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Somewhere between the invention of the microwave and the discovery of cheap labor, we lost our patience. We now have a burning need to cure the cold today and have dinner warmed in three minutes. Rather than allowing everything its organic time and process, we seek instant gratification. This greedy habit has eradicated not only liveable wages and sustainable production but also quality and pride in a product born out of rich, ancestral traditions.

The days of textiles threaded with allegory and the rustic beauty of human error are behind us. We are accustomed to wearing plastic now, with 40% of our ready-made garments being made with polyester. Craftsmen, unable to keep up with those economies of scale, lose their art as the future generations do not see it as a stable means of survival.

The arts and crafts of a nation are not just products. They are histories embedded in material objects, telling stories of the peoples who made them. For a country like Bangladesh that thrives off its abundant heritage, true knowledge should be recognized in the expert molding of silver or clay pots. However, post-independence urbanization has left these makers searching for customers that will value this expertise over the shinier, cheaper alternative. Therefore, artisans were no longer present in the frame of the changing canvas of the nation.

It was against this backdrop that BRAC, the world-renowned Bangladeshi non-governmental organization, was looking for ideas on how to engage rural women in income generating activities as part of its development program. In 1976, BRAC founder Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and his wife Ayesha Abed, would engage women in sericulture and making crafts as a means of livelihood. It started a dynamic of women’s employment and connection to the national market that had been severed with the decline of the pre-existing handicrafts industry.

Today, that connection has become Aarong, a one-stop shop for quality-ensured, 100% Bangladeshi crafts.  Its popularity grew such that within a short period of time, it emerged as the country’s most iconic fashion and lifestyle brand. Four decades on and Aarong remains the strongest connection between thousands of rural artisans and a growing urban customer base.

The ethos of Aarong embodies Steve Job’s words, “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” The brand today has single-handedly revived the nation’s interest in and access to its own arts and crafts. It has also allowed the consumer to experience the quality of the products made by local artisans. The result was that an entire nexus of craftsman who finally saw economic benefit in continuing their art was born; all the while protecting age-old traditions. The social enterprise has proven that nakshi kantha stitch need not be confined to the bed and bamboo is as decorative as it is functional. 

A Case For Definition
Following the Liberation War, Sir Fazle founded an institution that would soon integrate into the social fabric of society. The Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee or now just BRAC was built to grow alongside the people of a newly independent nation. The founding members were aware that success was only possible with an entity that could sustain itself. The NGO’s reach today extends to more than 130 million people in 11 countries, with a focus on financial empowerment, health, education, and human rights. Currently Aarong, one of BRAC’s 13 social enterprises, contributes 50% of its profits towards BRAC’s development programs and retains 50% for future expansion.

This social enterprise would come to ensure women in rural areas are benefited by being able to continue their household chores while earning an income on the side. To secure market linkage, BRAC began marketing and supplying their products to shops in Dhaka. However, they found that payments were made only once the products were sold. A small NGO at that time, BRAC found it difficult to pay the women and the idea of having its own retail outlet, Aarong, was born. The first Aarong shop opened its doors on Satmasjid Road in 1978. This undertaking would not only allow the women in BRAC’s program to get paid in a timely manner, but opened up market linkage opportunities for craft producers across the country.

Sir Fazle defines social enterprise as a business that is built with the ambition to solve social problems. “The issue in the case of Aarong was marketing the products of marginalized artisans in rural areas. They could not sustain themselves and their craft solely through traditional sales channels. We decided that we would become that market in the urban areas.” He emphasizes that social enterprises generate opportunities for disadvantaged people and reinvest all of their profits into a cause. “All the profit from Aarong is invested in social purposes like education or health care, primarily for women. We are not just about creating a livelihood, our focus is on bettering it.” Sir Fazle affirms that the organization is always responsible for its artisans. “Our artisans’ welfare is of paramount importance. The quality of craftsmanship will also be consistent when they are holistically supported.”

“We understood early on that creating employment for rural women was particularly a concern. We assured them that we would pay for their merchandise even if it did not sell. We wanted to stop the dynamic of giving power and credit solely to the shopkeeper.” The enterprise that launched seven years after Bangladesh’s independence has since developed the largest supply chain of artisans in the country. This is necessary for a nation where the urban population has grown by 6% annually since 1971. Sir Fazle conveys that Aarong was built to support a changing Bangladesh. “We created the quintessential social enterprise where the distribution of profits would solve the rural marketing disparity. Aarong also helped rural artisans understand the urban market, its taste, and lifestyle in order for them to produce the right kind of product.”  

Sir Fazle Hasan Abed
Founder & Chairperson, BRAC

He expounds upon the second purpose behind Aarong when discussing nakshi designs, an embroidery technique that has become emblematic of Bangladesh’s national identity. A befitting comparison is that these traditional nakshi kantha throws are just as elaborate as Aarong’s history. “Our other initiative was to promote the arts and culture of Bangladesh. Kantha designs are common and have been a part of the history of rural communities for hundreds of years.” At Aarong’s flagship store in Uttara, Sir Fazle walks towards a boxed shelf on the second floor towards neatly stacked kanthas according to their color. The motifs have changed through regions and time. “We collected designs from across the world; including from museums from Kolkata to Chicago.” 

The kanthas come in black, red, and white. Some are extremely intricate, exhibiting a kaleidoscope of colors, while others are stitched in shades of blues, greens, and brown. Pillows that complement these tapestries are neatly stacked in various shapes and sizes just behind it. “These designs are shown to the embroiderers so they would have more design options to draw on. The variety of design you see today was brought in by us. It did not necessarily exist 50 years ago.” Sir Fazle recollects finding design influences from unobserved places. “We collected over 132 outlines of alpona from various parts of the country. If you also look at the mishti (sweets) and pithas (cakes) of Bengal, you’ll see they have a composition too. Therefore, it became a matter of applying extensive research to incorporate these designs into the crafts and clothing.”

“All the profit from Aarong is invested in social purposes like education or health care, primarily for women. We are not just about creating a livelihood, our focus is on bettering it.”- Sir Fazle Hasan Abed

Aarong has since introduced these patterns into garments, bags, and tapestries. He affirms that the organization has done the same with jamdani sarees. “The jamdani market was very small, with only a few hundred people involved. It was on the verge of non-existence. Now, there are 10,000 people working in the industry. We also brought jamdani designs from museums and collectors to be reproduced.” Aarong’s restoration led to the first exhibition of jamdani at Shilpakala Academy in 1981; a testament of the beginning of a revival of the crafts. “We began production for the jamdani exhibit in 1979. With the support of Syed Zillur Rahman, the director of the gallery at the time, we were able to host the event. Our success inspired subsequent exhibits such as the ones we have done for the nakshi kantha.” Aarong’s focus on design and product development would always be at the core of its long-term success. 

Tamara Hasan Abed
Senior Director, BRAC Enterprises

Missing the Point: the Unparalleled Value of Work by Hand
“My first experiences with Aarong were before the store materialized. I would go with my mother to villages across Bangladesh. She would immerse herself into the world of weavers and mastercraftsmen making jewelry, pottery, etc discussing motifs, designs, and techniques with them,” reminisces Tamara Hasan Abed, Sr. Director of Aarong and daughter of Sir Fazle and Ayesha Abed. Tamara feels that her passion comes from her mother who was present during the inaugural stages of what is a large conglomerate today, employing over 65,000 Bangladeshis throughout the country. 

“When women earn, they have a place in the community, decision-making abilities in the household while enabling them to handle their children’s education. We also want these women to have a sense of identity by investing in themselves and procuring assets.” – Tamara Hasan Abed

Aarong has provided loans, commissioned consistent orders, provided facilities, and trained many of artisans in order for them to expand. “Our artisans should see themselves as entrepreneurs. Sustaining this supply chain is an emerging hurdle. The time to give craft products more attention, value and investment is now.” Aarong’s army of skilled artisans is what makes them stand out. This nationwide community is the reason behind the distinct identity of the brand. Tamara takes pride in this specialty but also mentions the complexity of such an operation. “Maintaining a unified quality with products from numerous sources and scattered locations is a constant challenge. When you are mass producing, everything is in a factory. You have control and supervision of the process.”

Defining the value of handicraft in a world full of cheaper options can be painstaking. For example, Persian rugs can cost up to 2,700% more than those that are manufactured in bulk. “In our case, it is even more difficult because we have to balance efficiency with our social goals. It ultimately comes down to showing that you have a superior product. We will never be able to produce at the rate of machine-made products so our design and quality have to stand out.” She goes on to say that we also have to generate more appreciation for our own crafts. “Whenever we think of high-end sarees, our first thought is to fly across the border. We have Tk. 100,000 jamdanis at Aarong because we want to demonstrate that local pieces can be high-end too.” The exclusive jamadanis are adorned with silver and gold weaving; these are kept in closed glass displays on the first floor of the outlet. They are Bangladesh’s couture, given that a few exclusive pieces are made never to be replicated. Some of them have taken months to make. That was the inspiration behind HERSTORY. A fairly new line from Aarong, HERSTORY exudes uniqueness and exclusivity from clients who want to wear something Bangladeshi.”

Four Decades and the Future
Tamara wants to focus on the youth for Aarong’s 40th Anniversary Festival this October. “Earlier generations grew up in villages or visited them often and are more familiar with handmade products. The current generation is more confined to urban life. They are not exposed to the painstaking work, skill, and artistry behind everything we sell. Aarong’s 40th Year Festival between 25-27th October at Army Stadium will be free and open to all to experience live craft demonstrations and workshops and enjoy food, music, and fashion with their friends and family. Our hope is that through this we can elevate the understanding and appreciation for our own crafts and heritage.”

