Interview with CEO of Preneur Lab Arif Nezami
With most operations across the country put on hold, owing to the Covid-19 pandemic, the need for digitalization has never been more dire. One of the many organizations aiding with the process is Preneur Lab, a tech for social good company. Arif Nezami, founder and CEO of Preneur Lab, explained how they're operating and what they hope to achieve in an interview with Dhaka Tribune.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and the company.
After working atAccess to Information (A2I) Programme, Prime Minister’s Office, and Google Bus project for the first 1.5 years of my career, I turned into a full-time entrepreneur. I am also a serial tech community manager and have managed Google, Microsoft, Mozilla, and Facebook tech communities in Bangladesh for the last 8 years. I am an IVLP Alumnus of the US State Dept and exchange alumnus of FNF Germany.
With Preneur Lab, the aim is to solve social problems surrounding young people, women, and entrepreneurs with technology. We have a digital wing where we build tech solutions for enterprises and a social good wing where we do social impact initiatives. Preneur Lab won several national and international awards and recognitions for its innovations in the social good sector.
What is #BangladeshChallenge? Why did you create it?
ICT Division is playing an active role during this pandemic. We have been in touch with the ICT Division and A2I to find out possible initiatives that are needed in this time of crisis. Officials had found that the digital map of Bangladesh was not rich enough in remote areas. It was a huge problem, because without a proper digital map, it is not possible to track people, send aid, emergency food or medicine. It is also not possible for employees of any organization to map Bangladesh in such a short amount of time during this lockdown. So, after having several discussions with A2I, we initiated the Bangladesh Challenge. Grameenphone came forward as an organizer, played a major role and took up the responsibility to spread this all over the country. We knew it would not be possible to execute this without some great collaborators and partners. Bangladesh Scouts, Youth Hub, Local Guides, Google communities all joined the cause with a thought to support the country. Till date, 23,000 youth are engaged in the platform and have mapped close to one lac points of interest/locations. The numbers are growing every minute. Pharmacies, hospitals, schools, government offices, mobile money agents, mobile recharge points, and many more are being mapped. Our expert mapper teams are auditing every input. Only correct locations will be uploaded on Google Maps and Open Street Maps. Although it may sound simple, auditing thousands of data entries and building the mapping platform in a day or two is very challenging. Thanks to all the organizers and partners who made it happen, the challenge is still on. We are planning to use this crowdsourced network to do more for the country.
Tell us about Impact Talk.
We have an international network of partners and friends. Covid-19 is a common enemy across the globe. We can only learn more about it from what we hear or see in the news. Hence, we thought it would be meaningful if we connect experts from different countries to make a platform where they can share their expertise -- and that’s how Impact Talk was born. Preneur Lab and The Friedrich Naumann Foundation jointly organized this weekly series of events. In our last 2 sessions, experts from eight countries including India, Germany, Hong Kong, Pakistan and the Philippines joined the discussion. We talked about how youth-led organizations are leading initiatives, what innovations are making an impact, how governments are tackling the crisis, how misinformation and fake news seem to be making the scenario worse, and much more. In the next sessions, we will cover topics like the rise of domestic violence during the Covid-19 lockdown, the survival of businesses during the crisis, etc.
Talk about the donation system. How will this work? Tell us about bringing donation campaigns in one place. How are you doing it, and how will it help people to donate more easily?
We have set up donate.com.bd, which is a crowdsourcing platform for donations; we have activated this for this crisis. We enable organizations to register and collect funds. There are plenty of social good organizations who are technically unable to take donations online. This platform will support them to take donations. We are reaching out to them to create campaigns on the portal; but digital literacy is a barrier here.
We have also enlisted all the popular donation campaigns of Covid-19 on the website, so people can see all the campaigns and then decide where to donate. (https://donate.com.bd/corona)
The site also has an option to enlist all digital tools that are built to combat this crisis. This list is of great help for government, NGOs and tech organizations who need or build any tech tools. The idea is to do matchmaking for potential partnerships. (https://donate.com.bd/digital)
We have also launched a zakat calculator in the portal so people can calculate their zakat easily and donate to any campaign. (https://www.donate.com.bd/beta/zakat.php)
You said you are building digital tools for the Covid-19 crisis. Tell us about these tools.
We have already implemented Covid-19 related info, videos, and online symptom tests in the chatbots for our clients and partners like telcos, financial institutes, NGOs, and more at the very beginning of the crisis. We have also made this open and free. Any organization willing to add a Covid-19 chatbot can avail that from the website.
We have created a lot of visual content to aid with sound mental health in this situation. We are also creating learning content with Google Developer Group and Facebook Developer Circle.
We are now building a Person to Person donation and loan platform. We have noticed that it is tough for middle-class people to ask for aid or support. This platform will help them to get some support, while maintaining anonymity. The platform is done; we are doing internal beta testing at this moment.
Lastly, we want to make every brick-and-mortar shop e-commerce friendly, where they can deliver around the neighbourhood by themselves, without the need of any delivery company. This will help small shop owners, especially in areas where app deliveries are not available.
Other than those, we have also supported the government and NGOs with tech tools like games for mass awareness, APIs for Covid-19 data, interactive data-driven maps, etc.
Why are you taking all these initiatives regarding the Covid-19 situation? Is this a policy stance for your company, or do you simply want to play a part in the crisis as a humanitarian response?
Our regular business activities of the digital wing are still on, and the team is working from home. We are a social good company from the core, but this was not planned of course. This was the demand of the situation, and we will keep doing things that matter. Some initiatives will be successful, and some will fail -- but what matters is that we keep doing our best.