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Can Dhaka be the next start-up hub of South Asia?

  • Published at 11:26 am August 29th, 2018
a2i
With a little help, our start-ups can really take off bigstock

It takes a whole city to nurture a start-up

While moving past the chaotic, crazy streets of Dhaka, you can’t help but notice problems everywhere. Starting from traffic congestion to lack of waste management systems -- problems in Dhaka come in all varieties and magnitudes. An ordinary citizen may choose to point his finger at the government. However, an entrepreneur is more likely to spot business opportunities within the problems.

So, where are the start-ups in Dhaka?

Although the start-up ecosystem in Dhaka is still at its nascent stage, we see some promising start-ups coming up with innovative products and services which were beyond our imagination only five years ago. The speed of innovation is changing the definition of “possible” every day, and even though some people think that the start-up culture is overhyped, I believe there’s light at the end of the tunnel of Bangladesh’s start-up ecosystem.

Robust government support

Recently, the government has launched iDEA, a project that aims to support around 200 start-ups -- to take them to the next level. Also, the government is mulling over investing in some promising start-ups to help them scale up nationwide. There are plans to set up incubation centres and high-tech digital parks that will provide a wide range of support services -- including office space and mentorship. 

Access to information (a2i) has funded many innovative ideas through its Innovation Fund project. The Digital Bangladesh manifesto is indeed a well-thought-out and timely strategy to promote local innovations and home-grown entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurship in university curricula

These days, successful stories of start-ups often start as early as the founders’ university days. Unfortunately, entrepreneurship is still perceived by the mass as an uncertain, risky career path. There are plenty of myths surrounding start-ups that discourage our students to take the leap of faith to become an entrepreneur. However, in recent times many leading higher education institutions have introduced entrepreneurship in their curriculum.

Daffodil University has a dedicated a Bachelor’s program on entrepreneurship. North South University has also started offering an entrepreneurship major in BBA. Similarly, few other universities have separate centres on entrepreneurship such as BRAC University which has the Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED) and Dhaka University has DU i-LAB.

Growing interest from private and development sectors

Many innovative ideas fail to transform into a successful business due to lack of nurturing. To fill this gap, quite a few incubators (SD Asia, TORU, BetterStories, YYGhoshti, el al) are offering structured support to young entrepreneurs to grow their businesses. Also, major corporates (GP, Banglalink, etc) have introduced their corporate accelerator programs that offer great opportunities for the emerging start-ups to leverage the existing digital platforms.

In the development sector, BRAC has launched Urban Innovation Challenge (UIC), which funds entrepreneurs and offers them access to BRAC’s development insights and networks to start off their social ventures. Venture capitalist firms, like BD Venture, have successfully invested in local start-ups and exited their investment -- which clearly indicates that we are on track. 

The time for offering an enabling platform to aspiring entrepreneurs has never been so right -- what with the growing young population. We have come a long way, and we can do a lot more. At present, two things require greater attention. 

  1. More public-private partnership: As both public and private sectors have been showing interest in supporting the entrepreneurs, it’s high time to establish a national level collaboration to foster the spirit of entrepreneurship among youth. It’s tempting to assume that funding is what the start-ups need most, but in reality they need a wide-range of support including access to facilities or resources, advice from sector-experts, mentorship and office space.

As different players from diverse industries are working in this sector, it is important to leverage each other’s networks for greater synergy. For example, it would be of great help for a start-up to get digital solution support from Grameenphone, low-income customer insights from BRAC and funding support from the government, and receive structured mentoring support from experienced mentors from the incubators and accelerators. 

  1. Engage the expat community: In the start-up ecosystem, there is a vacuum that can be filled with expertise and knowledge from our expat community. Firstly, we need to identify these highly technical community and then provide them platforms so that they can transfer invaluable knowledge to the country’s young minds. 

Their support may include offering investment, providing mentorship, and sharing technologies, best practices, and partnership opportunities in their respective countries. These expat communities can also bring many incubators, accelerators and VCs from around the world to Bangladesh -- boosting the local start-up ecosystem. 

Contrary to the popular notion, a successful start-up is rarely a one-person show. Just like it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a city to support a start-up. Be it Silicon Valley or our neighbouring Bengaluru, we have seen how an enabling environment can accelerate the growth of start-ups -- that not only solve complex problems for the citizens but also strengthen the country’s economy.

Yes, there will be many hiccups along the journey, and Dhaka will not become Singapore or Bengaluru overnight. But each step will take us closer to a future when Dhaka won’t be seen as a city full of problems but as the birthplace of many innovative solutions developed by young entrepreneurs.

Tina Jabeen is the investment advisor to Start-up Bangladesh of Bangladesh government’s ICT Division and an honourable jury of BRAC Urban Innovation Challenge 2018.