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UN mulling establishment of regional innovation hub in Dhaka

  • Published at 12:39 pm February 9th, 2021
Dhaka city
Photo: MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

Bangladesh has a robust, viable, and active startup community, the right ecosystem, and a government fully committed to supporting innovation and startups, UN Technology Bank Managing Director Joshua Setipa tells Dhaka Tribune

Encouraged by a vibrant startup ecosystem in Bangladesh, the United Nations Technology Bank for Least Developed Countries along with the UNDP and the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs have launched a global call for entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions for financial inclusion in Bangladesh. 

The move comes at a time when the UN Technology Bank is also planning to establish a regional hub for innovation in Dhaka. 

These initiatives come as part of the SDG Impact Accelerator (SDGia), a global accelerator launched by the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and UNDP in 2018. Recently, SDGia opened its second global call for impact entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions for SDG-related complex development challenges. During the second SDGia program, startups will work on products and services in the field of financial inclusion in Bangladesh and digital agriculture in Uganda.

In Bangladesh, financial inclusion is a critical enabler on many aspects such as eradicating poverty, ending hunger, achieving food security, and promoting sustainable agriculture, leading to profiting health and well-being. It also enhances topics such as achieving gender equality and economic empowerment of women; promoting economic growth and jobs; supporting industry, innovation, and infrastructure.

UN Technology Bank Managing Director Joshua Setipa | CollectedTherefore, the urgent transformation of the current financial system with innovative solutions after the pandemic is the ultimate goal of the program.

Just before the closing of the applications on January 31st, the SDGia team and representatives of partners came together at a live webinar on 27 January where founding Managing Director and CEO of Startup Bangladesh Limited - a public limited company under the ICT Division – Tina Jabeen said the number of Bangladesh’s active startups rose to over 2500 from less than 300 over the last five years.  

In an exclusive interview with Dhaka Tribune, Managing Director of the UN Technology Bank Joshua Setipa said Bangladesh has one of the most dynamic startup communities and “on innovation and startups, Bangladesh is the right place to start.”

Setipa comes to the UN Technology Bank from the World Bank, where he has been leading strategic engagements with West Africa. From 2015 – 2017, Setipa served as Trade and Industry Minister of Lesotho. Before, he was Senior Advisor to the Director-General of the World Trade Organization for over six years. He holds a Master of Business Administration and International Finance from the University of Bradford, UK.

Headquartered in Gebze, Turkey, the UN Technology Bank supports national and regional technological efforts, reinforces partnerships across sectors and helps nations identify and use appropriate technologies to transform their economies and improve livelihoods.

Here is the excerpt of the interview:


The UN Technology Bank is looking for entrepreneurs who are working on solutions related to financial inclusion in Bangladesh and the SDG Impact Accelerator is offering $15,000 and access to networks and mentoring to help scale up solutions. Why Bangladesh and why financial inclusion?

Bangladesh has one of the most dynamic startup communities in the LDCs. Globally if we look at South and Southeast Asia, I would say Bangladesh is probably second to India in terms of innovation. It made sense for the UN Technology Bank to tap into and see how we can leverage this experience to help other LDCs. 

Our objective is to use the Bangladeshi experience of building networks to build networks between Bangladesh and the rest of the LDCs and between the LDCs and the rest of the global startup communities. In that case, we will have an excellent chance of ensuring that the full potential for innovation in the LDCs is realized.

Another point to consider, and this is also why financial inclusion is essential, is that Bangladesh has a vibrant history of micro-credit and micro-finance. This experience is very critical because when we look at the makeup of economies in most developing countries, if not all and particularly the LDCs, they are over 90% driven by SMEs. So, if we can innovate around enhancing access to finance for startups, access to finance for SMEs, they have a better chance of succeeding. It also offers a strong chance for us to have a positive impact in terms of supporting startups. 

On innovation and startups, Bangladesh is the right place to start. We are currently finalizing plans to initiate discussions with Qatar, Bangladesh, and Rwanda. Our intention is to establish a regional hub for innovation in Dhaka, Bangladesh, which will serve all LDCs in the Asia-Pacific region for precisely the same reasons as stated before. Bangladesh has a robust, viable, and active startup community, the right ecosystem, and a government fully committed to supporting innovation and startups. There are important lessons we can draw from this and locating the regional hub in Bangladesh is the right way to go about it.

What goals would you like to achieve from the startup competition in this area in Bangladesh?

Our main objective is to use the SDG Impact Accelerator (SDGia) initiative to energize and support startups in LDCs. We will use this platform to encourage more startups and provide them with the initial support of $15,000, which allows them to innovate around local challenges. 

It makes more sense to support local innovators and startups to innovate around local problems rather than bring a startup or innovator from another part of the world to innovate for local solutions in Bangladesh. 

We hope that the startup that will be awarded or selected will be a startup in Bangladesh because that means we would have succeeded in using this initiative to boost local innovation and use it to engage with local startups even beyond the SDGia call. 

We want to use this to build a very vibrant engagement with the startup community in Bangladesh. We have already held discussions with, for example, the "Startup Bangladesh," which is a very strong government initiative to support startups in Bangladesh. Our idea is to build partnerships that will help startups. We want to use this opportunity to engage and provide direct support to startups, and this is the main goal that we want to achieve with the SDGia call.

Can you please provide us with the outcome of previous SDGia activities?

The first phase of the SDGia initiative was in Turkey and was centred around solutions for the refugee community. Turkey is the biggest host country for refugees globally, mainly from Syria and from other parts of the world. To better facilitate refugees' integration in the local communities, the SDGia program was used as a platform in which innovations around certain challenges that were affecting the refugee communities could be pursued and realized. One such solution involved sanitation. 

Through the SDGia program, Turkey was able to launch a call for innovations that would help address the sanitation issue.  A startup identified a solution, which eased and reduced challenges that refugee communities were facing on matters related to sanitation. 

As Bangladesh is at the final stage of transition from an LDC to a developing country, what’s the prospect for Bangladesh to get more cooperation and assistance from the UN Tech Bank in the future?

The UN Technology Bank as part of the UN system and the broader group of development partners for Bangladesh is committed to supporting Bangladesh in its successful transition out of the LDC category and to provide this level of support or even increase it for the first five years after its graduation. Our support for Bangladesh will not end with its graduation. This continued support is very important for sustainability.

We will continue to support Bangladesh for a minimum of five years. It is crucial that once Bangladesh graduates, it does not slide back into the LDC category. In this sense, it would be a missed opportunity to withdraw our support for Bangladesh immediately after its graduation. It will continue until we are satisfied that it is well and good on its solid ground and is a middle-income country.

As Bangladesh is at the final stage of transition from an LDC to a developing country, what’s the prospect for Bangladesh to get more cooperation and assistance from the UN Tech Bank in the future?

The UN Technology Bank as part of the UN system and the broader group of development partners for Bangladesh is committed to supporting Bangladesh in its successful transition out of the LDC category and to provide this level of support or even increase it for the first five years after its graduation. Our support for Bangladesh will not end with its graduation. This continued support is very important for sustainability.

We will continue to support Bangladesh for a minimum of five years. It is crucial that once Bangladesh graduates, it does not slide back into the LDC category. In this sense, it would be a missed opportunity to withdraw our support for Bangladesh immediately after its graduation. It will continue until we are satisfied that it is well and good on its solid ground and is a middle-income country.

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