Bangladesh emerging as a new IT hub in South Asia

Dhaka's companies are currently overshadowed by their Indian peers when it comes to providing IT services globally. But with improving infrastructure, Bangladesh is becoming a significant software exporter.

IT companies in Bangladesh started exporting software around two decades ago, joining the business process outsourcing (BPO) bandwagon in the 1990s. Since then, many of them have diversified into exporting computer programs, according to Syed Almas Kabir, the president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS).

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Kabir's organization, BASIS, started with 17 companies in 1997. Now, the association has over 1,170 members and several have begun exporting their services globally.

Data Soft, for example, began its journey in 1998. Its Managing Director Mahboob Zaman told DW, "It was 1996 and the world was anxious about Y2K, which could cause a problem for computer systems in 2000. At the time, Indian tech companies announced that they had found the solutions for the problem. We thought if India could do such a lot of things, why couldn't we?"

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In the early 2000s, Zaman went to Bangalore, India's IT capital, with Muhammed Zafar Iqbal, a teacher at the Shahjalal Science & Technology University in Sylhet, in Bangladesh's northeast, and visited the offices of the software giant, Infosys. After they returned, Zaman established Data Soft with the slogan, "We make software, we make computers meaningful."

"At the time, computer sciences were taught only in the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET)," he told DW, adding that after graduating, students would leave the country. Zaman did not get the chance to recruit them for his company. Instead, he began training students who had graduated in engineering or other science subjects.

Exporting abroad

Data Soft now exports IT services to countries like the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, England, EU, USA, and Saudi Arabia. Three years ago, the company introduced an IoT-based toll management system in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Recently, it partnered with Johnson Control Hitachi, one of Japan's biggest technology firms. Data Soft is also working with Face Recognition Systems for some schools in Florida in the United States and providing a monitoring technology for central water management in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

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Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Paradise in peril

Where the Ganges and Bramhaputra rivers converge at the Bay of Bengal, they form a vast fertile delta. Sediment brought down from the Himalayas means this has long been a region of agricultural plenty. But as climate change pushes up the sea level and storms become more frequent and more severe, its inhabitants and way of life are among the most threatened on the planet.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Farewell to farming

As saltwater seeps into once-fertile land, farmers are giving up agriculture and looking for new ways to make a living. Some relocate to urban areas to take low-paid jobs in factories producing cheap clothing for the West. Others are turning to aquaculture to supply another European consumer market — prawns. But the impact of shrimp farming on the delta coast is hastening its destruction.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Traditional technology

Some families, though, are turning to a more traditional, and less harmful strategy to make the most of their changing environment. Aquatic plants and straw are woven together to create a floating platform on which crops are planted. Bangla Delta farmers have been doing this for hundreds of years. But with climate change, this ancient technology has become a cutting-edge solution.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Family fortunes

Women and men work together to build the rafts. This farmer in Pirojpun shows the delicately wrapped seedlings she's preparing to plant on her floating garden.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Organic and recyclable

Leafy vegetables, okra, gourd, eggplant, pumpkin and onions all thrive on the raft gardens. Out on the water, they are less vulnerable to pests and don't require chemical fertilizers. Each raft lasts around three months. Then, it's hauled ashore, broken down, and used to fertilize crops on land.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

From alien invader to savior

These days, the garden rafts are built on a base of water hyacinth. A voracious invasive species from the Amazon, the water hyacinth is upsetting the balance of ecosystems in many parts of the world. But its resistance to salt water, buoyancy and sheer abundance make it the ideal material for floating farms.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Living liferafts

Hari Podo and his family lived on a hyacinth raft for two months when a giant flood hit in 1988. "Humans to one side and domestic animals to the other," he recalls. "We slept and cooked food on the floating plants." Such floods are becoming an ever-greater threat. "Seasons have changed," Podo says. "Nowadays rain is heavier than before."

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Taking back territory

Other delta communities are working to reclaim ground lost to the waters. The village of Nazir Bazar was created by piling soil onto swampy ground and draining it with a system of canals to create both farmland and residential areas.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Close to the elements

A farmer in Nazir Bazar looks skyward for clues as to when the next downpour will come. His boat is loaded with bananas grown on reclaimed land. The canals that drain the village's farmland also provide a transport network, bringing produce to market and children to school.

Climate change: Bangladeshi farmers turn to hydroponics to stay afloat

Learning to adapt

Nazir Bazar farmer Giassudin Saddar has seen his home transformed over the years, but is optimistic about the future and his community's ability to adapt. "Whatever we face — rivers, canals, rain, floods — we have learned to live with a changing environment," he says.

Similarly, at the end of 2016, another IT firm called Reve Systems released its first antivirus software in Bangladesh. The company's Ibnul Karim Rupen said, ''Commercially, we launched it in 2017. After receiving positive feedback from users, we started to export it to India at the end of that year and then expanded our market to Nepal.'' Now Reve has begun exporting the product globally. "We started exporting to African countries like Tanzania, Kenya and so on. Then we expanded to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova,'' Rupen said, adding that Reve had online customers in 50 countries.

Other indigenous companies like Tiger IT have developed a voter registration system for Nepal and followed it up with a transport management system in the country. Tiger IT has also been involved in projects in India and Bhutan. Recently, Pathao, a startup, launched ride-sharing services in the Nepalese capital of Kathmandu.

A five-billion-dollar dream

According to the Global Location Service Index, a market analysis tool offered by AT Karney, Bangladesh ranks 21st in IT outsourcing, business process outsourcing and software development. The country also has the second-largest number of freelancers worldwide, according to the Oxford Internet Institute, and more than 40,000 people work in the outsourcing industry, earning more than $300 million (267 million euros) every year, according to the Bangladesh Association of Call Centre and Outsourcing (BACCO).

According to Syed Almas Kabir, president of Bangladesh's IT companies' association BASIS, many firms are getting involved with new technologies like the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and blockchain. Demands for more services in these areas will increase, he told DW, adding that universities also needed to modify their subjects to cater to new demands.

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As a whole, Bangladesh has earned about $1 billion (around 890 million euros) in the last year through its IT services, according to BASIS. The government now wants to earn $5 billion (around 4.4 billion euros) within 2021. BASIS' Kabir thinks that once the government completes laying fiber optic cables, internet will be available in Bangladesh's villages as well.

The association is now looking to expand its outreach in potential markets, including Japan, USA, UK, Denmark and in African countries. Kabir told DW: ''We have already submitted a proposal to the government. We want to create a Bangladesh desk in Japan. We will recruit some local people in this endeavor to promote our companies."