Tech entrepreneur and CEO of Hishab, Zubair Ahmed, talks about his vision of making mobile banking accessible to all with conversational AI.
You are an engineer by education, a banker by profession and a tech entrepreneur working toward digital inclusion using conversational AI. Could you please elaborate on this journey, and how that led to the creation of your company, Hishab?
I have studied engineering all my life, but later on, I realised that I’m more interested in the finance industry. I began my career as a banker which took me all over the world – the US, the UK, and Singapore. In the end, I was an investment banker in Japan and my job was to find out interesting companies or startups and invest in them. Somewhere along my career, I also wanted to do something by myself and become an entrepreneur and solve a problem with a solution that I truly believed in.
Back then, mobile financial services (MFS) had been operational in Bangladesh for around four years, and I spotted a few problems with MFS platforms. The majority of MFS customers faced difficulties using the interface and needed someone to assist them with their mobile banking. So, I started thinking of ways to solve this problem and offer a solution that was easy enough for anyone from anywhere around the world to do mobile banking without having to learn what banking is. But building an app would not work because the majority of the Bangladeshi population is still digitally illiterate. A lot of people now have smartphones, but among them, a lot of them do not know how to access the app store, search for an app, download it, and then figure out how to use it. So, the solution was conversational AI – an artificially intelligent assistant talking to you over your phone to figure out your banking needs. This led to the creation of Hishab.
What is Hishab? What are the services offered by Hishab and who is its target market?
Hishab is a telephony conversational AI that lets you do banking by talking. Primarily, our service is voice pay and the customer segment is predominantly financial institutions.
Initially, we targeted mobile financial service providers, banks and microfinance institutions. Currently, the active-user ratio is around twenty-five per cent, most of which is for receiving salaries, government pensions, or social safety net money. Hishab’s end goal is to increase this ratio using conversational AI.
Most MFS users still physically go to agents instead of using their phones to do banking which does not bring us any closer to using digital banking the way it was envisioned. Only around ten per cent of our population is actively using MFS in its intended way. We believe this has to do with the user interface, which most users find bulky.
By using conversational AI, Hishab makes the process of sending money intuitive and spontaneous. All it takes is making a phone call to our system, and the system asks you simple questions, like, whether you would like to send money, how much would you like to send and to whom? The user can just answer these in a casual, conversational tone, and the AI will make it happen.
You can use Hishab with any phone in the market. You don’t need an internet connection. You don’t need to learn to use an app. All you need to know is how to make a phone call, and you will be able to do digital banking. Our system is so user-friendly, that MFS users will need little to no digital literacy to operate it.
As someone who has been so deeply involved in the field of machine learning, could you share your insights into the current state of AI in Bangladesh?
Bangladesh is doing really great in AI and there are a lot of people passionate about advancing the field. A graduate engineer could work in any one of the several AI companies in Bangladesh, and they will very quickly understand the way it is being practised.
I think engineers should focus on these two things – research and filing patents. In the field of AI, there needs to be constant R&D. But because R&D involves working on things that may not necessarily yield returns, companies may be reluctant to invest in it. But it’s important to go through the process of discovery and failure to come to a solution that is well-researched. And after that, it is equally important to file for patents. Protect your intellectual property. It is very uncommon to see Bangladeshi companies filing for patents, and that is very discouraging. We all know that the world is moving toward AI, and we may be able to make intelligent programs, but, without a patent, we will not be able to sell them.
IT IS VERY UNCOMMON TO SEE BANGLADESHI COMPANIES FILING FOR PATENTS, AND THAT IS VERY DISCOURAGING. WE ALL KNOW THAT THE WORLD IS MOVING TOWARD AI, AND WE MAY BE ABLE TO MAKE INTELLIGENT PROGRAMS, BUT, WITHOUT A PATENT, WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO SELL THEM.
With your years of entrepreneurial experience, you are able to recognize companies with high-growth potential. What characteristics do you look for to evaluate whether a company is likely to succeed?
I think the most important thing here is perseverance. If you believe in your vision and believe that it is something you can do for the rest of your life, then no matter what people say about your ideas, you should stick to what you’re doing. There have been several examples of start-ups in Bangladesh that people were sceptical about, but now they are growing at a fantastic pace and doing extremely well in the market. We have seen them in the online grocery industry, agro-tech, B2B communication sector, and so many others. So, I would say, never give up, because, at the end of the day, it’s you who is going to make a difference.
What hard skills do you believe are necessary to become a tech entrepreneur?
Planning and strategy, project management, and presentation-making skills are very important to an entrepreneur. To effectively plan and strategise your business, you should be able to make the business plan on Excel, or some other spreadsheet software. Your actions and activities will be ultimately connected to your revenue so you must know what your marketing strategy will be and how the numbers will tie up at the end.
To be a good project manager, you need to be able to expand and elaborate your plan into micro-details. You should know how to track your progress at each stage and execute them in a timely manner.
Finally, you need to be able to convey your message effectively. This is where your presentation-making skill is important. You have to know how to tell your story because not everyone is from your area of expertise. Your audience should know what your presentation is about within the first three to four minutes. So, show the product demo first, and then go into the details.
Photographs by Ridhwan Chowdhury Adnan