Tamara asserts that catering to the youth is the next step, “If we want the attention of the younger generation, we realized that we would have to make products for them. Our research showed that Aarong was not focused on the younger male generation at all, so we introduced Taaga Man in August this year to cater to that demographic.” Taaga and Taaga Man, sub-brands of Aarong, opened its first dedicated outlet this year in the center of Dhanmondi. “We want the youth to take pride in wearing something that is completely Bangladeshi, while catering to their global tastes. Our Taaga store has a unique modern ambiance that complements the apparel.”

Aarong has its sights set on moving further afield after decades of dominating the local market. “Our e-commerce already delivers products to any part of Bangladesh and will soon be shipping internationally. We are also at the preliminary stages of launching the Aarong app. The consumer now wants a personalized experience more than anything and we are working to achieve that.”

Tamara also understands that customer targeting involves being active on social media platforms. With 3.1 billion users, these platforms attain 42% penetration, with 71% of consumers more likely to purchase based on social media referrals, and 8 out of 10 users stating that a company’s social media engagement impacts their purchase. “We are looking to be more active on social media platforms such as Snapchat and Instagram. Club Taaga, a new loyalty program, was launched to give younger consumers something to come back for. Brand alliance and loyalty are a priority at Aarong. The exponential growth of digital media has allowed us to expand those offers.” The team at Aarong understands that shopping is an experience. They have devised the right ambiance in every store. “The design of our stores makes shopping convenient and easy. Shopping is a sensory experience. Our retail and visual merchandising teams are responsible for ensuring an enhanced customer experience.”

The Innovative Philanthropists: Scaling with a Purpose
Social enterprises are on the rise in South Asia. Studies have shown that India leads the way with nearly 2 million, while Thailand, Bangladesh, and the Philippines are emerging with 116,000, 150,000 and 60,000 respectively. The challenge for these organizations becomes a matter of how they want to scale while staying true to their purpose.

When expanding their scope, social enterprises have to consider how they can maximize impact. They have to decide as to whether they will invest in their current coverage or broaden their reach. Aarong has over 800 small and medium entrepreneurs supplying to them. “We audit our producers under our social compliance audit to make sure they are looking after our artisans. Investing in our suppliers establishes increased capacity in the long run. Our financial support allows them to maximize their volume.” Given that it is not a mechanized project, her team supervises consistent production through the year. The vertical integration of their production and retail allows them to plan and forecast sale prior to the sales year. “To ensure consistent orders for producers we receive warehouse products for the holiday season throughout the year. This is not financially optimal but it keeps production centers of smaller producers running.”

Putting women at the center; Aarong’s focus is on interventions that make the biggest difference to women. Studies show that women make up 45% of the full-time workforce of social enterprises in Bangladesh. Aarong has surpassed this number where 85% of its artisans are women. Aarong organizes artisans directly through the Ayesha Abed Foundation (AAF). The foundation manages over 35,000 artisans through 14 production centers and 637 subcenters. Tamara affirms that Aarong works with BRAC to improve the livelihood of its artisans. “We want to instill behavioral changes that create impact. Workers at AAF receive education and healthcare benefits from BRAC. We have also introduced annual check-ups, health insurance, and retirement benefits for them.” AAF plans to start more centers in different parts of Bangladesh. Every year 500,000 people migrate to Dhaka looking for jobs. Most of them end up in a cycle of poverty. We want to continue to create opportunities for women in rural areas. Only 33% of women in Bangladesh participate in the labor force, in comparison to 80% of men. Additionally, a 10% increase in women’s participation could raise the GDP by 1%. Tamara continues the expansion of Aarong with BRAC’s values, “When women earn, they have a place in the community, decision-making abilities in the household while enabling them to handle their children’s education. We also want these women to have a sense of identity by investing in themselves and procuring assets.”

A forty year journey has discovered the formula for broader solutions and protecting the history of crafts in a developing Bangladesh. Aarong is a business of inclusivity, providing opportunities for those who do not see it in themselves. The establishment goes beyond supporting and advancing the rural artisan, it’s centered on showing them that their workmanship is irreplaceable.

Photographs of Sir Fazle Hasan Abed and Tamara Abed are by Din M Shibly
Photographs of artisans from Aarong

Was there any defining moment while you grow up when you decided to become an entrepreneur?
When you are born in a family where virtually everyone is a business person, you are well aware of your destiny. The knowledge of the business was embedded in our upbringing; my siblings and I were involved with work back when we were in class six. Our father did not want us to join our company as bosses right after graduation, rather he wanted us to become colleagues of our employees. Experienced executives of respective departments mentored us. Consequently, by the time we graduated, we had been mentored by a General A manager who had been an executive and that augmented our acceptability. Besides, we were allowed to work in sectors which we were interested in. As I had a knack for cars from a very young age, I was given the responsibility to put oil in the car and calculate the mileage when I was in class six. I was also given the responsibility of maintaining the roster of commercial vehicles.
After that, I joined the head office at stationary purchase before moving to raw material procurement. By the time I graduated, I had more than ten years of experience of working in our company, so I never faced any cultural shock. Additionally, throughout my higher studies in abroad, I worked in different organizations as my father had the policy that you must have three years of prior work experience before joining the company. So, instead of wasting time, I earned my stipulated work experience while I was doing my higher studies.
He also wanted us to experience management styles of different cultures and assimilate them into our company. The combination of academic learning and practical experience gives the actions a lot more value.

Do you believe you would have been a different person, had there been no family legacy?
I never thought of it that way; maybe it would have been different; I might not have been blessed with so many opportunities otherwise. I executed the opportunities and scopes I was given to be the man I am today. Everybody has potential, but to turn that into something meaningful, someone has to provide that opportunity, and that’s true for everyone.
You seem to be hugely influenced by your father’s philosophy and vision. Are there any differences between his and your leadership styles?
Every human being has a leadership figure whom he follows throughout his life. From a religious perspective, our Prophet Hazrat Muhammad Sallallahu Alihiwasallam is the greatest leader this world has ever seen. We are following teachings that he left for us 1400 years ago. From a religious and family perspective, I am heavily influenced by my father, and so is the case for the rest of my family members. More than a leader, he has been an incredible family member. The way he nurtured us had immense
implications on our lives. None of us in the family can match his leadership capacity and foresightedness.

Has it ever occurred that he is in a way eclipsing you to bloom?
My father’s management style was very different. The day we stepped in, he left the company. Unless we reached out to him, he never interfered in our work. My father was a self-educated person, the kind of corporate foresightedness and compatibility that he possessed with so limited educational background is almost unimaginable.
He has given us the complete opportunity to execute what we wanted to as long as our Board of Directors were convinced. It is a common practice within the organization that any business proposal must get the consent of the Board of Directors to go ahead with. If unanimously there is a disagreement, that means I have failed to present my case.

How would you define your leadership style?
I prefer to be the person who reaches out, instead of dictating, I prioritize on becoming part of the journey — training them to achieve goals that the company desires from them. Instead of micromanaging, I prefer to establish a set of goals that we want them to achieve. We also expect them to learn about the culture and vision that we ourselves have acquired from our company. Until an employee empathizes with the core values of the organization, genuine respect for the values will not develop. Irrespective of individual performance, everyone needs to grasp the real purpose of this organization. A company cannot sustain solely on financial aspirations. I read somewhere that “Profit is the only logical thing to follow in business”, it is also crucial to understand why we need to make that profit. It enables them to explore more avenues and perform more efficiently. We practice the culture of enabling each other and grow.
Additionally, it’s extremely important for us to create a sense of belonging among the employees, and make sure they treat this entity like their own family. Even when people part ways with Anwar Group, they always feel part of the family. Most importantly, we have a very open culture at our offices; everyone is encouraged to share their ideas. I know about 80% of my employees by their names which is still less than my father as he knew every employee personally.

Can you share with us a challenging moment in your career?
I am actually going through one right now. Our economy is currently going through a lot of transformations; it is a challenge to assimilate to so many changes. I am also finding it difficult to maintain a work-life balance. Consequently, I have been trying to unlearn and relearn; unlearn some obsolete ideas and re-learn what I should have learned in a different way, in terms of execution and management styles.
With time, customer perception and habits have changed and we are trying to understand the transformation and get ahead of the curve.

What do you believe is the catalyst for this change in customer motivation?
If I talk about the jute industry in particular, unfortunately, there hasn’t been enough developments. The biggest reason behind this is the lack of R&D. In terms of policy perspective, we have actually failed to protect this industry. To some extent, we have politicized this sector and as a result, this sector has remained neglected. It is extremely regrettable because this is the only product whose entire process, from raw jute to finished product is generated in Bangladesh. That means we have the opportunity to make a 100% value addition in this sector. Unfortunately, until now, we are stuck in its rudimentary uses in the micro and cottage industry scale.
I have been very excited about “Sonali Bag” and I have personally talked to Dr. Mubarak Ahmad Khan about its commercial availability. As of now, the product is not ready for commercial production but even if he manages to make it available, I am skeptical whether we will be able to utilize the benefits.

