In a virtual interview, Shohorab Ahmed Chowdhury, Managing Director, Co-Founder and Rupayan Chowdhury, CISA, Group Chief Executive Officer, Co-Founder at Synesis IT Limited divulge the current state of the Bangladeshi ICT sector, its challenges and what it takes to become a successful ICT entrepreneur.
How crucial is the role of government in the advancement of the sector?
Shohorab Ahmed Chowdhury:
If we evaluate the history of ICT development across the globe, the political will of the respective countries has been an essential component. Due to residing in the country for the last year, I had the opportunity to study the growth of its ICT sector. Government commitment has been crucial for developing the country’s ICT sector, which is the fifth-largest in the world. Luckily, our current government has continued to deliver on its mandate announced in 2008. After “Joy Bangla”, “Digital Bangladesh” has been the most pivotal slogan for our country. The proliferation of the internet has transformed the country. It has ensured access to information and services at a minimal cost for Bangladeshis across the country at a proportion unimaginable a decade ago.
Political will has enabled digitization of every sector in the country and enabled services like National Payment Switch and Real-Time Gross Settlement in a decade. Moreover, the Bangladesh government has taken a terrific approach through StratUp Bangladesh. It is transforming our startup scene by facilitating mentoring and access to finance which were non-existent when we started. They are also providing seed and growth-stage funding which will enable the growth of promising local ICT companies. The government’s goodwill in automating the public and private sector of the country is the core strength of our ICT sector.
Synesis IT has designed some of the Bangladesh Government’s most valuable digital services like the Central biometric Verification and Monitoring Platform (CBVMP), Online e-Tin Registration System, and Online GD. How have these platforms changed the way people receive government services?
Shohorab Ahmed Chowdhury:
It has made every aspect of the services more efficient and accessible. Due to the introduction of Online e-Tin Registration System, an individual can complete the verification and certification process within minutes. ICT has taken government services at your doorsteps. Higher government [olicy makers have always directed ICT companies to design citizen- centric e-services in a way that it eliminates the necessity of people to visit government offices.
We (Synesis IT) created Online GD for Bangladesh Police which enables people to enlist their lost/stolen items with authorities virtually. It has made the entire process efficient and more accessible than ever before. Similarly, CBVMP has successfully eliminated crimes committed through mobile phones in the country. Therefore, the ICT sector has enhanced the reliability and transparency of government services in the country.
We often hear about the possibility of replicating the success of RMG with the ICT sector? How can the ICT sector facilitate rapid growth?
One of the primary reasons for us to invest in ICT was to utilize the abundance of intellectual resources to add value to the knowledge industry. ICT development in a country can be looked at in two ways. Firstly, digitalization is mandatory in ensuring quality services in developing countries. For example, our Electronic Tax Identification Number (e-TIN) system allows individuals to obtain their tax certification within five minutes as opposed to 7-15 days before digitalization. It is a giant leap towards ensuring transparency, competency and efficiency, which has been made possible by the ICT sector. Concurrently, mobile financial services (MFS) has been outstanding in improving the socio-economic condition of rural Bangladesh by facilitating the flow of money from urban workers. Digitization has played an essential role in economic development by accelerating financial transactions. Consequently, the ICT sector has produced new avenues in business by ensuring seamless transactions. Therefore, since its implementation in 2009, digital Bangladesh has been pivotal to our economic growth by ensuring efficiency, transparency and competency.
Secondly, development in the ICT sector has enabled the growth of competent local companies. For example, numerous developing countries, including Nepal, Srilanka and Myanmar, are now contemplating implementing Electronic Tax Identification Number (e-TIN), paving the way for Bangladeshi IT companies to earn foreign currencies. Tiger IT, another Bangladeshi IT company, is one the leading creators of the biometric identification system in the world is already exporting their software to numerous countries. Subsequently, we (Synesis IT) are currently working with a mobile regulatory and identity solution, which will be headed to export soon. Therefore, a handful of local IT companies have the potential for significant income generation for the country. It will also help generate employment for the educated young population. Hence, the ICT sector will contribute significantly to ensuring economic growth, more efficient services and better employment opportunities in the coming years.
The inadequacy of our health problem has always been one of the most pressing issues in our country. How can digitalization help improve the quality and capacity of the sector? Can you please share some details about SYNESIS IT’s involvement in the health sector?
Currently, SYNESIS IT is the largest telemedicine and e-health company in Bangladesh. Our platform provides 99.5% of the mobile health facilities available in the country. We have been involved with Shastho Batayon since 2015. When we started providing health services through cell phones, it was not acknowledged by the World Health Organisation; we had to create our protocols by initiating the project ourselves. Further research and development over the years have brought where we are at the moment.
In the pre-pandemic times, we used to receive 10-12,000 calls per day amounting to 4000-5000 e-prescriptions per day. Otherwise, these patients would have sought in government medicals exhausting its resources.
In the post-pandemic world, we have service in partnership with the ICT division (a2i), “COVID-19 Medical Centre”, it is a unique innovation by SYNESIS IT and the government. Our system stores the data of every COVID-19 patient and creates a risk profile by following up with the patient through call. Later, our doctors follow up with every patient based on their risk profile. The system is ensuring that patients have access to expert medical advice while maintaining social distancing regulations while reducing the stress on the government health facilities.
