“As a water company, we are dealing with an essential human necessity; a responsibility that requires the utmost diligence and attention to detail through regular monitoring and robust after- sales services.”
MUSTAFA AZIM KASEM KHAN is the Director of Project Implementation of A K Khan & Company Ltd and the Director of Business Development of A K Khan WaterHealth Bangladesh Ltd. He has previously served as an Underwriting Team Leader at State Farm Insurance and Account Manager of Ricoh in Toronto, Canada.
MURTEZA RAFI KHAN is the Co-founder and Director of A K Khan WaterHealth Bangladesh Ltd, a Founder Member and Advisor of A K Khan – CRP and Project Director of A K Khan & Co Ltd and A K Khan Foundation. He is also a coordinator of Bangladesh Business and Disability Network Task Force.
Could you elaborate upon the business that you are conducting? What are the key components of the success of your business?
Mustafa: Murteza and I convinced A. K. Khan Group to invest in the water sector. The initial investment was made into Community Water Systems (CWS), promoted by WaterHealth International. The business model is to set up decentralized water purification plants in rural areas and collect a minimal user fee. In their model communities, the land was donated while the Panchayat (local government in India) supported the Company’s entry as a safe water provider alongside global investors and donors.
We faced several challenges with that business model in Bangladesh. There was no Panchayat donating land as most rural land is privately owned in Bangladesh. Very few people were willing to come to the CWS site to collect water. Our intention was the same as it is now; we want to solve the safe drinking water crisis in Bangladesh. At present our approach is different, and we consider the need for clean water anywhere in the country a priority.
Murteza: We take the utmost priority in providing quality treated water to our customers. As a water company, we are dealing with an essential human necessity; a responsibility that requires the utmost diligence and attention to detail through regular monitoring and robust after-sales services. We are also a flexible company that has been able to diversify its product range based on technological innovations and market requirements, thereby expanding our risk and revenue streams. Furthermore, we have assembled a dedicated team of young professionals who are eager to prove themselves and enjoy a degree of autonomy.
The other key component to our success has been partnering organizations such as Friendship NGO, which is more efficiently able to manage our rural footprint in salinity hit Satkhira, due to their existing presence in the community.
What new ideas have you introduced for your business so far? How do you generate new ideas?
Mustafa: Our core idea was to find new product lines leveraging our expertise in water to offer innovative solutions to our customers; the more skills and SKUs you have, the larger the opportunity to meet your client’s need. Instead of pushing our original business plan on our customers, we began to start considering their requirements more carefully and then dedicated ourselves to meeting them in the most quality conscious and effective manner.
We can provide safe drinking water out of the tap for commercial and household clients. Our provisions entail water solutions including but not limited to Effluent Treatment Plants and Sewerage Treatment Plants.
Murteza: New ideas can come from anywhere regarding the different aspects of our business. We have a very open culture where team members are encouraged to share their knowledge and ideas regardless of their designation. We always strive to offer the latest technological innovations that are suitable for the local market.
Generating new ideas is in our DNA, as the company was founded based on an entirely new model for the Bangladesh market. As we’ve fine-tuned our business plan, we are offering a unique blend of products, which no other water company currently provides. Currently, our 20 liters jar water brand, Dr. Water, is the market leader in Chittagong amongst BSTI approved players. Operating and maintaining the quality of water on a daily basis has made us intimately knowledgeable about water purification. We have been able to adapt and apply this expertise to all our other product offerings. At present, our installed base is capable of treating close to 3,500,000 liters of water on a daily basis.
How do you define success? What is the best way to achieve long-term success?
Mustafa: Success is being able to meet the needs of your clients, employees, and stakeholders in a profitable and sustainable way. Long-term success is achieved by meeting the demand of your market, regarding both quality and price. We are in the water business, and one mistake could lead to significant negative consequences. Another way to achieve long-term success is to team up with the right global partner in the industry that you operate in. Our Group decided to partner with Telekom Malaysia to launch AKTEL, and it was the most successful project in the history of A. K. Khan Group. We are hoping to do the same in the water sector.
Murteza: Success comes with multiple indicators for me. The positive social impact our work has had on our customers, and other stakeholders is an important aspect to consider. Every time someone is using safe water because of us, it is a success. Of course to sustain and grow, impact and monetary success are also required, as a means to an end. The goal post keeps moving as you hit or miss certain targets, but the key is to continue conducting oneself with positive intentions and to try to be of service in an attempt to leave the world better than the way you found it. I think if you keep doing that, while learning from challenges and failures, success will follow in the long run.
What are your thoughts on the business climate in Bangladesh?
Mustafa: My fiancé says that Bangladesh can be South Korea in 20 years, and I believe her. Growing at 6-8% annually for over a decade will more than double your economy. We have seen the results of that growth in our water solutions business. In 2014, we had 7 system installations, and currently, we have 50. No other country in the world that will allow you the kind of growth opportunities that Bangladesh does, even with limited capital and resources.
My country is a land of opportunity in a world that is starved for growth. We will take advantage of being located next to India, which is officially the fastest growing large economy in the world. CEAT AKKHAN Ltd. is the single largest Indian investment in Bangladesh to date. We are hopeful many more such investments will come to our country.
Murteza: Currently Bangladesh has all the necessary components to continue its economic acceleration. The private sector has been thriving, and it is clear that the country is well positioned to take advantage of its youthful demographic and entrepreneurial leaders. We are predicted to become the 2nd fastest growing economy globally in the next few years as we reach middle-income status. Our companies are innovating and improving the quality of products and services that are available; even higher end global brands are now sustainable in some segments of the market.
At the same time, there is still an urgent need to manage this explosive growth in a responsible way, taking into consideration the wellbeing of our people and our environment. We want robust growth in conjunction with development, which a lot of other emerging economies have failed to achieve historically.
What is your vision regarding the expansion of your business?
Mustafa and Murteza: Safe water is a product that is a necessity for everyone. We will not rest until we provide clean water coverage to 160 million Bangladeshis. In the past, we have promoted mobile phones, and now there are 130 million people that are connected to them. Why can it not be the same for water? We are ready to work with all interested parties to make this a reality, as it is a tough target given the ability and willingness to pay for water.
The need continues to grow with the country, and we want to be positioned as the preferred company and market leader when it comes to water treatment infrastructure in Bangladesh.
What was the best advice you ever got?
Mustafa: AKK’s Executive Director told me that we should not spend our remaining equity money, as there may be no more. We took this advice seriously and started to implement an eat what you kill policy. For example, the Company would need to make enough income to meet its obligations as this was not always the case in the starting phases of any company. The best way to achieve this is to forego excessive margins on individual deals for building long-term relationships with your clients. Each customer is a potential partner, and if you serve their needs, they will remain loyal. In a business like ours, customer loyalty can make or break it.
Murteza: The mark of a true entrepreneur is exhibited with the ability to overcome the hard times. During difficult periods, the world can be against you, and you must still have faith in your mission and pull through, even when no one else does.