How eager do you believe is the government to share the knowledge with the private sector of the breakthroughs made in the jute industry?
Our Prime Minister has already stated informally to share them (the knowledge) with the private sector. But often, that is not possible due to bureaucratic complications. There are also questions about intellectual property rights, which solely belongs to the government. But I believe the inventor should be rewarded through financial benefits from the rights even though he was working under the government when he made the breakthrough. It will encourage more innovations and some of the most innovative countries practice that.
The government could have benefited a lot more by licensing out the rights to use the technology in the private sector. That’s how the most developed countries have gone so far ahead in innovation, they are encouraging it (innovation) by allowing to share the proceeds of the usage rights among stakeholders in the innovation process.
It also encourages the entities in the private sector to invest in innovative programs as the money is going to the different research institutions and universities. Unfortunately, initiatives like these are non-existent in our country.

Where do you believe the reluctance to innovate or share knowledge amongst us stem from?
It stems from a mix of several negative mindsets that exist in our society in general. Ignorance, arrogance, general lack of knowledge on how to capitalize on such things and bureaucratic mindset have deterred us from the path of innovation.

Now coming back to Bangladesh’s economy. What do you believe is the biggest challenge for Bangladesh’s economy right now?
One of our biggest assets that we keep talking about is our demographic dividend. More than 65% of our population is 25 or younger, a significant number of them are already in the workforce. We have to ask ourselves whether we are creating enough high-skilled jobs for them.
We have to prepare our workforce for the fourth industrial revolution and develop the necessary skill set to keep up with the changing world. A few days back, at Hamad International Airport in Qatar, I noticed, most employees were Nepalese. From lounge to security, everywhere you look, there was an overwhelming number of Nepali nationals employed there. It was also very surprising to see so many Nepalese women employed in blue-collar jobs there, whereas, women migrant workers from Bangladesh generally work as a house help. Conversely, the workforce we are producing at the moment will not be interested in low skilled labor such as house help or night guard, therefore, they might find it difficult to land blue-collar jobs in the future if those are already occupied by other nationals. Therefore, managing our greatest asset is our biggest concern.

Do you believe the industry-academia gap is responsible for the lack of skill set development?
Absolutely! Our educational institutions are preparing the youth for the present rather than the future. We are not paying any attention to future needs and that’s true even in the private sector. I cannot find Bangladeshi CTOs (Chief Technology Officer) who can guide me to modernize our office and industry for future compatibility. They are good for the current perspective but do lack the vision for the future.

How can we solve this problem?
Unfortunately, we have to import skilled workforce in our country, who can train and educate our local employees. But if we bring in somebody who will take up his role and not train others, that will be detrimental. Currently, the transfer of knowledge is missing, we are bringing in people but not allowing them to grow into their shoes. Until we do that, bringing people is not going to provide us an advantage.
At Anwar Group, we have a few foreign employees who have contractual obligations to groom a particular number of local managers within a certain period of time. Foreign employees are more driven than the locals because they have certain sets of targets to achieve to earn contract renewal.

How do we change this mindset amongst ourselves of taking things for granted at work?
I believe, it has a lot to do with our own managerial skill-set. Often, we fail to establish accountability in our institutions. We also fail to empathize with the importance of carrying out a task responsibly in our institutions. It is extremely important to make employees feel that they are part of the institution and that’s the responsibility of managers. You must have very good managers because, at the end of the day, everybody has differing potential and capacity; we have to help them to grow to their full potential.

One of the concerns we have about unemployment problem is lack of investment and developing new enterprises. Do you believe we have favorable climate for foreign investment?
Absolutely not! Over the five decades since independence, the private sector has been the major driver of our economy. If the private sector is not comfortable with the current environment, how can you expect foreign companies to invest in our country? We have a long way to go in ensuring a standard business environment. Our development will not be sustainable if we fail to improve our business environment at a pace faster than the rate of our development. Our growth rate of 8% did not happen overnight: it is the result of a lot of hard work. We now have the opportunity to grow exponentially if we can remove the barriers to doing business. Bangladesh is far behind in Cost of Doing Business and Ease of Doing Business index. This year we have progressed eight steps on the Ease of Doing Business Index on the other hand Pakistan has improved 28 steps. In the cost of doing business, we are only making our processes more complicated–according to proposed regulations companies will now have to file tax returns of their employees. How can they expect me to file tax returns of 14,000 of my employees? Instead of making things easier, they (bureaucrats) are walking backward.

What is your take on the startup scene of our country? Are we doing enough to develop entrepreneurs?
Alhamdulillah! I believe we have done quite well. The initiatives started from the private sector and now the government is, well, on board. Bangladesh Investment Development Authority (BIDA) and ICT division have undertaken some commendable programs which were not there when we were coming up as entrepreneurs. At that time, there were very few opportunities to formally fund your business through investors. Over the years’ numerous organizations have invested heavily in developing student entrepreneurs. I am thrilled to see so many initiatory steps are taken to develop them (entrepreneurs). However, we have to simplify the processes of business licensing, registration and taxation to see a robust improvement in the start-up scene.

What is your take on the future of fintech in Bangladesh?
As a company, we are also keeping a close eye on the sector, as we also have a number of financial institutions. I believe, we are a little behind, not only as a company but also as a country. The financial institutions are trying to jump on that bandwagon, there have been discussions on bringing block-chain and also how companies like us can implement them in our operations. However, as I have stated previously, I am yet to find a CTO who can guide me through the implementation process.

How can we reduce overall corruption in our country?
Digitization is definitely the most important tool against corruption. By reducing the number of human interactions. We can ensure there are fewer chances of corruption. More and more bureaucratic complications will end up making the business processes more vulnerable to corruption and eventually to failure. Most importantly, the citizens need to be aware of their rights.

You travel a lot, has that changed you as a business person?
I try to learn from each and every trip that I make, whether its international or within the boundaries of our country. I try to bring something back from every travel.

Can you please share one such learning moment?
It is difficult to point out one particular moment. For example, I just mentioned about something that I witnessed in Doha Airport, I usually share this information with my counterparts who are involved in the sector and ask them about why we (Bangladesh) are missing out on these jobs. From a company perspective, we joined a learning session where they discussed how a CEO can actually become a bottleneck in terms of the company’s growth and what needs to be done to avoid this scenario. After coming back, I implemented that knowledge in our company.

Can you simplify in a few lines about how a CEO becomes a bottleneck in a company?
Everybody has a set of knowledge and a certain bandwidth, if you have a challenge that is bigger than you, to solve that problem, you actually have to move up towards it. Until and unless you have that knowledge, you won’t be able to reach there and solve it, the same thing happens in a company. To resolve the bottleneck, you have to surpass yourself by evolving through learning and adaptation.

In a conversation with Asif Tarafdar, the CEO of Grameenphone Ltd, Michael Foley divulges on what it takes to stay ahead in the ever-evolving telecom industry, the delights of working in Bangladesh and the things that keep him awake at night. 

The Telecom industry is a dynamic and rapidly evolving sector, what challenges does this pose? What are the strategies that help you to ensure the ship is guided in the right direction?
That’s a wonderful question and a great topic to start the conversation because our industry and the world is becoming much more complicated. In the past, in telecom, the only real evolution was in technology, and you could predict the path of progression. Now, the transformation has become multidimensional; every other aspect of the sector is evolving, including the regulatory environment and international competition. Concurrently, new players are entering the market like OTTs (Over The TOP), cross-platform messaging and VoIP platforms like WhatsApp and Viber. Most importantly, consumer behaviour and preferences are constantly evolving.
Consequently, the future is no longer predictable; therefore, we have to allow ourselves to perceive/predict and react, which is not easy for big companies. To make that happen, we have had to change the culture of not just Grameenphone fundamentally, but the entire Telenor Group over the last four years to become much more supple. It allowed us to adapt quickly and look for opportunities where otherwise we would not have searched before. The process stipulates making the organization leaner. It also involves removing layers of management, automating and replacing outdated systems. Instead of using massive system developments and releases once every half year, or every year, we now have a customer-facing tool, MyGP, which we do releases every two weeks. Therefore, we moved to a completely different operation from where we were before.
So, the answer to dealing with an uncertain future is to give yourself the tools to be much more flexible. And we call that “Agile”; we have to react quickly. But we also have to predict and move fast while being in touch with the market by using tools like Big Data and AI.

How has GrameenPhone incorporated the use of Big data and AI in its operations?
We use Big Data, Machine learning, and some AI to design promotions. They help us to understand the consumers by Upazilas, or even smaller groups and design promotions accordingly. Grameenphone can modify the offers that consumers get, based on their usage almost in real-time.
We are also using more and more of these tools for management of networks because they are becoming very complex. Modern networking technologies require incredibly sophisticated tools; we augment human intelligence and effort with these advanced technologies.

Your consumer base is incredibly large and diverse, does that make predicting even more challenging?
We have roughly 76 million customers right now, and that scale allows us to do very significant analysis. For example, GP serves up 400 million minutes of voice services per day. In every one of those calls, there are multiple interactions. These interactions allow us to create models of how our customers and the economy behaves, which eventually enables us to start crafting services and products that meet the needs of clients. And that the ability of computing power today to crunch this amount of is such that the scale of it gives us an advantage rather than a deficit. 

I usually tend to be very deeply hands-on, involved in every aspect of the business. From working on promotions to setting up towers in various districts, I prefer to be engaged in every operation.

