bangladesh mobile phones

Kazi Islam describes his job as “implementing the future”. He is the CEO of Grameen IT which runs the IT services of Grameenphone, Bangladesh’s biggest mobile carrier. Islam grew up in the U.S. become returning to his home country.  “I lived in the future. I went back into the past. My job is to implement the future” he says. Islam is convinced that emerging countries like Bangladesh will determine which technologies survive and dominate in that future. I talked to him about how technology has transformed his country and why tech companies need to pay attention.

Grameenphone is a billion dollar business in a country where the average revenue per subscriber is 1 or 2 dollars. One of company’s first innovations was the Village Phone scheme, established at a time when a mobile handset still cost $1000. The program gave villagers access to micro credit to buy a mobile phone that could then be rented out to other villagers. Islam told me that 10 years on Village Phone has become a victim of its own success as handsets and minutes dropped in price. Now you can buy a handset for 10 dollars.

“The village phone concept completely changed a nation through a technology. The measuring stick  is how many people are using mobile phones today. 12, 15 years ago if you were telling me that 60 million people (in Bangladesh) would have a mobile phone, people would just laugh at you.” he explains.

bangladesh woman phoneGrameenPhone now provides a range of services which go way beyond the traditional scope of a mobile carrier. One of the most popular is BillPay. Paying a utility bill in Bangladesh, and many emerging companies, is an arduous business involving hours of queueing to pay the bill and then queueing again to confirm that the money was received by the utility.

BillPay allows instant payment via mobile. Islam told me that a surprising side effect is that “people are voluntarily going and paying. Before people would put it off. From the government side their revenue went up significantly.”

Buying a train ticket used to take a whole day. Now 50 percent of all train tickets are sold through mobile services and a huge number of tickets can be sold in a matter of hours. Grameenphone also provides a hotline where farmers can get advice on problems with their crops. “60 percent of our employment is agri-based. If your crop is infected, for example, you have no way of finding out what is really happening. You can make a phone call and describe. You can take a photo on a mobile phone and send it in an MMS”.

Mobile healthcare is also an important focus, in a country where 390 out of 1000 women die due to complications in childbirth and access to basic health information is limited. “On average our very optimistic number is that we live to be around 62 years. That means compared to the U.S. we live 10 years less. A significant part of that is because their mother was not healthy and their birth was not perfect. So we start with birth.”

I queried Islam on the biggest misunderstanding on how new technology is used in emerging markets. “The biggest misconception is that there is no business opportunity. In my mind that misconception comes from laziness.” He also thinks that making fast money should not be the first priority of an entrepreneur. In his opinion, this is one of the reasons that most startups focus on the US and European markets. “Worry about people first. Whatever technology you build if it is people-focused and ultimately people embrace it, you are going to make a decent living” he insists.

Bangladeshi man phoneIslam also condemns technology companies for not taking the emerging countries, home of half of the world’s population, into consideration when designing new products.

“In none of them you will see a criterion which says that this particular product has to be applicable to emerging countries,” he says. “If you forced innovators to think about this the world would be different. That particular tick box is missing. If companies are still not thinking about emerging markets and emerging market populations, they are committing two big crimes. One is to themselves; they are missing out on the financial opportunity. They are also depriving these people of the benefit of this technology.”

When I asked Islam about the technology sectors in which emerging countries will lead his answer was emphatic: “Everything”. While developed countries have made huge investments in infrastructure like fixed line telephony, emerging markets are an open field. “In Bangladesh there are less than 250,000 fixed line phones but there are 66 million mobile phones. Emerging markets will dominate in line of what innovations succeed in the future. Mobile is a big example of it”. Bangladesh also has one of the largest deployment of individual solar home systems covering 300,000 rural homes. How is this possible when people are only making a dollar a day? According to Islam, entrepreneurs have developed new business models as well as technology to sell to this market.

One technology which Islam predicts will create an explosion of new business is mobile finance. Bangladesh is a cash-based economy where very few people have bank accounts. “The moment you solve the mobile financial part of it, your service industry is going to explode since the service providers can collect the money.” Grameenphone is planning to introduce P2P mobile payments and other financial services.

“If you look at Bangladesh, 10 years ago our per capita income was 200$. Today our per capita income is around $900. Can you imagine in the US people’s per capita income going up by 500 percent in 10 years? It is happening because of technology” Islam concludes.