Cover Story

Leading From the Front

Syed Almas Kabir, President of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), shared his views with COLORS Business’ Asad Uz Zaman and Lamyaa Yushra on the challenges of Digital transformation in Bangladesh.

Syed Almas Kabir, President of BASIS on the cover of COLORS Business’ October 2021 issue. Photographer: Kazi Mukul.

As the country went into lockdown in March last year and working from home became the new normal, one sector saw opportunities. Bangladesh’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) has found and utilized the pandemic as a blessing in disguise. The government of Bangladesh has declared it as a thrust sector as it represents potential for successful reforms, job creation, industry growth, and high spill-over effects to other sectors as well as for improving governance and facilitating inclusion.

Syed Almas Kabir, BASIS President and Director of Federation of Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI), is an entrepreneur, ICT industry evangelist, policy advocate, and an angel investor. He went to study Electrical Engineering at Jadavpur University, India, in 1985 and afterward obtained his Master’s degree from New York University, USA. Almas came to Dhaka and started his career as a programmer in 1989 and also became a systems analyst for one and a half years before pursuing his Master’s degree. He worked for a very renowned computer company, Tandy-Radio Shack.

“I chose IT because when I passed my HSC back in 1984, I started learning computer programming. It took my interest, especially in the logic and the algorithms which are required in programming and I was very good at it,” he said. “So, I loved it and I think that encouraged me to choose electrical engineering and then later computers.”

Returning to Bangladesh, Syed Almas Kabir joined Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB) as a senior lecturer where he became the Associate Professor as well as the Registrar and was involved with various administrative roles and worked there for 13 years. “In 2006 I left academia, and I eventually came to the industry.”

He did not come from a family of business background as both his parents were jobholders, and he thinks it helped him to gain an academic perspective considering his mother was a teacher whereas his father worked for a British tea company.

Almas Kabir is a shareholder and Chief Executive Officer of MetroNet Bangladesh Limited, the largest nationwide data-communication company in the country offering Cloud Computing, FinTech, Cyber Security, Intranet, Internet, IP Telephony, software & system integration, and other IT Enabled Services.

Being a first-hand witness to the rapid growth of this sector, he observed: “When this government first came to power in 1996, they made the computers and accessories duty-free which helped a tremendous growth and popularity of computerization everywhere. So, that was the start. Later, on December 12, 2008, the Awami League declared their election manifesto with the theme and vision of ‘Digital Bangladesh’. That gave this industry a very big push. It is definitely a gamechanger and if you notice, in the last 12 years, I’d say there has been a paradigm shift.”

The concept of ‘Digital Bangladesh’ has more to it than its literal meaning. “We sometimes do not understand what ‘Digital Bangladesh’ really means. What it really is: it will be a country where the citizens will enjoy the services very easily and transparently and more importantly a citizen does not have to go to the government for services, but the government will bring the services to the citizen’s hand wherever that citizen is. Wherever I am, I need not have to go to the government office in the district headquarters. Even if I am in the suburbs, I can access that service and get that service through my computer or through my mobile phone. So, this is what I understand as the main idea about ‘Digital Bangladesh’. The spirit of ‘Digital Bangladesh’ is to ensure democratic rights of a citizen, ensuring transparency, of course, making everything more efficient and less time-consuming.”

For Syed Almas Kabir, the passion for IT came at an early age

He added, “We have come a long way and the government has identified about more than 2500 citizen services which will be eventually transformed into online services. Some 400-500 services have already been made available online, but then there are some more that have to be online. The work is going on and we are on the right path.”

With the current situation, implementation of newer methods is in full swing with the government planning to increase export of local products aiming to turn Bangladesh into a manufacturing hub. But challenges lie ahead. Syed Almas Kabir cautioned that the young demography will not be so young by the time Bangladesh attains the status of a developed country by 2041 and how it is crucial for Bangladesh to properly utilize this window of time.

“The average age of our population is below 28. But the problem is this advantage will not be there after, say 20 years. By 2041 when we dream of becoming a developed nation and a knowledge-based society, by that time this average age of the population will be over 40. So, we can only draw the demographic dividend in the next 20 years or so.”

He pointed out that there is the problem of an unskilled workforce which creates a gap in the industry. “There is a difference between knowledge and skill and it is very important to merge these two; this is what I have been advocating for a long time. I understand the problems of academia and I understand the requirements of the industry. A gap is still there and we really need to minimize that. Collaboration between academia and the industry is very much necessary,” he detailed.

He proposed incorporating hands-on training into the four-year syllabus, so when the students graduate, they will have both knowledge and skills. “We have been talking to the University Grants Commission (UGC) and different universities. Some of the private universities have listened to us. They have included industry representatives in their academic advisory boards. But the public universities are difficult because they have to go through many bureaucratic channels and I think UGC has to step up and has to look into this matter.”

However, he observed, during the ongoing pandemic, digital commerce has taken a leap of five years with people becoming more familiar with buying online. “Digital commerce has become very popular in the last one year or so; what we would have achieved in the next five years has been achieved within a year. Now, we really need to keep this momentum going and if we take some correct steps, I think the digital commerce industry will grow even more.”

So, what are the things that need to be done now keeping the challenges in mind?

Syed Almas Kabir mentioned that the government is working on taking broadband internet to rural areas. “We have mobile internet connectivity everywhere in Bangladesh but that cannot contribute to the economy unless it is broadband. So, broadband internet has to be taken to the rural areas, to the end-users and we must ensure the speed, availability, and quality of the internet. If that happens, the people in the rural areas can start their own enterprises and join the economy by doing freelancing works, outsourcing, digital commerce, and so on. And they can start contributing to the economy and citizens can take advantage of the digital services. Also, skill development is very important for our workforce. It doesn’t necessarily have to be ICT skills. I would say: Do not be a Jack of all trade; you have to be a master of one particular trade. When we are entering into the fourth industrial revolution these skills are even more required. Many people will lose jobs and new jobs will be introduced. Those who will lose their jobs would need to be skilled or reskilled in different areas. Therefore, skill development should be the top priority in Bangladesh.”

The world has realized the importance of the ICT sector when the most basics of all things were done digitally, like banking, meetings, classes, business, and even judiciary. More solutions and tools will be needed and that will open up big opportunities for the ICT sector. “There will be new technologies that will be used to make businesses more productive. I think in Bangladesh, we really need to be very cautious and vigilant and grab this opportunity at once. Thus, we can not only serve the people of our country but also offer our services internationally.”

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