Welcome to our new series Possible If You Want, powered by Grameenphone, exploring the power and possibilities of the internet. Over the perhaps past 20 years, the internet has reshaped our world. Today, we communicate and connect differently. We shop and consume differently. We build companies and solve problems differently. The internet has penetrated and transformed almost every area of our lives.
This series is about our innate possibilities, the power of the internet, and what happens when we bridge the two. We’ll be interviewing some of the country’s successful technology entrepreneurs and learn about their vision, their take on the power and possibilities of the internet, how they personally and their businesses use technology to tackle some of the pressing problems of our society, and much more.
All the stories will be exclusively published in Future Startup and you can find them here.
(1)The 90s was the most important decade for the consumer technology industry in Bangladesh, particularly concerning computers, connectivity, and mobile. We first experienced dial-up internet in the early 90s. The Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) was established in 1997 with 17 members. Computer usage started much earlier - in the 70s. BUET opened its CSE department in 1979 in the form of a computer center that was later turned into the CSE department.
The first epochal event, to my understanding, for the consumer technology industry in Bangladesh, was the launch of Grameenphone and subsequent growth in mobile phone penetration. On 26th March 1996, Grameen Telecom in collaboration with Grameenphone launched the Village phone project with an ambition to “bridge the technological gap between urban and rural Bangladesh through affordable mobile technology”. The mobile phone was a costly technology in 1996, only accessible to a handful of upper-class people. Grameen Telecom unleashed a technological revolution by introducing the village phone and Phone Lady program. The program helped mobile phones to reach remote areas in the country. That was the first epoch of consumer technology in Bangladesh that enabled many other epochs to happen in the next few years.
Mobile is critical because mobile is a universal technology platform.
Over the past three decades, Bangladesh has experienced unprecedented growth in mobile phone penetration. Bangladesh is a true mobile-first nation. Our mobile phone penetration is much higher than PC-Laptop penetration. Logically, mobile internet penetration is much higher than broadband and other services. A far greater number of people access the internet through mobile than otherwise. Although feature phones dominate overall usage, the country has been seeing extraordinary smartphone growth.
Mobile means ubiquity and inclusivity in the context of Bangladesh - universal access to the internet for anyone at any time from anywhere. In Bangladesh, according to BTRC data, the total number of mobile phone subscribers reached 164.282 million at the end of July 2020, almost all of whom will convert to smartphones over the next few years. Mobile internet subscribers in the country stand at 97 million.
Mobile is a universal platform because it is affordable and accessible. The entry price for Android has already fallen to under $30 making smartphones accessible to almost everyone. The lower your income, the more valuable your mobile is to you as a means of communication. We've all seen the data showing that people spend a disproportionate amount of time on their handheld devices and that time spent online is much higher on smartphones.
This has unleashed a technological revolution that is transforming every industry. Widespread access to mobile internet has enabled extraordinary growth in everyday digital services from ride-hailing to digital healthcare services, various on-demand services starting from food to cleaning services, online grocery, and much more. Mobile allows users to do things on the go. As a result, mobile is changing how we communicate, consume, shop, entertain, and transact. In the coming years, it will change many other aspects of our daily life.
Mobile internet and access: Mobile internet has enabled a revolution of access to opportunities, services, and entertainment. Mobile internet has made it feasible for people living in rural areas in the country to access the opportunities the internet has to offer and access information that could potentially change lives.
If you take a stroll across rural Bangladesh, you would see everyone is busy with their handheld devices communicating with a relative staying abroad via services like Whatsapp or IMO, accessing relevant news and information and opportunities, or consuming entertainment on Youtube and Facebook.
It is not only about communication and entertainment alone. Mobile internet has made access to healthcare such as Telemedicine, education such as online lessons, and shopping feasible for a large number of people across the country which was unthinkable before.
Almost every new internet connection in Bangladesh is happening on mobile. This tends to be cheaper and easier than any other option. Fixed-line broadband is often prohibitively expensive and for a large number of people it is often unavailable. In most parts of Bangladesh, where infrastructure is always a headache, it is hard to get a good basic landline, let alone broadband.
Poor people seldom have personal computers. In the past, many people used to go to internet cafés, but these are old-age stories now. A connection in your pocket is far more convenient. For most people, the mobile internet has made access to the world of the internet feasible in Bangladesh by making broadband and computers almost irrelevant.
Mobile internet and creation: The Internet has unleashed a new wave of entrepreneurship and given rise to a new class of creative entrepreneurs building myriad products and services. In Bangladesh, widespread access to mobile internet has enabled a large part of this. Solo entrepreneurs living in remote parts of the country are using mobile internet to sell things online and build products and reach new audiences. As we wrote in the Internet and Entrepreneurship: How the Internet Has Driven Down the Cost of Starting and Building Business:
“Access to the internet has now come to a point where we are increasingly getting into the deployment phase of the internet. People making live shows from their living room on Facebook Lives and women making TikTok videos are glimpses of the future of internet-enabled creation and the power of individual creators. Today, we have influencers on social media platforms and stars on TikTok.
Internet’s Deployment Phase: Broadly speaking, you can divide the internet age into two phases: penetration and deployment. Penetration is about bringing people on the internet. Deployment is two things: 1) about developing and offering services and products and solutions to the people who are on the internet. 2) people creating and building new services and solutions using the power of the internet.