You have previously worked as CEO of Telenor Pakistan and Bulgaria, are there any specific challenges that you had to overcome in Bangladesh?
I’ve previously worked in markets similar to Bangladesh, including Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania. Like any other market, Bangladesh has some specific challenges. For us (Telenor Group), Bangladesh has been one of the most successful ventures, and we’ve been here for more than two decades. It is the cornerstone of our activities in Asia.
For Bangladesh, some obstacles are very distinctive, for example, I’ve been here for 36 months, and we have already had three cyclones. These are obstacles that you don’t have in other parts of the world. But we have become good at dealing with these things. So eventually, we get good at dealing with the challenges that exist in specific markets.

Do you have to make any adjustments to your style of leadership depending on the country you are working?
Yes! I usually tend to be very deeply hands-on, involved in every aspect of the business. From working on promotions to setting up towers in various districts, I prefer to be engaged in every operation. However, this business has become so massive and complex that it doesn’t allow me to do that anymore. Likewise, our corporate strategy of “Red way of work” and “Agile” makes the leader play a different role. So the leader plays two particular roles now; it includes setting clear objectives and managing the results closely.
And in the middle, you let people within broad guidelines find their way. My job as a leader is to set those very clear objectives and to manage the results at the end, and then facilitate the way they do things, but let people find their way.
George Patton, the American general in the Second World War, said to let people do their job the way they want to, they might surprise you with the results. And this is what happens in GP, we have a fantastic team of people, the best in Bangladesh work for us, and they do amazing things.
My leadership team and I do not need to tell them how to do something. We only explicate our expectations in the end.
There are some exercises where I’m on the team but not leading. My office doesn’t have a big wall around it and has a desk like everybody else, and anyone can walk up to me. I am also part of some business teams only to provide guidance rather than being the final decision-maker.

Are you satisfied with the rate of 4G adaptation among Bangladeshi consumers?
Yes! The adaptation rate is admirable. There are challenges, and most of them have to do with handset availability. Smartphones are expensive in Bangladesh, but there’s a reasonable good reason for that.
Right now, we cover 71% of the population with 4G. And by the end of next year, we will have all our sites under 4G coverage which amounts to approximately 95% of the population.
We have 30-40 million people in our country who still use 2G handsets, for them migrating is more difficult as 4G smartphones are expensive.
4G handsets are costly because the government has put taxes on its import. In my opinion, its (taxes) pretty reasonable and it appears to be a successful policy for the government actually to encourage manufacturers to build manufacturing facilities here in Bangladesh. And the government of Bangladesh has put in the right pair of barriers at the border. If you’re bringing in parts, the tariffs are more, if you’re bringing in components, they are lower. So the more you get into field manufacturing, the less expensive it is to build a headset here.
And while it may have caused a bit of a challenge for people to adopt, in the long term, this is an excellent decision. As the handset prices come down, people will eventually migrate 4G handsets.

Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) is targeting to commence 5G mobile network by 2023? Do you believe we are on track to achieve that target?
Well, the good news is the equipment that we’re installing right now is essentially the last generation of 4g equipment. And it’s all designed to be somewhat compatible with 5g. So when 5g happens, we will be able to launch in pockets 5g where it’s needed. But 5g will not bring a revolution of new equipment. There might be some new antennas, spectrum and baseboards in our equipment, but it will not be a massive revolution.
There are three primary services for 5g. One is ultra-high-speed mobile services; the second thing is this massive machine type communication. So, MMPC, this requires very, very small bandwidth. Many devices around the world, for example, metering, electrical grid monitoring, water grid monitoring use this technology, this can be done partly on 4g as well.
And then there’s very fast, very highly reliable low latency, 5g services for gaming or autonomous vehicles or telerobotics. So, a doctor or a surgeon doing surgery remotely over a wireless network, those things are further down in the future for us in Bangladesh, although some of it might come, some specific applications might come early like robotics, manufacturing controls or so on. Although, the business cases are further out at this moment. Eventually, every application will happen in Bangladesh as well, and it will happen pretty quick. 

Right now, we cover 71% of the population with 4G. And by the end of next year, we will have all our sites under 4G coverage which amounts to approximately 95% of the population.

How do you deal with cyber security concerns?
There are a few things that keep me awake, and I spend a lot of time worrying about, cybersecurity is one of them. The devices that we have in our hands today are the supercomputers of a decade ago. We now operate on IP networks, just like computers do. So the risks are not only from handsets but for from other entities as well. Criminals might want to get in and play games with the networks for industrial espionage or for hacking information about customers. We have a fundamental responsibility to ensure the safety of our networks for national security reasons. So it’s something we spent a lot of time on.

Grameenphone has committed to the UN SDG #10 – (Reduced Inequalities) in Bangladesh, what are the aspects of inequality does GP want to address? What are the activities you have undertaken to serve this objective?
I want to open this by saying one thing, over the last decade, the growth of the Bangladeshi economy has been about 6.5% on average. In 2018, the growth was 7.3%, and hopefully, we will surpass that rate this year (2019). It is the result of policy, vision and execution of the government and people of Bangladesh. This incredible economic growth has raised millions of people every year from poverty towards the middle class, playing a significant role in reducing inequalities. Three key technologies facilitate in reducing inequalities are medical services, electrification, and mobile telecommunications.
When you put in mobile services into a community, you end up with people having access to trade, commerce and education and security. You also ensure access to essential services like medical care, information and connectivity with your friends. And it is in itself a form it is a form of socio-economic development.
So the very nature of what we do in the industry, not just myself but my colleagues in the telecom sector, contributes to reducing inequalities from the technological aspect.
We are also moving to get more women into management, it makes the company more productive. The decisions are more robust, and you represent the client base that you serve because 40- 50% of our client base are women. We’re also developing female managers for every one of the leadership teams in the company.
Thirdly, by the end of this year, we will have trained about 300,000 adults, and a million children face to face on how to use the internet safely. We are teaching them the importance of having strong passwords, dangers of sharing real-time location and securing private information from strangers — Simultaneously, guiding them on how to use the internet responsibly.

When you put in mobile services into a community, you end up with people having access to trade, commerce and education and security.

You have been in Bangladesh for three years now.Are you having fun?
So, does it look like I’m having fun? (laugh) . I’m very passionate about being here. It has been a humbling privilege to lead a company like this that does so much good. Grameenphone pays more corporate tax than about five next companies combined. We are fully aware that 70% of daily traffic goes through our networks. In places like Sylhet and Rajshahi, if our network goes down for 10 mins (it doesn’t), the economy stops because we have 80-85 market share. So this is a privilege.

How do you like to spend your free time?
Free time!what’s that? (laugh), we have a hectic schedule but my free time is mostly spent with my family. I have two daughters in Canada who are in university, so much of my time is spent sending them money (laugh). I have remarried, my wife is a Kenyan national, she’s from Nairobi. We have a four-year-old daughter, and they share their time between Nairobi and here (Dhaka). When they are in town, that’s 100% of my time.When they are away, I spend most of my free time reading. Most of the books that I pick up now have to do with international economics or internet or international politics. I usually use the reading List of Fareed Zakaria, host of GPS on CNN. I don’t miss this program, and I like watching what he does. And so I usually pick books out of his reading list. For fiction, I’m a huge Star Trek and Star Wars fan. I’ve read 400 Star Trek novels in my life. So I know everything about Star Trek you want to know about.

After two decades of spearheading innovation and devising successful strategies, Mahin Bin Mazher divulges how he envisions carrying X Index Companies forward. 

You have been spearheading X Index as the managing director for 20 years now. Can you talk us through the evolution of the company from its inception and to the current state in our digitized world?
In 1977 under the leadership of our Chairman, Architect Mazherul Quader, the journey began with the inception of Index Architects Ltd. There are approximately 400+ projects under its name to date. We set up operations of Index Argo Industries Ltd. in 2000, where we produce poultry, fish-feed and day-old chicks. Starting its journey as a trend setter, XCG is one of the largest porcelain and ceramics tiles manufacturing companies in Bangladesh. We incorporated Index Holdings Ltd. in 2009 which deals in trading and the hospitality sector. The company’s main objective is investments in different concerns of the group, including Hotel X. Currently X Index Energy Ltd. is setting up 3 HFO based power plants. Driven by ideology, we focus on technology and technical businesses which are sustainable for long term. We are also an active advocate of green technology, support zero-emission and also promote wastage reduction through recycling.

The five core values – integrity, ethics, excellence, unity and responsibility are cited as the reasons for the success of X Index. Apart from the core values, what other factors have contributed to make X Index the industry leader it is?
Apart from the core values, one important factor must be mentioned is the ‘trustworthiness’. Our companies have a solid reputation among the business community. Also, the invaluable contribution of our employees from all sectors play a crucial role. Without their hard work and dedication, the company wouldn’t have flourished the way it has over the last four decades.

As the managing director, do you have a strategy to make sure all the companies under X Index are running smoothly and efficiently? Can you talk us through your process?
One of the difficulties the organization faces is a decent layer of mid-level administration to make life simpler. Our top administration always fill in as coaches to increase the expertise of skills. The organization likewise acquired specialists from various countries. It requires some investment and exertion to streamline forms, oversee individuals, and ensure the details are accounted for. Learning doesn’t occur in detachment. It is best served when empowering the free progression of thoughts. I generally urge my senior administration to share their thoughts and perspectives to push ahead.

Apart from the core values, one important factor must be mentioned is the ‘trustworthiness’. Our companies have a solid reputation among the business community. Also, the invaluable contribution of our employees from all sectors play a crucial role. Without their hard work and dedication, the company wouldn’t have flourished the way it has over the last four decades.

