Bangladesh has set its sights on transitioning the entire country towards digital as a means to economic development. After hitting many of the milestones for sustainable development ahead of the given deadline for the Millenium Development Goals (2015), Bangladesh announced its Digital Bangladesh Vision 2021. The digital plan was initiated by the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina with the goal of integrating ICT as a tool or service for the disadvantaged, and stimulating the country’s development. For Bangladesh, the ultimate goal with this digital inititiative is to transform itself into a fully digital country by 2021. The year 2021 will mark the 50th anniversary of Bangladeshi independence, a fitting year to mark a milestone of technological progress.
ICT is increasingly seen as a pillar of economic development, on par with infrastructure. For countries like Bangladesh, digitalization can sometimes even allow leapfrogging the need for infrastructure altogether. Be-Bound’s CEO, Albert Szulman, recently wrote the article, « A Connected World is a Developed World », which details the connection between connectivity and economic development,
The Bangladesh Economy
Bangladesh is considered one of the « Next Eleven », a group of 11 countries with strong growth potential, that will become, along with BRIC, the strong economies of the 21st century. Furthermore, The Economic and Social Survey of Asia and the Pacific, by UNESCAP, states that « the outlook for growth remains optimistic » with projected growth for 2016 at 7% . It’s interesting to note that the GDP of Bangladesh has grown 6% annually for the last 10 years. Despite this strong growth potential, Bangladesh remains today an emerging market. The GDP/per inhabitant is $1266 (ranking 151 out of 187 countries) and the 3G penetration is weak : not even 5% in 2014. These numbers point to why the Government has decided to implement a plan for digitalisation that will improve living conditions for the Bengalese, and thus the economy.
Bangladesh in Numbers
- Population : 170 million
- Internet Penetration : 31.9%
- # of people with mobile Internet : 17 million
- # of Internet users in 2009 : 0.4% of population (one of the lowest percentages in the world)
- See more Bangladesh data via the World Bank
High Population, Low Internet Penetration, Why ?
Internet is the foundation of digital progress. But Bangladesh has the highest population density in the world, and a majority population offline. The reasons for low Internet penetration in Bangladesh are the same for any other country facing this challenge : poor infrastructure, high cost, little local or relevant content, and lack of perceived relevance (See our post on Africa’s connectivity for more explanation on these factors).
What Can Be Done?
A successful digital transformation is achieved through a holistic approach. It takes collaboration across all sectors, and certain key factors : IT literacy, business friendly policies, entrepreuneurial spirit, investors, and good ideas.
Advancing Technology for an Improved Economy
There is much to be said for how digitalization can be an engine for economic growth in Bangladesh. Internet in particular addresses the 4 main target areas for Vision 2021, and the mobile phone is the key medium of electronic service delivery to citizens
Farming : m-Agriculture
Developing Internet usage and penetration will definitely improve agricultural producitivity for Bangladesh. Agriculture represents 17% of the GDP and 71% of the country’s employment. The simple ability to check the weather on demand and adapt farming accordingly, is something that can dramatically improve the yeilds, and thereby income of Bengalese farmers. Digital Bangladesh is enabling rural farmers to access market prices and best practices, which will be invaluable for improving everyday gains, especially as they are faced with increasing climate change.
Finance : m-banking
Internet allows rural villagers to access financial services, a major step toward financial inclusion. Today, only 40% of the Bangladesh population has a bank account. Digitalisation will permit more of the rural population to participate in the economy via mobile banking apps, and mobile payments. Internet access compensates for the inadequacies of the traditional banking system. The need for remote access is clear : since 2012, mobile banking transactions have exploded, reaching 1 billion dollars in 2014.
Jobs and Education : m-learning
Developing a digital ecosystem is also a necessity for an efficient job market. Today, the majority of the population finds work informally, and opts to pay for in-person employment/recruitment services. According to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the challenge has not been lack of available jobs, but rather people’s ability to know what jobs were available. Developing mobile Internet with job-related services would ensure that the best candidates can find the best jobs, and improve production overall.
Qualified candidates are the product of a good education. Ensuring access to information for all equalizes the educational playing field. With today’s technology, poor children in rural areas can have the same tools as children in the more developed countries. Khan Academy is an example of a disruptive educational platform that does just this. The founder of Khan Academy, Salman Khan, had a Bengladeshi father, and an Indian mother. With direct ties to these countries, he understood that digital access was the path to reaching people in remote places. With platforms like Khan Academy in place, and the technology to help them reach as many as possible, the potential is clear.
Health : m-health
Good health is one of the main indicators of a strong economy. By digitalizing health in Bangladesh, we will undoubtedly see its HDI of .570, and worldwide ranking of 144 both rise.
Electronic health records render healthcare much more efficient, and data more trackable, improving the odds of escaping disease.
Likewise, maternal health is the lifeline of a healthy society, contributing macro-economic benefits. One of the most compelling cases for mobile’s impact on health in Bangladesh is MAMA, which provides educational information for pregnant women and new mothers living in rural areas, helping them to have successful pregnancies. E-health allows doctors to interface with clients who are otherwise be unable to access hospital services.
The fact that a digital revolution is underway across all sectors goes hand-in-hand with the fact that each one of these sectors themselves are being revolutionized. The breakthroughs in healthcare are groundbreaking, and countries like Bangladesh will bear witness to the incredible impact of technology.
The Momentum is Already There
- Literacy is at 70%. But keep in mind that general literacy and IT literacy are 2 different things. In 2009, Microsoft and Grameenphone developed a digital literacy program with content dissemintated to rural areas in Bengali.
- Grameen Bank, a Nobel-Peace Prize-winning microfinance institution, was established in Bangladesh, with the idea that loans are better than charity for lifting people out of poverty, and with the knowledge that exorbitant interest rates are a hinderance. They are now concentrating on mobile financial services, with the understanding that mobile is the easiest way for people to have access.
- The country’s ranking in the UN Globale-Government readiness report improved thanks to an increased number of government department websites.
- Some international companies are already investing in the future of Bangladesh. Fenox, a venture capitalist based in Silicon Valley for example, is investing in Priyo.com, Shohoz.com, and HandyMama, all good use-cases of the move towards digital in Bangladesh.
Be-Bound is Mobilizing a Digital Transformation in Bangladesh
We are pairing our technology with the country’s already existing infrastructure to connect the unconnected in Bangladesh. The affordability and transportability of smartphones makes them one of the better tools for communities and first-time users to access information and increase their digital understanding. Beyond improving digital know-how, mobility improves efficiency across numerous sectors. Be-Bound’s technology can be used to extend e-commerce, e-learning, e-health, mobile payments and more, contributing to an entire digital ecosystem.