When Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took her post in 2009, few observers of the region thought the developing nation would ever become a powerhouse of innovation and technological prowess. But fast forward just a few years and Bangladesh’s Information, Communications, and Technology (ICT) sector is producing unprecedented economic growth and opportunity.
Under Sheikh Hasina’s leadership, the governing Awami League government introduced a first-of-its-kind plan — known as Digital Bangladesh — that is leveraging digital tools and know-how to deliver government services to the country’s 166 million residents. Its Digital Bangladesh goals envision accelerated development of information and communications technology in both the public and private spheres. Programs long underway are already making many facets of society more transparent and accountable, helping to boost the Bangladesh economy.
Because of this concerted digital push, Oxford University’s Internet Institute discovered something remarkable last year: Bangladesh is the world’s second-largest supplier of online labor for companies around the globe, trailing only India. The work includes software development, sales and marketing support and creation of multimedia content. This is the future of Bangladesh — a Digital Bangladesh.
Since 2009, annual exports resulting from Bangladesh’s ICT sector have grown from $26 million to more than $300 million, a more than tenfold increase.
The Digital Bangladesh program has already transformed the lives of more than 100 million Bangladeshis. Prior to the Awami League government’s digital push, only 20 million of the country’s citizens had access to a mobile phone, and since the government won election in 2009, the government’s Digital Bangladesh program has expanded rural internet access to millions of people. Access to affordable broadband internet will allow Bangladesh’s rural population — approximately 75 percent of the country’s total population — to access vital information and e-government services that play a major role in reducing poverty and increasing employment.
Digital Bangladesh is leveraging digital tools and know-how to deliver government services. The government has built 5,000 digital centers that provide internet and other information technology services to citizens, enough so that no village is more than 2.5 miles away from one. The Teacher’s Portal, with more than 220,000 teachers participating, is an online tool that allows experienced teachers to train less-experienced ones remotely, thereby improving the quality of education.
All of this comes at a time when Bangladeshis are rushing online and going mobile. In 2012, 31 million citizens had internet subscriptions. Today, 80 million — or roughly half the country’s population — do. Total mobile phone subscriptions stand at 145 million, or nearly the entire country, up from 87 million in 2012. In addition, 2 million ICT professionals and 10,000 ICT entrepreneurs have become self-reliant, generating an additional $300 million for Bangladesh’s economy.
The high cost of mobile broadband service is constraining Bangladesh from tapping into its freelancing employment potential. Bangladesh is already ranked second in the world for the number of freelance workers in relation to the country’s population, at 16 percent, only trailing India, with 24 percent. With the proper implementation of broadband access — which is coming soon — Bangladesh is poised to be the world’s leader in the IT freelance economy.
Mobile phone usage grew from less than 1 percent in 2003 to 67 percent in 2013, which has helped connect millions of Bangladeshis to entertainment, basic communications and social media.
To truly become a global leader in ICT, Bangladesh needs to increase broadband infrastructure, which it is doing. Most cable TV operators have already developed a fiber optics system capable of transmitting large amounts of data at a reduced cost.
A prime example of expanded technological opportunities is illustrated by Moheshkhali, a small island located along the southeast tip of Bangladesh. It is home to 320,000 people and is one of the nation’s densest, poorest and most remote areas. Many basic educational, medical and government services were inaccessible due to its remote location. As part of its Digital Bangladesh initiative, the Bangladesh government connected Moheshkhali to the mainland with 14 miles of fiber optic cable. The lives of citizens there have improved markedly as a result. Schools are linked to the internet for the first time, finally giving many children a chance to see the outside world. Thanks to high-speed web video, students on the island can interact with teachers on the mainland in real time.
Healthcare has also improved. The Digital Island project introduced handheld ultrasonic devices to four community clinics — with more to follow. These will allow doctors at hospitals in bigger cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong to examine and diagnose patients remotely.
Bangladesh has introduced many programs focused on giving lower income women and young people ICT skills.
More than 3,300 people have been trained under the Women ICT Freelancer and Entrepreneur Development Program, which is aimed at helping underprivileged women.
Another example of Bangladesh’s coordinated effort to create a pool of skilled labor is the Skills and Training Enhancement Program, or STEP. STEP offers workers vocational training and gives development grants to 33 polytechnic institutions to improve quality of skills-training programs.
Developing skilled ICT human resources is necessary not only to manage the increase in ICT infrastructure, but also to increase productivity, which is necessary for Bangladesh to maintain its robust gross domestic product growth of more than 6 percent annually. Expansion of Bangladesh’s ICT economy has played a major role in this economic diversification effort. Much of Bangladesh’s growth in past years came from the ready-made garment industry. The garment industry employs between 3.5 million to 4 million people and accounts for about 12 percent of Bangladesh’s GDP. Bangladesh’s $28 billion garment industry is the second largest in the world, only trailing China.
While the ICT sector in Bangladesh accounts for a relatively small percentage of total GDP, since the Digital Bangladesh initiative was first enacted, the industry has enjoyed a staggering 40 percent rate of growth in the past several years. With mobile phone subscribers reaching 120 million this year, Bangladesh is now the fifth largest mobile market in the world. Bangladesh’s large population and predominantly flat land have helped the country become a significant telecommunications hub for the region and a lucrative investment for both foreign and domestic companies.
Bangladesh’s ICT innovations have not gone unnoticed on the global stage. Consulting firm A.T. Kearney recently selected Bangladesh as one of the top 50 IT destinations in the world. The increasingly skilled technical workforce has led to Samsung and Accenture establishing research and development centers in Bangladesh. Google, Dell and Microsoft are outsourcing many of their technical needs to Bangladeshi Companies.
Bangladesh’s ICT companies are also beginning to form partnerships with tech companies from around the globe. These partnerships can be attributed to conferences such as Digital World 2015, which brought 120 private companies and governmental organizations from 25 countries to the capital city of Dhaka for a four-day conference. While the primary focus of the event was to highlight the advances of the Digital Bangladesh initiative as well as potential growth opportunities in the ICT sector, Digital World also offered the opportunity for Bangladeshi tech start-ups to learn from some of the world’s biggest tech-firms.
Note: This article was written by opinion contributor Casey Botticello and originally appeared in Beaming Bangladesh 2019: A Magazine of the Embassy of Bangladesh.
About the author:
Casey Botticello is a serial entrepreneur, private equity investor, and freelance writer. He currently works for a bipartisan lobbying and strategic communications firm. He also manages investments in a number of technology startups through his private equity fund Botticello.
Casey is the founder of the Cryptocurrency Alliance, an independent expenditure-only committee (Super PAC) dedicated to cryptocurrency and blockchain advocacy. He is also the editor of several Medium publications, including K Street, Side Hustle, and Wall Street.
Previously, Casey worked at several tech startups and in real estate development. He is a graduate of The University of Pennsylvania, where he received his B.A. in Urban Studies.
Daryl Polluck is the lead editor for Valley Post Express. Daryl has written for several online publications including the Huffington Post, Vanity Fair and Bleacher Report. Daryl is based in Los Angeles and covers issues affecting California. When he’s not busy writing, Daryl enjoys traveling and hiking.