by Richard Sykes

Bangladesh is promising big things from a growing small software industry

Jan 02, 20134 mins
IT StrategyTelecommunications Industry

Since 2005 I have been privileged to visit Bangladesh six times – most recently earlier this month. A small software industry in a big country (population about 150 million, three times that of the UK and with a much younger age profile) with ambitions to become a serious player in the global software and services market place. I have had the opportunity to see progress being made as an advisor, paid by the International Trade Centre (ITC), a joint venture of the WTO and UN trade and development body UNCTAD.

My 2005 visit was as the guest of BASIS, the trade association of the software & services sector. Their nascent branding was ‘Bangladesh – the Next India’. But the reality was that while Bangladesh was emerging as a competitive challenge to India in terms of its costs for quality English-speaking ICT professionals (set at about half of India’s), its business model was very different.

India’s great success is its world players – the Wipros and TCSs who recruit tens of thousands of engineers a year. The emerging Bangladesh model is the SME – smaller, focused and potentially more agile. BASIS is home to well over 800 such SMEs and I argued in 2005 that its branding should be focused on them.

The rapid development of the cloud underwrites this insight. This December I visited software developer Brain Station-23. The founding CEO, Raisul Kabir, started life freelancing internationally online in 2005. Success drove him to start recruiting friends – and then to launch his company in 2006.

It is now 70-strong and growing fast. His focus is web and mobile bespoke ERP development services for the small enterprise. He has customers in the Americas, Europe and Asia. From Dhaka he can exploit the Apple App Platform in the USA to create and market apps for clients across the globe, although he also works on Windows, Linux, and Android platforms. The Atos Foundation now provides consultants to train his staff in contemporary process and methods.

His offices are in the back streets of Dhaka, in a rough old industrial building that once housed the garment trade. But arrive at his floor and all is smart, crisp, designer-shaped and contemporary.

And he is not alone. ServiceEngine is a larger venture nurtured by the multi-faceted Abdul Monem Ltd Group. In their downtown offices the main focus for the 75 staff is on software and mobile apps testing: in a second set of offices near the airport, BPO operations gather and process data relevant to individual credit control on a global basis.

At the heart of my visit was a two-day industry/government conference entitled ‘Positioning Bangladesh – Branding for Business’. As a country Bangladesh has a serious image problem – 49 per cent of people live below the poverty line in this politically unstable, rural state which is prone to flooding and at risk from global warming – and the conference set out to create conditions for a serious business rebranding of Bangladesh.

I chaired a panel one of whose members was Raihan Shamsi, CEO of the software operations arm of Grameen Telecoms, GPIT. He leads a 500-strong venture that is parlaying its experience as the in-house software services provider to Grameen Telecom’s mobile operations into fast growing exports. And I have met with GraphicPeople, a Bangladesh graphics/media venture which partnered with the Danish company AdPeople.

I have written previouslyof the quality and competitiveness of the Bangladesh ICT talent pool – the success of ventures such as oDesk and Elance in mobilising thousands of local freelancers into global employment. I estimate that the aggregate value of the ‘export sales’ of these freelancers is already approaching 25-30 per cent of the value of the export sales of Bangladesh’s software companies.

This is the good news of Brand Bangladesh. But to place it in a wider context, read this year’s Information Economy Report issued by UNCTAD. Focused on the world software and services economy, it suggests that Bangladesh has to be realistic. For example, despite its large and young population (‘promise and potential’) it still has a very small industrial and commercial base. Less than one tenth of a percent of its total employment is in computer software and services – compared to three-to-five times that percentage in the Philippines or Thailand.

Bangladesh will have to box clever. I am sure it will, but then I have seen the promise and I am impressed.