Can you talk us through the power projects, how will they contribute to the power sector of the country and how is X Index looking to empower the community?
In Bangladesh, the per capita availability of power is comparatively low when contrasted with our neighboring nations and the world standard. Owing to this low availability, we have observed a massive gap in demand. In this manner we decided to contribute years’ worth of our experience into the power sector to alleviate the situation. We are executing these capital-intensive tasks right now in collaboration with the government. Highly skilled professionals are employed, along with electrical and mechanical engineers. This leads to industrialization and will automatically empower the community.

What has been some of your most memorable accomplishment?
We have been recognized with the Business Asia Award under the category of ‘Best Ceramics Industry’ in 2012. Adding another feather to our cap, we were awarded in the ‘Successful Company Leader’ category in the highly acclaimed Bizz Awards. We received this in 2018 for maintaining consistent business excellence. We were featured on ‘Asia Agribiz’. Also our many achievements have been covered in many foreign magazines. Perhaps the accomplishment we take the most pride in is that most of our companies are ISO certified.

Can you tell us the kind of CSR activity X Index is passionate about?
Through a not for profit organization called KKF, we are carrying out different projects. The Kamrunnesa Khatun Foundation (KKF) is an independent nonprofit charity, committed to bettering lives for the disadvantaged people in Bangladesh. Our vision is that of a country of vibrant, inclusive communities where social enterprises thrive to ensure sustainable and equitable development through capacity building and promoting entrepreneurship and transforming the lives of the disadvantaged population. We aim to assist the underprivileged people to engage in self-development and facilitate their socioeconomic mobility, reduce poverty, inequality and vulnerability. Some of the projects we have undertaken are:
Khamarir Hashi: It is a project which thrives to ameliorate the lives of farmers. This program focuses on able but unsuccessful farmers so that they turn their lives around and emerge as successful entrepreneurs. KKF provides both financial and technical help to the beneficiaries.
Shelter House: KKF works with the underprivileged children from all over Bangladesh. KKF has a shelter house for the street children, accommodating around 100 of them. These children were practically abandoned by all the other charity organizations. We stood by them. This house offers its children both formal and non-formal education, proper nutrition, medical and entertainment facilities.
Targeting the ultra-poor: Through this program, KKF identifies the needs of the households that are too poor to access the traditional development interventions. This is a tailor-made program based on the needs and capacity of the individual households.
Human Rights and Legal Aid Services: Access to justice is defined as the ability of people to seek and obtain a remedy through formal or informal institutions of justice, in compliance with universal human rights standards. KKF upholds that in order to facilitate smooth access to justice pathways, it is necessary to ensure the quality of justice particularly through legal aid and awareness.

In Bangladesh, the per capita availability of power is comparatively low when contrasted with our neighboring nations and the world standard. Owing to this low availability, we have observed a massive gap in demand. In this manner we decided to contribute years’ worth of our experience into the power sector to alleviate the situation. We are executing these capital-intensive tasks right now in collaboration with the government.

What has been the inspiration that has shaped you becoming a person you are today?
I value intellectual thought process above everything else. Growing up in a family of highly educated individuals, the passion for carrying on the legacy was instilled in me. I am thankful to have grown up in a culture which values education. This inspired me to pursue higher studies in the U.S. and also motivated me to gain professional expertise. It was being raised in a culture of learning that has nurtured my appetite for knowledge, and this has been the driving factor in the person I am today.

Marjiya Baktyer Ahmed catches up with Safwan Sobhan on how through extensive research and development, Bashundhara Group is at the forefront of making Bangladesh an import independent nation. 

What are the qualities do you believe that a successful leader must have?
To be a successful leader, I think a person must possess a blend of absolute integrity, honesty, decisiveness and must be a team player. Having these qualities also grows the capability to empower others to work efficiently. Leaders have to be able to rest their faith on their team and fully understand how to properly delegate.

As the Managing Director of Bashundhara Paper Mills Ltd. and Vice Chairman of Bashundhara Group, you have to oversee numerous operations. Do you have a strategy/ routine to ensure the efficiency of the processes?
Yes, I do follow a strategy and I believe it is an integral part of being a leader. We have weekly meetings where we prepare ourselves for every upcoming week. I need to ensure my Head of Departments and Head of Plants report back to me on a regular basis. Being the Managing Director I always have to have a bird’s eye view of the entire organization in real-time. Our integrated ERP system generates resourceful reports that enable us to build the necessary tools to forecast the challenges. We have deadlines and timelines for every piece of work, and from project to project basis. We set our KPIs and monitor them meticulously. Before we go live with a machine at production, we run it through an extensive troubleshooting process, following that it goes back to the R&D department. This is a daily routine we maintain to stay on top of any problems that may arise.

Can you please share with us about a challenge that you faced as a leader and how you pushed through?
Recently we have set up a new tissue machine from Austria, which has the capacity to churn out 100 MT tissues per day. We took the challenge to erect the machine in 18 months. It is located in our Unit 1 which is in Narayanganj. The machine is so highly technically configured that it was quite difficult for people here to figure out how to operate regularly. We did not have Bangladeshi expertise on this. The regular paper machines require about 80-100 people to run but this new one can be run by engaging just only 3 people.
So, to tackle this head on, we decided to go for extensive scheduled training. We sent our people to Austria and China to get trained on how to operate such a machine. Then we devised a plan on how to get the machine to Bangladesh, do the construction on time, and get it up and running. Finally, once it began running, it is not only supplying in Bangladesh, but products are also being exported in volumes.
Through this challenge we achieved specific knowledge of how to do team building, proper planning in tough times, then we did it a test scenario case and then we implemented it.

More potential for growth in the industry is in tissue, thermal paper and packaging paper. Thermal paper is what you use on a credit card machine, POS machines etc. It is an import substitute. Generally, Bashundhara Group enters in any industry with aims to take the place of the import substitute.

Who are the people that have shaped the person you are now?
My idol is always my father. I sincerely look at him, and thereby he has shaped me as the person I am today. Other than that, I would say the next person is my headmaster from my boarding school back in the U.K. His guidance has been invaluable to me.
From my boyhood, I was always fascinated by machinery and equipment. I am also fond of cars, so I was always into fixing and engineering things. I was keen on pursuing engineering, but eventually I opted for studying business administration, technology always fascinated me. This is how I ventured into the paper mill industry. They say, when you are born, you are given a piece of paper, and when you die, you are also given another. Many people say it’s a dying industry, but it has been maintaining a worldwide growth rate of over 6%. In the modern age, there is a movement to go paperless, but despite the digitization and this shift to an online dominion, the tangibility of paper is irreplaceable.

‘Bashundhara Paper’ has been the biggest paper exporter from Bangladesh for the past few years. What are the factors that helped “Bashundhara Paper” to reach this position? What are the future goals?
We have been adding capacity every year to match the demand of the market. We have recently listed ourselves on the Dhaka & Chittagong stock market being the biggest paper mill as well as the exporter. In terms of quality, India- our neighboring country – has a bunch of paper mills all over, however very few of these could compete with the quality paper that we manufacture. That is why our export market has grown substantially in India right now. India has a gap of 300,000 tons of paper per annum. We are basically filling that gap in, partially which is why export of our quality paper & tissue products have gone up.
Our future goals are to practice cost minimization and run the business more efficiently. At present, out of 14 machines, we have made 10 of our machines as closed loop machines, which means that the water discharge is almost zero. Before, we had to use 20 tons of water to make 1 ton of paper. We have reduced that down to 7 tons of water. We have made substantial reduction on electricity, steam consumption, as well as chemical consumption. We have switched to chemicals that are bio eco-friendly. So, all these aspects we are doing day in and day out, and cutting our costs, while also becoming more environmentally conscience.

Which segment would you say there is more potential for growth?
More potential for growth in the industry is in tissue, thermal paper and packaging paper. Thermal paper is what you use on a credit card machine, POS machines etc. It is an import substitute. Generally, Bashundhara Group enters in any industry with aims to take the place of the import substitute. The products that were once imported, now we can produce it locally and export it as well.

You have recently received FSC-CoC (Recycled Paper) certificate from the regulatory authority Control Union. How crucial do you think it is for consumers to use responsibly sourced paper products?
It is surely a responsible recognition, but for Bangladesh market we have not seen much of a big impact yet about FSC, mostly due to knowledge gap. But for the export market, it has been giving us a competitive edge for marketing and exporting. When we export to Europe, that is a must. When we export to the U.S. and the U.K, these certificates are also must to give documents.
The full form of FSC is “Forest Stewardship Council”. Basically, when pulp is produced from trees, it could be an Acacia tree or it could be a Rainwood, or Eucalyptus tree. To produce pulp, trees are uprooted and because of this, for every one tree taken out, ten trees have to be replanted. These pulp producers provide relevant certificates and necessary endorsement before giving us pulp products. The chemicals which we are using to recycle the paper, de-ink the papers, those chemicals has to be certified by FSC-COC, which implies they are not harmful to the environment.

How crucial is the role of R&D to remain competitive in the global market?
Our R&D department has been quite productive and inventive from the beginning, I personally look after its regular operation. Every time, based on market data/ feedback, we decide for the development of new SKUs or product range, it all starts from my endorsement and goes into trial to the market with my concurrence also. It is always critical to keep track what new facility can bring about and ultimately this is the only approach we take to be competitive in domestic as well as in the global arena.