Although we have a long way to go to bring everyone in Bangladesh on the internet, the growth has been consistent. If you look into the two phases of the internet age – 1) penetration or bringing people on the internet 2) deployment – building services and solutions for these users – we are equally on both sides of the spectrum. Bangladesh already has a user base that needs services and solutions on the internet. Building for these users and using the power of the internet offers an incredible opportunity for entrepreneurs.
The internet has driven down the cost of starting companies. Today, you can use a no-code web builder to build a website, AWS for hosting, digital distribution channels for distribution, and go on to build your venture. Starting a business has never been this easy or inexpensive. It has never been this inclusive either.
On Facebook, you can create a page using which you can share knowledge, build an audience, and sell products. A growing number of people, who have something worth sharing and disseminate or sell, are doing it and thus creating opportunities for them.”
Apart from being useful in its own right, mobile internet has enabled a range of other innovations in Bangladesh such as mobile money that improves lives and speed economic growth, online commerce, access to employment opportunities, agriculture, transportation, healthcare, entertainment, entrepreneurship, and many more.
If phones are powerful tools, mobile internet is even more potent. Mobile internet connection caused a myriad of changes from allowing people access to opportunities to building businesses to availing services.
Mobile with an internet connection is increasingly becoming an everything platform. Upon waking up, you check your mobile for communications i.e. email and messages. You use the mobile internet to call an Uber or a Pathao bike to commute. You use mobile payment services such as bKash to make payments. You use your mobile to order groceries, food delivery, and services. You use mobile to avail of telemedicine service where you speak with a doctor over Whatsapp or Google Meet using the mobile internet without leaving your house. And you use the same device to connect with friends, entertain yourself, and meditate to go to sleep. Some notable innovations propelled by mobile internet:
I. Mobile Financial Service
The first mobile money service, bKash, was launched in the country in 2011. It did not take much time to grow. Today, Bangladesh accounts for more than 8% of the total mobile money accounts globally. The service has grown rapidly, with more than 12 companies offering mobile money services on the market. The initial surge in P2P mobile money service is now giving way to digital payment and other digital services.
We have seen a rise in mobile digital payment services. For example, bKash has been paying far greater emphasis on digital payment space than on P2P service. In fact, bKash now has a host of services that you can do using the bKash app.
Healthcare has been going digital for a while now. Health-tech startups such as Digital Healthcare Solutions, Praava Health, Olwel, Maya, and a number of others have been taking on the various aspects of healthcare and transforming them into digital solutions.
Mobile internet has accelerated this pace. Take for example Maya: Maya is a digital healthcare platform that provides an anonymous messaging service where users can post their physical health, mental health, psychosocial and legal questions. The company says it answered some 5000 questions per day and more than 2M users interacted with the platform through app, web, and chatbots in December 2019 alone. Now the company aims even bigger to continue serving more people and growing its user base beyond the borders. (1)
3. Telemedicine: Telemedicine and digital healthcare services have been critical services for people who live in rural areas and can’t readily visit doctors in places like Dhaka and other urban hubs. The coronavirus pandemic has made the service even more relevant as a growing number of people couldn’t access healthcare amid the coronavirus outbreak. In the first few months of the pandemic lockdown, we came to see that hospitals declined to take in patients. Private chambers closed indefinitely. Many people fear visiting hospitals. This new reality has given rise to digital health services. Companies like Olwel, Praava Health, Telenor Health, and a host of other small digital healthcare services have seen an increase in demand. Similarly, on-demand test services like Thaylocare and online pharmacies such as Ousud.com and pharmacy.com.bd have seen a growing demand.
The rise of these services can largely be attributed to the rise of access to mobile internet across the country. (2)
4. Education: Schools are shut. Coaching centers are shut. Nobody knows when things will return to normalcy and schools and other educational institutions will reopen and parents will feel safe to send their kids to school again. But parents remain wary about the education of their kids and a growing number of parents and students are opting for online education services. Similarly, many people are opting out of online courses to spend their time social distancing more productively.
Mobile internet has enabled many people to access online education regardless of their geographic location.
5. Agriculture: Technology has long been transforming agriculture from seed to fertilizer to better machines. The Internet is now taking the transformation up a notch. iFarmer, an agri-fin-tech company is slowly transforming how farmers access finance, inputs, and markets using the power of the internet. The farmers who iFarmer works with mostly live in rural areas across Bangladesh. They use mobile internet to connect with knowledge and the market. Fosoli, an app from ACI, provides the necessary information to farmers on agriculture and farming using the mobile internet.
These are only a few examples. Access to the internet, largely enabled by mobile internet in Bangladesh, is transforming every aspect of our life.
Average Bangladeshis are consuming significantly higher mobile internet data since the launch of 4G in the country in February 2018. Mobile data consumption has almost doubled in the last year. As mobile internet price goes down and quality improves, it is going to truly transform Bangladesh.
Although we are not yet there in terms of penetration and have a long way to go to bring all the people onto the internet, building services and products for the existing internet users has already begun. The opportunity is endless there both in terms of scope and what has been done so far.
We have seen a handful of successful products that have been built on top of the mobile phone in Bangladesh such as bKash, Pathao, and a few others but there are many more opportunities to explore. If you consider mobile as a platform, which a large group of people is using for accessing the world of the internet, it opens up an entirely new world of opportunities.