Bangladesh Lead

Image Credit: R.H.Sumon / Flickr

More than a year after Startup Dhaka, a crowdfunded documentary showcasing how the Dhaka startup community uses the power of the Internet to create new and exciting businesses, made waves in the region, this fledgling community in Bangladesh has hardly looked back.

At the Digital Centre Entrepreneurs Conference in November 2014, which hosted 11,000 entrepreneurs from across the country, Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina encouraged more young people to start their own businesses. “Instead of relying on others, the youths should be entrepreneurs of their own, stand on their own feet and create employment opportunities for others,” she said.

Startup Dhaka, the team behind the eponymous documentary, also runs an innovative local online news site for businesses supported by the community and entrepreneurs. With its journalistic efforts and events, Startup Dhaka has stayed ahead of the curve, and its traction has also drawn e27 to Bangladesh in search for Echelon’s Top 100 Startups. With a large population of 166 million, the country is also one of the most densely-populated in the world, housing a large number of individuals within its 144,000 square kilometres.

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These demographic and geographic dynamics, especially the vast consumer base, makes for an attractive B2C environment for startups in Bangladesh. Some of the more established companies include NewsCred (a content marketing and syndication platform), Analyzen (a web and mobile application development company), and Lifeline (a mobile app which connects hospitals to blood donors). NewsCred made headlines in 2013 and 2014 when it raised S$20 million (US$15 million) and S$34 million (US$25 million) of funding respectively.

Success begets success, and the milestones achieved by these startups are inspiring others to follow in their footsteps.

With a high mobile and growing Internet penetration rate – of 69 per cent (115 million mobile subscribers) and 25 per cent (43 million Internet subscribers) – it would appear that Bangladesh-based businesses can therefore focus on the e-commerce sector. Yet, low banking and credit card penetration rates in a conventional cash-based economy mean that mobile payment rates remain low.

A commentary by the Dhaka Tribune cited documentation problems and high risk as hurdles for the financing of small companies. So it should come as little surprise that Bangladesh ranks 173 on the 2015 ‘Doing Business Index’, out of 189 economies.

Besides the infrastructure and regulatory structure, the people matter too. The government has worked to strengthen its universities, so that more graduates have the requisite skills and know-how.

The ecosystem may still be developing, but it is headed in the right direction. Concentrating on the present narrative on the capital city of Dhaka makes sense, since it is the 10th largest city in the world with 15 million inhabitants. Yet, this also means that over 150 million in the country are unaccounted for. Going beyond Dhaka and its urban landscape could bring about new opportunities, and take this startup ecosystem to greater heights.

Echelon Asia Summit 2015 takes place in Singapore from June 23 to June 24, 2015. e27 is currently looking for Asia’s Top 100 startups to be part of this year’s exhibition, so apply now.