How is Bashundhara Group constantly innovating themselves?
Bashundhara Group believes in opportunity-creation for the nation; hence innovation is the key to make it happen. The Group as a whole try to remodel itself every now and then to stay updated with the trend, as well as to remain competitive in the business arena.
Whenever we think of a new investment, we always look for import-substitute. We look into the industry, and in our R&D department we are always working on products that will be an import-substitute, even the ones in the pipeline right now. They all will be substituting import-goods for Bangladesh and will be saving foreign currency.
During early 2020, our new Bitumin plant will be in production. As Bangladesh is embarking upon building huge infrastructure, for roads and bridges, Bitumin is a product which has been imported a lot, from all over the world. We will have the capacity to cater to the national demand, as well as export. Our Bitumin will be guaranteed for 10 years, once it is put on the road.

How does meeting innovation requirements affect the rate of employment?
Bashundhara paper mill is not just an ordinary paper mill, we do not produce only simple writing paper rather we produce paper materials across the board. Paper mills in Bangladesh would only produce writing and printing paper, which you see as normal A4 paper or paper for newsprint. Instead, we have taken ourselves away from the conventional market, geared up ourselves for the next market, which is a specialty grade. Your everyday use for thermal paper which is used on every POS machine, NCR paper, duplex board, packaging paper – these are the growth markets we are looking at. So we are segmenting more in different specialty grades. There’s a growth and sustainability over there, as well as positively impacting employments. 

Our R&D department has been quite productive and inventive from the beginning, I personally look after its regular operation. Every time, based on market data/ feedback, we decide for the development of new SKUs or product range.

Bashundhara Group’s core value is ‘For the People, For the Country’. How has this value shaped the company and its operations over the years?
As a company when we say For the People, For the Country; we mean it. All the concerns are built in for the people, for the country. They are adding value to the country, and it is a value addition for the employees as well. Take our real estate business for example, when we started back in 1987, we sold 3 lac Taka per katha, which in turn of time over 3 crore at present. So, we single- handedly as a company, made 50,000 multi-millionaires in the country. We handed over 50,000 plots. Other than that in all our products, we never compromise on quality and we always do extensive R&D, training for our employees so that they are well fitted and well educate, in every sphere of their lives.

Apart from running such a massive company, Bashundhara Group also engages in CSR activities. Can you elaborate please?
I believe great success comes with great responsibilities. Although Bashundhara Group has always been very much submissive about all of its philanthropic initiatives, it is of no doubt a big range of its CSR initiatives are running across many fields around us. Somewhere free eye clinic is giving supports to the poor and needy, somewhere Bashundhara Ad-din Medical College Hospital in Keraniganj is providing the cheapest medical care in its 500-bed hospital, yet Friday Clinics in Manikganj and Comilla awaits with best doctors of the Country. A Special Children Foundation for the autistic, for underprivileged children, having a capacity of 250 students, is a perfect institution of its kind. We have an orphanage of 1000 children, which is located in Bashundhara also. We always try to remain beside the needy in crisis time e.g. during the winter season, we always extend our supports all the Country with warm clothing, relief supports to the flood or, cyclone-affected coastal people.

What would you like to say to the new entrants in to the business sector?
I started 10 year ago, back in 2009. I would say where I am today, obviously I have been given the position to be where I am, but I have taken things furthermore up. But remember to dedicate yourself to your work as your passion. Whatever work you do, you should enjoy it. Do not think of it as a burden. When I do my work, I really enjoy doing it, I take it as a passion. I am a passionate golfer and passionate businessman also.

In a conversation, Dr. Badiul Alam Majumdar, Vice President, and Country Director, The Hunger Project Bangladesh, explicates the importance of social mobilization and shares his vision for the future.

We have come a long way since our independence, what are the aspects of development we could have done better? What are the obstacles we need to overcome to achieve desired growth?
Yes, we have come a long way. Bangladesh was considerably impoverished, in terms of economic activities or per capita income; we were at the bottom of every ranking imaginable. Poverty and hunger were widespread, but we have come a long way. Statistically, the overall level of hunger and poverty has gone down. However, we have not done as well as we could have. For example, Bangladesh and South Korea were at a similar level of per capita income, in 1971. After five decades, their (South Korea) GDP has skyrocketed to $ 38,260, and we are lagging far behind with around $ 5,000. The distinction is depressing, considering we have always had the upper hand. South Korea had negligible natural resources; on the other hand, we have natural resources like fertile soil, sweet water, and some gas and coal – unfortunately, we have failed to materialize them.

Our greatest strength is the growing number of young population, and it implies that the share of the working-age population is larger than the non-working-age share of the population. A lot can be achieved if we can make proper use of this demographic dividend. If we fail to materialize the demographic dividend through increased investment in health and quality education to create opportunities; it will turn into a demographic nightmare. Generally, young people are very vulnerable; if not provided the right opportunities and positive mindset, they might be inclined to substance abuse or be exploited politically. We are not investing in quality education.

The biggest concerns for us are the rise of discrimination and disparity. One of the most significant contributing factors to our economic growth is the mega projects. I do not believe all of them (mega-projects) are beneficial for our nation. Some of them will harm our environment. Unfortunately, many of these megaprojects are financed by the suppliers’ credit; their terms are often unfavorable for us. We have to import most of the materials even if they are of low quality; we are also bound to hire a large number of foreign employees. We have workers at home who are not getting enough opportunities in their own country. Moreover, we are losing a large number of foreign reserves due to gratuitous hiring.

Poverty is a multidimensional phenomenon, how does “The Hunger Project” design poverty reduction programs/projects to address multi-dimensional aspects of poverty?
We feel that building the capability of the poor is vital for poverty eradication. According to Amartya Sen, capability means freedom and opportunities, which the government has to ensure. The Hunger Project is a volunteer-based organization, with over a quarter of a million volunteers of all distinctions, including women and youth. What we have realized is that in poverty eradication there is more emphasis on individuals rather on society. We have also realized that handouts do not help anybody in the long run. We are trying to animate the poor, instill confidence in them and help them gain skills so they can become authors of their own future. We help the poor and disadvantaged get access to government and non-government services and opportunities which create an enabling environment for them to succeed. We also advocate policy changes so that the poor get their due share in the national resources. In addition, we mobilize communities that create social capital – an invisible capital that can supplement financial capital. When people come together, miracles happen. If a community comes together, works together with a shared vision and there is greater trust among the people, social capital is created.

We mobilize communities which creates social capital by bringing people together and creating social harmony. Unfortunately, our volunteering sector, to a great extent, has moved away from social mobilization. The social mobilization as an approach has become less and less prominent, so we are trying to rekindle that for which Bangladesh has been known for. If there is greater understanding, fellow feeling, a greater sense of community among people and they work shoulder to shoulder, a lot of social ills can be redressed by fomenting social movement and social resistance. For example, child marriage, violence against women, safe sanitation and many of the environmental problems can be effectively addressed through social movement. Social capital is an instrument of development that has not been recognized appropriately in literature or practice. We have been trying to focus on individuals and society alike, with a large number of volunteers working as a catalyst to empower the poor to take responsibility for their own future and at the same time to bring the communities together.

We are also advancing participatory action research. We have mobilized the poorest of the poor, those who are left behind, using a methodology called Participatory Action Research. It is developed by Prof. Anisur Rahman, who was a member of our first planning commission. Poor is the foremost expert on poverty because they have to live with it. We bring them together and through a guided conversation, in which they use their own thinking power to identify the dimensions, causes, remedies and their own role in keeping in place and redressing poverty. Through this process, they become barefoot researchers. They form self-help groups and catalyze their savings. We do not touch the money; only help them regarding technical issues. Then they use the money to start various economic activities. Sometimes we provide skills training so that they become economic entrepreneurs. They also initiate campaigns against many of the social ills which keep in poverty, and in the process become social entrepreneurs.

Rural people of Bangladesh are bearing most of the financial burden of climate change, how is THP assisting rural communities across the country to be more resilient to climate change?
We are doing irreparable damage to our environment and the consequences will be perilous. In terms of climate change, the government will have to make it a top priority because Bangladesh is one of the most vulnerable countries. The public, private and government sectors do not have the necessary resources to combat the effects of climate change. We (The Hunger Project) are trying to create awareness. We just came back last week, after planting 100, 000 palm trees, an endeavor achieved by volunteers. Adaptation is critical, as well as coping with the reality of the situation. State and volunteering sector needs to work together. We, as a nation, unfortunately, are not doing enough, we need the leadership of the government, and everyone needs to work together to cope with the impending emergency, which might eventually destroy our country.

Despite strong collective efforts, the Child Marriage rate in Bangladesh is highest in South Asia and the fourth highest in the world. What can we do to reduce this practice across Bangladesh?
The government framed a law to curb child marriage law at first, but unfortunately, they (government) backtracked. Children below 18 can be married with permission from parents. There is a loophole, which I am not sure why it exists.

The Hunger Project has developed a very innovative program. The best insurance against Child Marriage and a high fertility rate are to keep the girls in school. Our program Safe Schools for Girls, mobilizes the students (girls and boys), teachers, guardians, and volunteers to make schools safe for girls to prevent dropouts. We not only animate girls, and create awareness that child marriage is dangerous, but ensure their security on the way to and from schools too.

