The Transformer – Rahel Ahmed, Managing Director and CEO of Prime Bank

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With dialogue on gender equality and women empowerment taking center stage in policy level discussions, how important do you think is financial inclusion of women? What Prime Bank plans to do to facilitate this?

Women empowerment is extremely important because if we look at the demography, obviously the female population constitutes a very large chunk of it. When we are talking about banking, saving is one of the major factors of impediment. The women in the family, especially mothers have been the prime savers for ages. The fathers and the children are mostly spenders. From an organizational point of view, men have been the cost centers and women have been the savers. Women today are not only the homemakers; they also make significant contributions to the economy. Bearing this is mind, it is crucial we bring them into the financial/banking net. In terms of financial inclusion, we cannot forge ahead by excluding the women of the country.

As of right now, we don’t necessarily have a woman banking section at Prime Bank, but we do have a women entrepreneur division. We have been operating this division humbly for some time now. However, I am happy to share that we plan to introduce a full-fledged women banking section within the next few months with the intention to bring women from every sphere of the society within the banking net.

From the banking industry perspective, is Bangladesh set to embrace the demographic dividend in the coming years, or does it have the possibility of turning into a demographic liability?

I am very optimistic about the demographic dividend. It is definitely going to be the major force behind the development of the country. There’s no denying it. If you look at all the other regions where the demographic dividend has been the major force, you’ll see that they have all benefited from it. Perhaps the youth unemployment rate has prompted critics to say that we can incur a demographic liability. However, it’s the state’s responsibility to facilitate the employment infrastructure. Our country has been evolving steadily; Bangladesh has been marching towards a digital infrastructure for the last 10-12 years. The beneficiary of this rapid digitization has undoubtedly been the young population of the country.

Local startups like Pathao have given global players like Uber a run for their money. These startups are definitely the result of our demographic dividend. With more facilitation and creation of a conducive environment by the state, we will see even more digitization at different levels which will surely benefit the young population. My take is that Bangladesh will embrace the demographic dividend giving it the right direction. The one drawback about having a young population (20s-30s) is that they can be restless. The responsibility lies with the older generation to channel this restlessness through collaboration into fuel for leapfrogging, because the future of the nation depends on it. As I said, I am highly optimistic about it and I strongly believe that the demographic dividend is going to change the face of the country.

What is the banking industry doing to adopt the 4IR?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution means that technology is going to take over operations pertaining to our economy. As we shift towards a tech-based economy, we as a society need to embrace it. The banking industry is no exception, and the sector has been undergoing its own evolution. Banking can now be considered an FMCG business; banks have to position themselves in a manner where they directly reach customers and create the demand. Alongside, they need to repackage their products and services, and occupy the mind space of the population.

The more we adapt to the use of technology, the less likely that customers will be willing to physically visit the banks. Also, with the emergence of fintech, this is slowly going out of practice. Fintech offers convenience and technological advancements to customers. Our lifestyles revolve around mostly making payments, and customers nowadays seek to do that through the comfort of their smartphones. Fintech platforms have facilitated this demand, creating the ecosystem which banks need to consider themselves a part of. This will enrich and expand the ecosystem which will improve the banking industry as a whole. At Prime Bank in our R&D department, we are focused on creating channels and options for customers which will allow us to expand on this ecosystem and participate in it.

With the financial industry riding high on the back of the ever expanding fintech innovations, does Prime Bank consider it a competition, or does it see scope of collaboration with fintech in the coming years for greater growth?

The banking industry cannot forgo the contributions of fintechs and refuse collaboration with them insisting fintechs are competitors. Prime Bank is no exception to this rule.  Fintechs will not replace the significance of banks and vice versa. Fintechs have enabled a fruitful amalgamation of technology and finance by developing the necessary software and hardware; banks need to synergize with fintechs and reap the benefits. Through collaboration, the industry will be able to offer further convenience and benefits to our clients.

Is digitalization a boon or a problem for the banking industry, especially in the context of cybersecurity?

Digitization is definitely a beneficial leap into the future, but every rose comes with thorns, and we need to be prepared to tackle the challenges head on. Cyber security is a concern of the hour, not just for the financial industry, but for industries facing disruption in the process of digitization. In the age of digitization, a popular debate is the notion that machines will take over human kind. I personally don’t agree, because you need a human to operate a machine. The machine can only process data faster than the human brain, but it cannot decide the course of action. I reiterate, cyber security is definitely a growing concern and we need to safeguard ourselves to the best of our abilities. The more science and technology are going to advance; the threat is going to increase. Along with the risks, the safety measures too will increase at the same pace, if not faster.

What is your take on sustainable banking?

For any business to remain relevant in today’s shifting landscape, sustainability has to be at the core of all activities. To be able to do so we have to approach a sustainable ecosystem. Human beings cannot exclude themselves from the ecosystem, because we are a part of it and it is our collective duty to jointly work towards establishing a sustainable ecosystem. As a bank, Prime Bank is doing its due diligence to create this ecosystem – foremost by reducing our reliance on paper. Also, we take care to use eco-friendly materials in our mementos to promote green practices. Even in our investments, we look for options where green banking can be promoted. In all aspects of sustainable financing mechanisms or procedures, we are very much aligned with sustainable practices, and as we move into the future, our engagement will only increase.

Prime Bank has been promoting school cricket for the last five years, apart from driving major CSR initiatives through the Prime Bank Foundation. Why school cricket?

Cricket is the nation’s favorite sport. Also taking into consideration the fact that a large portion of the population is young, and notable players like Tamim Iqbal, Shakib Al Hasan, Mashrafe Mortaza are invariably looked upon as role models, cricket seemed to be the right platform to engage the youth of our country.

Additionally, school cricket is definitely the foundation of tomorrow’s cricket stars of the country. Our victory in the ICC Under-19 Cricket World Cup is a testament to this. Four of the first eleven players in the U-19 squad had previously played in Prime Bank’s school cricket tournament, including Shahadat Hossain who scored a triumphant 74 runs against South Africa in the Quarter Final. We believe we are creating the stars of tomorrow’s national cricket team.

For a sustainable growth of the cricket team at the national level, training has to start at the root level. This has been proven in countries like India and Australia. In Bangladesh this practice is yet to flourish to its full potential. However, following the proud victory of our under-19 team, additional investment in the infrastructure of root-level cricket can be considered. We have every intention to continue this promising association with BCB.

Is this open to both male and female students?

Currently no. In Bangladesh we have not yet explored the full possibilities of opening school cricket to include female students. However, the success of the nation’s women cricket team cannot be overlooked. The inclusion of female students in school cricket can certainly be an initiative that Prime Bank will be considering following a discussion with the cricket board. It would be encouraging to revise the current structure into a two-tier model to facilitate the participation of female students in the nation’s beloved sport.

Having discussed technology, innovation and the industrial revolution, I’d like to restress on the fact that technology is going to be the backbone of everything that we do, starting from waking up in the morning to the moment we go to sleep. Everything will revolve around technology in some form or other. From a banking perspective, it is going to get more challenging, but it is the bankers’ responsibility to embrace the change as quickly as possible. Banks have to be more adaptive, leverage the strength of the technology, and make services and products more convenient. Convenience is going to be the game-changer, and this is where technology will play a significant role. The face of the banking industry is changing, it has significantly changed in the last 10 years, and it is going to change at a much faster rate in the coming years. We all have to brace ourselves, gear up, and be ready for the future. We have to be proactive rather than reactive to make the most of this digital phenomenon.

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