Shastho Batayon also provides mental health services and has been successful in bringing back more than five hundred people from the brink of suicide. The quality of health service is enhanced when counselling is developed. Mobile health service has proven a useful supplement to the physical health infrastructure of the country.
What are the obstacles (infrastructure/policy) that might impede the growth of our ICT sector? What kind of government assistance can help to overcome those hurdles?
Shohorab Ahmed Chowdhury:
Firstly, the government needs to evaluate implementing two policies. Firstly, the procurement policy should be drafted in a way which makes it mandatory to use locally produced software. Despite the availability of competent local software companies, financial and business entities across the country end up using foreign software. The government should incentivize using local software to boost the industry and save valuable foreign reserves. It can be in the form of tax benefits for using local software or implementing high duties on imported ones. Despite the preference of local software from our top government officials, the eligibility criteria of the tender process are often unfair to local companies and require re-assessment. The revision of the procurement policy incorporating the constraints of the local companies will help in saving foreign currencies, making software more cost-effective and most importantly, ensure the security of crucial public data.
Concurrently, the government has initiated the much-needed venture capital fund and startups and are being developed at a satisfactory rate. To my knowledge, the authorities are in the process to devise laws regarding venture capital. I would request the government to create policies that would entitle startups as intellectual property and incentivize their funding through banks.
Bangladesh’s rapid economic growth is enabling it to assist improvised nations. Our government may incorporate technical assistance to the loans and provide opportunities to local ICT companies to work in foreign countries. It will pave the way for increased software exports for Bangladeshi companies. Finally, our educational system needs adjustments to ensure a skilled young workforce compatible with the demands of the modern ICT industry. It will enable ICT companies to convert new entrants into professionals more efficiently.
Can you please share some information about TenderBazar with our readers?
TanderBazar was established to improve the accuracy and transparency of the tendering process. We aimed to ensure that entities have access to the tenders relevant to their industry. TenderBazar is currently the leading tender portal in Bangladesh, and more than 95% of the ICT sector are members of TenderBazar. Previously, tenders could not be provided within a day, TenerBazar has made it possible within 12 pm on the same day. Also, we have ensured a 100% accuracy of the process throughout our existence. We have built our name with quality, accuracy and competency and will continue to thrive as the market leader in the sector.
Are you satisfied with the skill level of our current workforce in the sector? What can be done to ensure the proper skill development of our youth?
Shohorab Ahmed Chowdhury:
The answer regarding skill level is paradoxical. The top public and private universities in Bangladesh produce highly skilled graduates capable of working anywhere in the world. Graduates from top universities are frequently being hired by the biggest tech companies in the world. However, the curriculum requires to be upgraded to keep up with the demands of the international market. The academia-Industry partnership should be made mandatory to assimilate the youth into the workforce. There needs to be an emphasis on creating a workforce specialized in the ICT industry’s crucial aspects. We have noticed that even highly trained engineers who join our company often lack soft organizational skills. The lack of communication skills (customer engagement/email) among fresh graduates is baffling; therefore, there needs to be special courses designed to increase soft skills, especially among engineering students. A combination of core and communication skills is essential for being successful in the ICT sector.
In recent years, Bangladesh has become one of the most vulnerable countries in cyberspace with frequent attacks on our financial institutions. What is the path towards ensuring a secured cyber-infrastructure?
As a practising professional in the domain, I think the security system is required to be adaptive to be effective. The crucial aspect of it is planning, the objective and risk of the process have to be well-coordinated. Organisations have to understand that ensuring cybersecurity depends more on planning rather than procuring the latest technologies. Therefore, they have to be context-sensitive rather than copying others. Adequate planning with proper risk analysis and adaptive contingency measures should be the core of a cybersecurity strategy.
However, the weakest link of a security system is human. Social engineering attacks are the primary mode of cyberattacks at present. Therefore, it is essential to train the workforce in cybersecurity to avert social engineering attacks besides having robust security planning.
What is your vision for Synesis IT over the next decade?
Our immediate goal is to come into IPO by 2020-21. The reason behind this is we want to be a respected organization globally. A significant portion of our IPO will be used to strengthen our R&D and develop our AI and Deep learning programs on par with our global counterparts. Our desire to lead the industry in Bangladesh has compelled us to come under IPO.
Concurrently, Synesis IT wants to become one of the leaders in e-governance in the global market. We want to replicate our success in Bangladesh in other developing nations and earn remittance for our country. Our vision is to establish ourselves as a leading ICT company globally and contribute significantly to the knowledge-based industry.
Any last comments on the ICT sector?
Shohorab Ahmed Chowdhury
We (Shohorab Ahmed and Rupayan Chowdhury) started Synesis IT with considerable financial constraints. At that point, we had no income or a place to sit. But we thought very highly of our company and even compared ourselves with the Microsoft Corporation. That high ambition and desire to become the best in the world is still existent among us, and I believe that desire is our company’s core strength. Our dream has consistently been to become a compliant, ethical and respected company in the world. My suggestion to the young entrepreneurs in the ICT sector would be to keep passion and honesty at the core of your growth strategy. We firmly believe that to succeed in the sector, one needs passion and persistence.