We are instrumental in starting International Girl Child Day, in 2000, we asked the government to declare the second day of Children’s Week to be National Girl Child Day. The government was happy to do that. We have been celebrating this since 2000 – the idea is that girls are important, they are not a burden, they are our assets and we must invest in their future. Now we are happy that following our footsteps, the UN declared October 11 as the International Day for Girls. We are proud to have pioneered that.

What is your vision for the future?
“A democratic, peaceful Bangladesh, where there is respect for people. We want a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality, and justice, political economic and social will be secured for all citizens” that was the vision of our valiant freedom fighters. That is also my vision.


By Rashna Mahzabin

Professor Fahima Durrat discusses the need to recognize the role of women in the big scheme of poverty and development. 

Do you think poverty is a multidimensional facet? How do women fall into this?
More than anything, the cause of poverty is relational. The way we are connected to other people socially as well as economically makes us vulnerable or increases our resilience. Gender is one relation of power that may make a person vulnerable. For example, women tend to own less property, get paid less, women tend to have less control even on their own labor e.g. they stay at home more to take care of someone and sometimes have to work at home and outside at the same time, there are many opportunities women cannot avail due to mobility restrictions. How societies view women’s paid work also varies from place to place. Even when they are working they do not always control the fruit of their labor, these things make them susceptible to the poverty-creating mechanism. For example when the men in her life cannot or would not support her any longer. We have to remember that gender is one of the factors. Women from different backgrounds live differently.

In the midst of infrastructural and economic development mental wellbeing is not counted as a variable of development. How does poverty affect women’s wellbeing and what measures should be taken in the development initiatives to ensure this?
We may define poverty in terms of wellbeing. In that case, we are all a bit poor due to the quality of air that we breathe in Dhaka. Air quality also influences mental health. Mental health problems prevent one from being productive. These things are all connected. Measuring wellbeing allows us to be more inclusive of women because measuring income and wealth doesn’t always tell us about the gender difference in access. This way we can look at individual lives and whether they are able to live according to their full potential. Our society usually devalues women’s potential and defines it narrowly. We need development initiatives that aim to reduce the exclusion of women and creating a healthy environment for working and living for everyone.

Bangladeshi women’s employment rose by almost a third over the last two decades, to 38% in the 2019 index. Manufacturing became more important, while employment in agriculture shrank. How can we rely on home-based work and SMEs through microcredit and relaxed public lending opportunities to justly recognize the contributions of rural women to our economy?
Employment in agriculture is shrinking in general, it’s a global trend. It’s better if a country’s economy is now dependent on the production of primary products. We would like the manufacturing and tech-intensive service sectors to grow. The latter is especially good for women because it allows working from home, flexible hours and easy re-entry after a break, which works well for child-bearers and people who take care of children and the elderly. There should be a lot of focus on technical training. More than providing loans, SMEs and microcredits i.e individualizing the process, the government should focus on developing industries, for example, it can employ people to provide training, search for new areas where those training could be marketed, build new sectors. There is a lot to gain from skill development of men and women, urban and rural and from creating jobs domestically as well as helping skilled people find paid work online and abroad. There is also a lot to gain from research, especially participatory and other forms of qualitative research so that the voice of the targeted women would inform policies.

UN has stated that given the key role that language plays in shaping cultural and social attitudes, using gender-inclusive language is a powerful way to promote gender equality and eradicate gender bias. To achieve this, what should be our initial steps as a nation and how can we achieve this?
We usually imagine a world where the main actor is male. That results in various biases. Anything that we say and write should assume that the targets could be of any gender. I think it’s also important to remember that gender does not automatically mean women. While drafting any text we should keep in mind that they are directed towards people in their gendered bodies i.e. people participate in life as men, women and even people who are neither. That would guide us to being inclusive of everyone and addressing different needs of different people.

Bangladesh is going to be a middle-income country soon, but gender inequality persists in societies even in policies, which hinders the progress of achieving Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. How can women play a role in achieving vision 2030 and what should be probable government initiative towards this?
Gender equality and poverty reduction are two different goals. We should not assume that one would automatically lead to the other. We have seen many incidents where household solvency pushed women inward; we have seen women not being able to spend their own income. There is no guarantee that freedom from material deprivation would translate into a greater role in decision-making processes or better control over life and surroundings. So we would need separate policies aimed specifically at reducing gender inequality. Bangladesh has obligations to its constitution as well as various international instruments in this regard, including SDGs. Ensuring security at the workplace and provisions to share childrearing responsibilities and facilitating re-entry to the workforce would go a long way. Women would then find their own ways to contribute to achieving those visions. 

As the motorbike industry grows Suzuki matches pace to ensure complete consumer satisfaction. 

As the Chief Executive Officer of Rancon Motorbikes Ltd, how are you envisioning to take the company forward?
Beginning my tenure as Chief Executive Officer, I will be upholding the principles that have propelled Suzuki to the leading position it has attained in the motorbike industry. As a responsible brand Suzuki envisions to take the whole motorbike industry towards high standards where it can ensure world-class quality products and services for the consumers.

From the four variants like Cruiser, Sports, Scooter, and Commuter, which has been the most commercially successful. What do you think it says about the commuting needs of the consumers?
Suzuki offers a wide range of motorbikes for serving any kind of demand of the bikers I would say. Suzuki is very successful in all the segments as per the market size of Bangladesh. Also, Suzuki is continuing to expand its product line considering the changing needs and demands of the future.

The commuting needs in our country has seen a rise in the number of motorbikes being purchased. This tells us that consumers need a mode of transportation that offers both speed and efficiency. Apart from just regular commuting demands, Bangladesh is experiencing a rise in the number of people who enjoy touring through scenic terrains, and bikes are the chosen vehicle usually for such activities. Suzuki is perceptible to all its targeted consumers, and we make sure to deliver on the demands of our consumers.

Factors like reduced supplementary duties, increased buying capacity of the middle class, and government initiative to diversify the country’s manufacturing and exports have bolstered the impressive growth in the sector – what more can the sector do to sustain this growth?
I sincerely would like to thank the Bangladesh Government for inspiring manufacturers through effective policies that are greatly contributing to the growth of the industry. The sustainability of these policies is the first factor that would ensure the continuation of high growth. This will also support the manufacturers to invest further towards local value addition. Once the industry reaches a volume of over 1 million per year, many future opportunities will open up.

Around 70% of the component parts used by local manufacturers/assemblers are imported, while only 30% are sourced locally. In order to be competitive in the long run, local manufacturers need to establish local backward linkages by domestically manufacturing the majority of component parts. What is Rancon doing to ensure more components are domestically manufactured?
Just two years ago, Bangladesh was dependent on imports to meet 95 percent of its demand for motorbikes. But the situation has completely reversed. Today, around 96 percent of the two-wheelers plying on the roads are either locally manufactured or assembled. There are firms operating that have made the country almost self-sufficient in motorbike manufacturing or assembly in the fast-growing market.
Rancon Motorbikes is continuously investing in heavy types of machinery and skill development of its people and thereby it’s increasing localization while assuring World-Class Suzuki quality in Bangladesh.

Financial institutions are not keen on providing adequate financing options to potential buyers of motorbikes, how is the industry mitigating this? Are discussions being fostered to encourage financial institutions?
A formal motorbike loan is still unavailable in the Bangladesh market. Every county in the world where the automobile has flourished, the industry has been backed up by very attractive and easy financing facilities for the consumers. This is also very necessary for Bangladesh. I truly expect that the financial institutions would consider the opportunity in this sector and will come up with suitable schemes for the consumers.

Suzuki is undoubtedly a market leader, but how are you tackling the fierce competition posed by Indian brands?
The Motorbike industry is growing rapidly in Bangladesh with lots of future opportunities. Many good brands are available in the market and I consider the competition as a great opportunity for further improvements. Suzuki would like to continue to lead through its strong product quality and excellent customer service.


MyCash Online is the ultimate e-Marketplace for Migrants.

Can you please elaborate on the different types of services provided by MyCash Online. Are they exclusive to migrant workers?
We have a wide range of services, which is fully tailor-made for the migrant population. It starts with Mobile Topup, International Mobile Topup, Utility Bill Payment, micro insurance, life insurance, salary payment, health services, e-commerce, cross border remittance, e-wallet payment services (e.g. bkash, rocket, easyPaisa). We have different types of products and service purchase offers (eg. Mobile Phone, Subscription Coupons and so on).

To provide easy access to online financial services to the 40 million unbanked migrant workers in Asia, we have developed a reliable, secure and easy to use the online platform, where they can purchase products & services securely using their mobile phone. In the same platform, they also can save money and transfer money home electronically. They can either avail of our services using their smartphones or they can visit one of our 1000+ Mobile Salesperson (MSP) locations in Malaysia & Singapore.

Please give us an overview of the size of your operation and the number of users?
Our business started in April 2016, and since then we have already performed over 2 million transactions worth approximately USD 30 Million. During this time, we served around 100,000 unique migrant workers in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. Currently, in Malaysia every month we perform 70,000 transactions on an average which is worth more than USD 3.5 million. Moreover, every month we record a 25% month on month growth of our monthly gross transacted amount.

We have more than 95,000 registered users in Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia. And we have seventeen people in four offices across Dhaka, Cyberjaya Malaysia, Singapore, and Brisbane. Australia.

How is MyCash making Fintech services more convenient for migrant workers?
MyCash Online is an e-marketplace fully customized for the massive pools of migrants across Asia. MyCash Online offers all the services in migrant’s mother language, which makes it very easy for them to use. With a simple android phone, they can download the MyCash Online app which can be accessed conveniently from any location at any time. MyCash Online is timely, efficient and also offers security to its users.

