Saturday, February 21, 2009

Boom not Gloom in Bangladesh

The global economy is struggling in what looks to be a race to the bottom. The financial crisis in the US is rippling across the globe, as the world's largest consumer market puts on its collective brakes, while the industries and countries who supply these consumables scramble to insulate themselves from the impending storm. I made my first trip to Bangladesh as the global market was in the grips of what could only be described as: Fear.

Having gained independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladesh today finds itself trying to establish new industries that can provide employment opportunities and move the nation up the value chain from its traditional agricultural based society. The recently democratically elected government knows that attracting foreign investment and accelerating GDP growth will take 21st Century skill development and stronger utilization of technology. The newly elected Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, captured the imagination of voters, during an election that saw her and her party sweep into office, with her vision of a Digital Bangladesh. My goal in coming here was to see how we could be a part of accelerating and making this vision a reality.

My colleagues and I took a trip three hours outside of the capital city of Dhaka to see the promise that is held within the aspiring spirit of one such young Bangladeshi, who is using access to technology and information to enhance the lives of his local community while also growing his own business. In what started as a simple iCafe, the young man has become a part of a franchise opportunity called i-Hut that provides him Internet connectivity, support, content, but also regular business management trainings so he can learn and adapt his business offerings to appeal to more users in his community while enhancing his revenue stream.

His once tiny iCafe has now transformed into a mult-service Telecenter which has expanded to take over two neighboring shop locations. The young man was also extremely proud to take me directly upstairs from his current location to show me an existing local library, which today is sparsely populated with old, dusty, and out of date books. Our young business owner will be converting this space into a digital learning lab, where his company will offer distance learning capabilities to locals from the community, allowing them to access courses taught by instructors hundreds of miles away. This is not charity but rather a money-earning going concern. People from the community are willing to pay nominal amounts for such services.

Our young business owner has even expanded into new business opportunities which are not generally well known. I am sure many of you who use the web for various transactions have come across this image above, which asks you to re-type certain words that appear on your screen for verification purposes. Well did you know that there are actually human beings that type these words, called a Captcha, so that you and I can complete our transactions? Because Captchas take human data entry, a small fee can be obtained by people who enter these Captchas for inclusion in the transaction process. Our young entrepreneur saw that he could hire people from his local community to perform this data entry task. He pays them a small commission based upon how many Captchas they enter, and he receives payment from organizations such as Yahoo who utilize the Captcha service. It was great to see the Help Wanted sign posted for Online Jobs which was providing extra spending money for those in the community.

The dire economic challenges that are now facing the world bring a tremendous amount of gloom and doom to our daily discussion. We often forget that in times like these we should resist the urge to ignore our risk-taking for entrepreneurism. Those who are bold in the face of crisis generally come out on top when the fearsome clouds eventually part and the sun shines down brightly once again. It is stories and experiences such as this one in Bangladesh which are encouraging and reinforce that the human desire to aspire can be nurtured and channeled for positive outcomes for the individual, the community, the nation, and even the global economy.