Shameem Ahsan, managing director of eGeneration Limited and venture capital chairman, talks to The Business Standard in an exclusive interview.
It is high time the Information Technology (IT) sector in the country needed entrepreneur-friendly effective policies and strategies, plus innovation and constant upgradation of skills to sustain the global competition and take our technological journey to the next level.
If this is done, the ongoing "Digital Bangladesh" initiative will come into fruition.
eGeneration Limited Managing Director Shameem Ahsan, also chairman of Venture Capital and Private Equity Association of Bangladesh (VCPEAB), shared his view with The Business Standard's Salah Uddin Mahmud.
The former president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) discussed the current status of his company and the ICT sector as a whole.
Recently, eGeneration Limited has got the stock market regulator nod to raise Tk15 crore through the Initial Public Offering (IPO) under the fixed price method. The IPO subscription of the company opened yesterday.
TBS: How will you evaluate your company as a founder?
Shameem Ahsan: At eGeneration, we believe in generating profit with a purpose and use technology for the greater good.
We wanted to establish ourselves as not only a profit-making venture but also as an organisation that puts emphasis on environment, society, and governance (ESG) to create a meaningful positive impact on the lives of millions of people.
Since our inception, we have tried to choose our projects keeping this objective in mind.
For example, we developed a fertiliser recommendation system for the Ministry of Agriculture that can help 16.5 million farmers in the country by recommending fertiliser depending on land area, geography, soil type and various other parameters and increase crop production up to 100%.
Our company has developed a Hospital Management Information System (HMIS) for Border Guard Bangladesh that will vastly improve healthcare for its 50,000 members. In the future, this solution will help alleviate pain, reinstate health and ensure the wellbeing of millions of people at home and abroad.
Besides, enabling virtual court is one of our company's developments for the judiciary system during the pandemic through which more than 95,000 cases were disposed of and nearly 50,000 people were granted bail.
eGeneration provided training to thousands of young people on emerging technologies and other relevant skills partnering with the government.
Our company also launched 'Shohojoddha – A Plasma Network -- partnering with the ICT division and the DGHS to save the lives of critical Covid-19 patients by facilitating the collection and distribution of convalescent plasma. So far, nearly 450 lives have been saved through this platform.
Being the first software technology company in Bangladesh that got an approval for IPO, we want to share our success with the general public and our peer investors, big or small, to transform Bangladesh into an innovative high-tech nation.
If we look at NASDAQ, we will see that all the top 10 stocks are technology firms.
However, our stock market throws up a very different picture.
We wanted to pave the way for other technology companies in Bangladesh to get inspired from our success stories, raise funds from the local market and share the accomplishments with small investors.
This is how our ICT industry can flourish and take Bangladesh to a leading position in the global tech arena in the next decades.
TBS: Is the current policy of the ICT sector consistent with that of the global market?
Shameem Ahsan: Our existing ICT policy has been pivotal in the growth of the sector.
However, to take our technological journey to the next level and compete with our peers at the global stage, we need policies for technologies associated with the fourth industrial revolution such as artificial intelligence, blockchain and internet of things and implement them as early as possible.
Without proper policies in place, the adoption of these technologies will be delayed and will, in turn, slow down our overall progress of becoming a high-tech nation.
Besides, our IT projects and industry are still dominated by foreign companies.
Involvements of these companies are not only putting our national sensitive data at risk but also millions of dollars are being taken out of the country each year. Foreign companies come with deep pockets which is very difficult for our local entrepreneurs to compete with.
Therefore, to foster competition and grow our own capabilities, it is very important that the government creates a level playing field for local IT companies, many of which are now on a par with their foreign counterparts.
TBS: How successful has the government been so far in implementing Vision 2021?
Shameem Ahsan: The ICT sector has come a long way since the government put out its Vision 2021.
We have seen major successes in developing IT infrastructure and bringing connectivity through telecommunication.
When I was the president of BASIS in 2014, we along with the ICT ministry held out a vision titled "One Bangladesh" which stated that in the next five years we would export products worth $1 billion, create 1 million employment, bring 1 crore users under the internet coverage, and contribute 1% to the GDP from the ICT sector. We not only achieved the goal but also exceeded the marks.
The number of mobile phone connections has reached 98% of the population and that of internet users is more than 10.2 crore now.
Tech literacy has been improved among the mass as digital centres have been established at union levels. Mobile financial services have revolutionised financial transactions.
E-Commerce has become an integral part of our lifestyle. Digital platforms are on the rise and have created a lot of entrepreneurs over the years.
IT training and incentives from the government encouraged thousands of young individuals to engage in freelancing and earning foreign exchange.
However, despite these successes, we are still lagging behind many countries in global indices such as the E-Government Development Index, E-Participation Index and Global Innovation Index.
To improve our status in these areas, the government needs to fully automate its various services, bring digital transformation to its offices and agencies, healthcare and education sectors, undertake smart city/village initiatives and facilitate innovation through local startups.
By 2025, our vision from VCPEAB is to have at least five companies with billion-dollar valuation.
Achieving this goal will also facilitate 5 million direct employment, and 2% contribution to the GDP growth from ICT and startups.
TBS: What are the challenges in using blockchain?
Shameem Ahsan: Globally, the most popular use of blockchain is for cryptocurrencies which are banned in Bangladesh.
The government can think about allowing cryptocurrency and assess the possible benefits that blockchain can have on the financial sector and the overall economy of Bangladesh.
eGeneration has been developing blockchain-based solutions for the past few years and promoting its use in the local space.
One of the eGeneration's notable projects is Smart Crowd which harnesses blockchain technology to build the Middle-East's first and only regulated real estate investment platform for faster recording, tracking and transferring of properties.
Another blockchain-based project is Teek Taka – an ethical trade finance platform that seeks to ensure quicker, safer, and more transparent paychecks for RMG workers.
TBS: What is the infrastructural condition in Bangladesh like to implement the Internet of Things (IoT)?
Shameem Ahsan: The first and foremost requirement for IoT is smooth connectivity for which internet is the key.
Internet accessibility in Bangladesh has considerably increased over the years, however, the internet speed is relatively low and its cost remains high compared to other countries.
Moreover, for IoT to flourish in Bangladesh, we need to raise awareness about IoT and its benefits among public and private sector leaders.
Combined with raising awareness among the decision makers and increasing investment in IoT infrastructure, we can achieve an IoT-driven ecosystem to take our country forward in the fourth industrial revolution.
TBS: Can the current state of the ICT sector solve the unemployment problem?
Shameem Ahsan: ICT continues to create more job opportunities than any other sectors globally and the same can be said for our country as well.
However, it is also true that technological transformation will cause many traditional job roles to become obsolete in the coming years.
It is very important for the current professionals and future job seekers to acquire some IT skills and continuously upgrade these skills to stay relevant with the industry trend.
Moreover, according to the World Economic Forum, 70% of new value creation in the economy over the next decade will be based on digitally enabled business platforms.
My colleague and founder of Pegasus Tech Ventures, a US$1.6 billion venture capital fund headquartered in Silicon Valley, Dr Anis Uzzaman and I co-authored a book called "Startup Kingdom" based on our years of experience as a venture capitalist to guide and help aspiring entrepreneurs build successful startups.
These startups will not only contribute to the economic growth of the country but also create millions of direct and indirect jobs.