Our solution is unique as this app has been developed by migrants. We have three co-founders, both Nurol and I are migrants from Bangladesh. I have been living in Malaysia for the last twelve years. Our third co-founder, Lin is also migrating to Singapore to better manage the business from the HQ. Even our other team members are mostly migrants and from many different backgrounds, countries, and cultures.

Nurol and I were co-workers in another technology company for two years before we started this venture. I lead the system development team, while Lin has a BBA degree and six years of experience in finance and accounting, and Nurol has eight years of working experience in a remittance company in Dubai and Malaysia.

How has the response been from Bangladeshi migrants? What are the services most popular among them (Bangladeshi migrants)?
90% of our customers are Bangladeshi migrants. They like our services a lot because of our understanding of their needs and our team that serves them, speaks Bangla. Obviously bKash is the most popular service among them. Last month we did more than 1 Million RM (around 22 Million BDT) worth of Bkash using our platform.

Being an immigrant, what are the challenges you had to overcome to establish and develop MyCash Online?
The main challenge was to prove that we can build it and deliver. We have successfully managed to deliver on that. In fact, the investors who invested in MyCash in 2017, received an impressive 44% return this year and few of them sold off their shares of the company. This highlights the success of MyCash Online.
Apart from that, FinTech regulation is very hard in every country. So as a migrant, we needed to be creative and form partnerships with local companies to make it happen. We have a few local partners/directors from Malaysia, Singapore, and Australia to help us with this.

How crucial has been the role of the centralized development team in Dhaka for MyCash Online?
Dhaka team provides the lifeline of MyCash. All our apps and web services are developed here in Dhaka with our team. It helps us to keep it lean and we can share resources among the team.

We have seen so many startups around the world fail to live up to expectations, how is MyCash Online future-proofing itself?
We have seen that business is becoming slow in Malaysia and Singapore due to the economic slowdown in South East Asia. We are beginning to start operations in the Middle East and the EU as early as the next few months. We already have an entity in Lithuania and now we are in the middle of applying for EMI license in the EU market. It is not possible to future proof of a startup. We are trying to keep ourselves innovative and fast-moving.

INSPACE Architects Ltd is setting the benchmark for Modern architecture in Bangladesh

Can you elaborate on what is INSPACE Architects design philosophy?

We aim to conceptualize this specific trait in our buildings – “Simplicity is the key”. Our buildings are simple, functional, modern in design – these are reflected in both interior and exterior. We start from inside, if inside is well designed then it is given that the exterior comes out well. To summarize, our philosophy is functional, simplistic, modern and unique.

What sets INSPACE apart from other firms in the industry?

Let’s talk about our professionalism, where our expertise lies as a consumer -centric firm. INSPACE’s journey began from Rangs Properties Limited and Rangs Group. Since its inception, Rangs Properties Limited has created buildings that are functional and built to a certain standard. From the beginning we have worked directly in the real estate sector. From apartments to commercial buildings, we have expertise in different platforms. We try to visualize the building from 360 degree perspective and understand the needs of the clients.

We tend to foster one’s talent via experience to enhance and legitimize their expertise. Even after handover, we think of ways that could add value to the building by creating and incorporating new features to it yearly. We try our best in this aspect.

In an urban jungle like Dhaka, what are some of the criteria that are common between commercial and residential clients?

There are a lot of good architects working in Bangladesh. The young generation is doing exceptional work. Our pioneers have taught us a lot too.

I have been working in this company for almost 15 years. 15 Years ago, we went through a transitional phase, where most of the buildings had 6 floors, setback rules were different, the heights of our buildings were less. We could not predict the mass growth of this city. Apart from that the needs of the people were different.

Our current clients for either commercial or residential spaces are more conscious about utilizing the space efficiently. They are well aware of the recent worldwide modern movement, and their needs are inspired by this trend, emphasizing on simplistic structures. It took a bit more of an effort for us to make our clients understand the concept of minimalism, space optimization prioritizing the functional aspects along with proper synchronization of structural & Electro-Mechanical solution. That is where lies the common ground between commercial and/or residential clients.

Do steps in the design process differ depending on whether space is residential or commercial?

We have our own rules and regulations, guidelines provided by IAB and from the government, which we need to follow. It starts from the floor-area ratio. Once we have a land, before deciding whether it is to be for commercial or residential usage, we have to calculate how much buildable areas we are getting considering the regulation.
Of course, we start the design process for residential and commercial spaces a bit differently. For commercial buildings where there will be retail outlets and offices, we need to develop proper parking systems and drop-off areas. Office users tend to spend most of their day at the office, so we tend to think of providing facilities similar to homes, such as gym and recreational spaces, to improve their efficiency while making it exciting to come to work. We incorporate such facilities into commercial buildings. The function of residential buildings are completely different compared to the commercial ones. Before starting, if the real estate belongs to a company, then we need to keep their needs, their deed of agreement in mind. We sit with the landowners to get a better understanding of their requirements and needs. At the same time for the residential buildings we prioritize internal functional arrangements while maintaining a contemporary elevation. Whereas, in commercial buildings we prioritize the maximum utilization of space, safety and efficiency. We ensure intelligent electromechanical solutions to be able to provide the best of whatever we are able to provide.

Rangs FS Vega, Baridhara Rd.1, 2B+G+12

Are fire escapes incorporated in residential buildings now?

Of course, these are also outlined by the rules. If it is a high rise building, more than 10 floors or there is a certain numbers of occupant, it is mandatory to provide a fire escape.

What criteria does INSPACE use to establish priorities and make design decisions?

When we design a building, the first thing we prioritize is its functionality. It must encompass aesthetics, functionality, safety and security to ensure that people will enjoy the space.
The rules and regulations in Bangladesh that we base our work on now, has a lot of scopes, compared to the regulations of the past. In the current context, the rules itself provide us with adequate heights. We are doing a design in Gulshan 32, there we were lucky to get 300 feet height, which allowed us to incorporate units of different sizes in a single edifice. After completing the design, it brought upon a lot of changes to our way of thinking, it opened us to the possibilities of ways we could design, and our client accepted the project well. Currently, in every design, we think of how to take the benefits of height clearance to make building more functional, lucrative and more enjoyable.

How do you prioritize green when you design a building?

Rangs Miranda,Banani. 2B+G+12

It is fun to work with green, we can do so much from several angles. We can make the roof completely green, or place trees in huge terraces. It is pleasant to sit near a tree. We can easily make aesthetic usage of a tree. Previously we would install aluminum panels, tiles or other materials, which we would think would give the building a better look. A better option now is to use green to create a modern ambiance, which would also contribute to the environment. Therefore in our buildings, we incorporate the concept of green . For example the fencing we are doing now consists of the vertical green, which is pleasing to look at and well appreciated. So, we are dually making an aesthetical use of the green while making it a smart solution to the loss of green from our environment.

Does INSPACE integrate low or no-cost sustainable design strategies into projects?

Rangs Diorama, Gulshan Rd. 32. 2B+G+19

In Bangladesh, there are several good real estate companies. Those who create top-class buildings have fewer examples of working with people from different walks of life in our society. We had several projects that were economical, and we have plans of doing more. In doing so, as an architect, I need to create an economical design, as well as an economical structural solution, electromechanical solutions and materials, respectively. The methodology should also be considered which would reduce the construction cost to make it more affordable.

Can you talk about some of the sustainable design strategies?

Let’s think about the paint we used to use as exterior finish material of the building. It would require to get repainted within years, which is not sustainable. Similarly, when a building gets constructed we think of using those materials that would increase the building’s longivity.


During the selection process, we think of the fair face that can be easily maintained. a specific treatment needs to be performed on the fair face, so that the fair face remains similar over the years, even if our weather conditions are not optimal.

So when it comes to sustainable design, the way we go about it for a high rise building is different from that of a residential space. Similarly, when we do space selection, it is a traditional concept to have a pool in the roof. We thought of bringing the pool to the ground level, we have incorporated this in one of our projects named Symphony (Banani). At the same time we also ensured the privacy of pool users. It provides a sustainable atmosphere for the resident who can enjoy the pool view while entertaining guests. In addition to that, the nearby gym and lounge give the surroundings an active and lively ambiance. In a nutshell, an interactive space along with the building materials can make a building more sustainable.

Another thing we are working on is, the lighting solution – how would the building look aesthetically pleasing during both day and night. if you see the developed cities, they enjoy the building more at night compared to daytime. We have some upcoming high end projects and we intend to create the same lighting solutions there too.

If the rules and regulations enforced by the government on the architects would be revised it would provide the architects with a lot of scope to work with the building.

If we could gain some freedom there to increase the scope of our work, as an architect I think it will be possible to create more sustainable buildings.

If sustainable design technologies are implemented, do upfront costs exist that may affect the construction project?

Of course, we want to create sustainable projects, but in doing so there will be some impact on the cost. In the long run, we are benefitted by the creation of a sustainable space. Due to Bangladesh’s weather conditions, we need to focus on using appropriate materials that would help us build timeless architectural marvels.
I have a dream, and I have been working with my team members for the past 14 years now. My teammates are passionate, who work for the sheer desire to create a building with increased longevity. We want to work in a way that would contribute to our society by fulfilling the needs of our clients, who are from all walks of life. We work with the same intensity irrespective of the size of the projects.

Finally we want to create originally brewed bold buildings that will be known and recognized worldwide.