'In the last nine months, the digital services enjoyed by the people make it clear that ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is not a dream but a reality'
2020 will definitely go down as the year in which the ‘Digital Bangladesh’ narrative made a quantum leap.
With the arrival of coronavirus in these shores in March, most companies and individuals began chalking up plans to function remotely to maintain the social distancing needed to keep the lethal pathogen at bay.
Offices began their preparations to work from home and the educational institutes too contemplated taking lessons to the students through digital means.
Not just that, those who never paid a bill online began to do so, those who never bought groceries online began to do so, those who never took medical counsel online began to do so.
Life simply went on, and it was because Bangladesh already had the digital infrastructure in place, thanks to the current government’s 2008 election manifesto to go digital by 2021.
“When the government enforced the lockdown on March 26, we thought that our daily activities would stop but it did not happen -- everything was done through the internet,” said Syed Almas Kabir, president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS).
This proves Bangladesh already had the digital infrastructure, which was not visible to people.
“In the last nine months, the digital services enjoyed by the people make it clear that ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is not a dream but a reality,” he added.
Had there been no infrastructure, the country would have fallen behind amid the pandemic, said Abul Kasem Khan, managing director of AK Khan Telecom.
“From board meetings to online schooling, shopping, workers payment and consulting a doctor -- everything has been done thanks to technology. This was enormous support as well as a blessing for the industry people,” said Kasem, also a former president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
It was the e-commerce or online marketplaces that reaped the maximum benefit of the turbocharging of digitalisation during the pandemic.
“As people preferred contactless shopping due to pandemic, there was a big change in people’s mindset about the online marketplace,” said Muhammad Abdul Wahed Tomal, general secretary of E-commerce Association of Bangladesh (e-CAB).
The e-commerce platforms recorded sales growth of 70 to 80 per cent amid the public health crisis.
Daily sales order trebled to 1.20 lakh.
“This is a big achievement,” Tomal added.
And it was the mobile financial services (MFS) platform as well as digital money that facilitated the transactions.
In October, card transactions stood at Tk 18,089.8 crore, up 16.9 per cent from a year earlier, according to data from the Bangladesh Bank.
The amount, in fact, is the second-highest in history. Only in July, which was a record-setting month for digital money across the board, were card transactions were higher.
Transactions through the mobile financial service platform, another form of digital money, stood at Tk 53,258.8 crore in October, up 41 per cent year-on-year. October’s figure, which is up 8.5 per cent from a month earlier, is the second-highest since MFS was introduced nearly a decade ago.
In October, person-to-person transfers overtook cash-out to become the most common MFS transaction, meaning the amount is staying within the system and is not being converted into paper money.
“This is a very good sign. It shows that people are getting habituated to digital money. People not cashing out -- they are saving up on the cash-out fee,” said Kamal Quadir, chief executive officer of bKash, the leading MFS provider.
The pandemic has fast-tracked the digital transformation for payments as people avoided handling banknotes for fearing of catching the virus, which has so far killed 7,452 and infected 509,148 in Bangladesh, according to Syed Mohammed Kamal, country manager of Mastercard, one of the two leading card service providers along with Visa.
The ability to disburse salary through the MFS platform also came in handy.
“While we were fighting to maintain social distancing and ensure health safety, MFS provided an opportunity to pay workers remotely,” said Fazlee Shamim Ehsan, a director of the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters’ Association.
It was an extra benefit for the sector and paved way to escape the impact of the pandemic to some extent, he added.
How to retain the growth
The pandemic was a blessing in disguise for the ICT industry.
“People from all strata of life have been able to understand the importance of technology in their everyday needs,” said Kabir, also the owner of MetroNet Bangladesh.
Besides, new customers came on board.
“A big opportunity is waiting for the ICT sector.”
Since there is a change in habits, the use of technology and tech-based services will continue to grow.
“In retaining the growth, we have to create a skilled workforce and make the infrastructure robust and ensure quality and fast internet at an affordable price.”
However, business people from other sectors urged the government to make its services more effective through the digital platform and more integrated.
The government payment services need to be innovative and the policies relating to digital technology adoption should be relaxed to make the procedure easier, Khan said.
“We have shown resilience and for taking this to the next level, there is no alternative to technology and the dividend of technology should be taken properly,” he added.
He also called for ensuring access to digital technology for the small and medium-sized enterprises, who are mostly deprived of ICT services.