something 10 percent better; it's about making something 10 times better and requires a fundamentally different mindset and approach.
Here's an example. If we want to reduce traffic congestion in Dhaka city by 10 percent, more ride-sharing services and marginally better infrastructure could possibly work, but if we want to halve the number of transport vehicles on the road by the end of 2018, that will require fresh thinking, a blank piece of paper and a group of “crazy” people who may not know what the solution is yet, or how they will solve it, but will not find meaning in their lives unless they find it.
We have a huge demographic advantage and the whole country is energised to take the big leap. We have excellent connectivity capabilities—we just need to make best use of it, right now. When Kennedy envisioned near the end of 1962 that they would put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, he said that they did not know how this could be done but that they were going to do it anyway. That sort of conviction gives one the goosebumps and makes one think of achieving the seemingly impossible.
Kazi Mahboob Hassan is the chief transformation officer at Grameenphone. Grameenphone Accelerator, which is part of Grameenphone's commitment to enable the ecosystem in Bangladesh, is one of the initiatives he leads.