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     Volume 7 Issue 1 | January 4, 2007 |

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Cover Story

"All sorts of start-ups from giants such as Google to start-ups such as CellBazaar, are working to bring the full benefits of the web to mobile phones." [The Economist, July 29, 2006]
Through CellBazaar, anyone can buy and sell any old or new electronic products

It is more than likely that one has heard the name of CellBazaar before, you may not know it but you have seen it and heard it. But where? Probably on a sticker pasted to the back of the driver's seat in a CNG, they seem to be everywhere without obtrusive ads and that definitely must be a first for Bangladesh. Aside from their slick advertising strategy, which involves the medium of peripheral vision they are pioneers in another area entirely, far more exciting than advertising, they are on their way to revolutionising the marketplaces of Bangladesh, by making them smaller in size and larger in every other sense of the word, this is where the future starts, now.

Nader Rahman
Photos: Zahedul I. Khan

Market in a Cell

To put it in layman's words CellBazaar is an online market place, where items are listed and bought and sold, by simply using a mobile phone. Thereby making it accessible to over 16 million users, so theoretically at least, one could have millions of people from around Bangladesh posting, buying and selling. It may seem like a dream from the distant future, but don't say that to the founder and CEO of the organisation, Kamal Quadir.

Kamal Quadir's story is almost as interesting as CellBazaar's. Born and brought up in Jessore, the world of cutting edge business practises and innovation must now seem a long way from his roots. He says, “my childhood shaped this business in a very interesting way and the fact that it was not from the epicentre that is Dhaka is probably most of the story. When I was young I would see all these little ads in the papers and hear news of fruit, grain and agricultural products in general and how people would be selling them at what seemed like ridiculously low prices, at times they would even be bartered for other goods,” Quadir goes on to add “I always wondered why the prices would be substantially higher by the time those products came to us, and probably more than that was astounded by how cheap the goods were.” That process of thought was the seed that eventually took more than 20 years to mature into what is now CellBazaar.

Quadir's story does not just skip forward 20 years, it took almost two decades to nurture those initial thoughts and his travels around the world actually shaped that. Quadir is quick to point out that his father put a lot of emphasis on education. He attended university at Oberlin College, USA, studying an interesting combination of Art and Economics. The economics part he attributes to his parents wishes, “no one wants to be paying through their nose for a son's education and eventually see that he is studying art. That concept is not understood, so I kept the economics part basically to add legitimacy to my degree,” he says with a chuckle.

Although text messaging is not an easy operation for someone who is barely educated, the marketing team goes around different parts of the country, teaching people who end up teaching others for their own benefit.

After finishing his degree he came back to Bangladesh for an art exhibition and stayed on to work in an energy company. It was through the energy company and his subsequent travels throughout Bangladesh that he truly came to understand the nation and its business practises. After experiencing Bangladesh in all its vitality he next took up the challenge of postgraduate studies back in the US at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). That was when he was introduced to the fact that the cell phone was more than just a cell phone. Quadir says, “there (in MIT) we realised that mobile phones were quite a bit like computers, they both have screens, they both can type numbers and letters, and like laptops they are wireless, in some way mobiles can be considered as computers. It came to us that we had a very powerful machine in the palm of our hands, which we were not using to the best of our abilities.” He goes on to add “With that in mind I decided to enter the MIT Ideas competition, an essay/business competition and wrote a conceptual paper on how mobile phones could be used to post, buy and sell items. As it turned out I won the competition and then had to decide whether I was going to follow up on my idea.”

With over 30 million cell phone users in the country, it is the fastest way to get any deals done

Until then he was not sure what he wanted to do with his life, he had been working with a private equity firm and pondered whether he should just continue. He decided to clear his mind by travelling the world, hoping his answer would come to him and eventually it did. It was to be CellBazaar, he wrote a business plan and then found private investors in America. After securing his funding he came back to Bangladesh and started negotiations with Grameenphone, which proved to be successful. Within a few months it was done and now all he had to do was hire the staff; after asking some of his friends and acquaintances in various universities he started to fill up his office with the best and brightest people he could find. One can tell how fond he is of his staff by how he treats them, and never stops smiling when talking of them. Quadir is more than just the founder of CellBazaar his leadership is the driving force behind the company.

In December 2005 almost exactly two years ago, he started their journey; the first thing that needed to be done was to develop software which would turn his idea into reality. A Danish-American-Bangladeshi outsourcing company was hired to initially develop the software, which subsequently has been internalised. Now the application is run and debugged entirely in-house. Initially the idea was to run the programme via SMS, but then he realised the potential of the internet on mobile phones and soon started up a WAP or mobile internet version. After that they developed the web version of the programme, thus making it available to everyone with an internet connection.

The process is quite simple; when buying a product, the more specific one is about the search the fewer messages one will need. To have a look around simply SMS 'buy' to 3838 to see the categories and follow the instructions. To sell a product all one has to do is SMS 'sell' to 3838 and then follow the instructions again; it is a remarkably easy process and takes only a few minutes. It is easy to understand why it has become so successful in such a short period of time. But there is one flaw in the whole system, which is that only Grameenphone users can buy and post through the SMS method. In fact even on the website and through WAP the only way one can post an item is to be a Grameenphone subscriber. While it is easy to understand that, after all, it is a business practise and money needs to be made to make this project viable, it comes across as slightly limited in its vision. By simply tapping into one mobile phone operator they are leaving out millions of other users and in effect, depriving them of the service. Even though this is a major limitation, the project as a whole is quite remarkable unbelievable as through the website anyone can browse an item of their choice, find a seller and make a deal.

Kamal Quadir (far right) and his team at CellBazaar

One massive advantage of the process is that people cannot use a fake number for phoney posts. That is a major problem faced by many of the up and coming auction websites in Bangladesh. Sites such as ClickBD and bracNet suffer from a deluge of fake posts, sometimes putting down absolute stranger's numbers and other times putting down numbers that do not even exist. The advantage of the CellBazaar method is that one has to use one's own mobile phone number to even register, because that is where the SMS's confirming the registration will be sent. This is where they trump their rivals. While other websites may have more posts, they can probably proudly say that they have the largest number of genuine posts.

To understand the large-scale benefits of CellBazaar one only has to meet some of the people who use the service, they provide a wide cross section of society and one will be amazed as to how fast they are catching up on the information superhighway. Possibly the greatest benefit of CellBazaar is that it offers rural Bangladesh a gateway into a highly competitive market, one they could only have dreamt of. The most exciting part of the enterprise is that farmers and the agricultural sector could possibly use the service and make their goods available to millions.

Mohammad Shafiqul Islam is an entrepreneur who first signed up for the service six months ago. He is an onion wholesaler in the Shambazar area of the old town and he was first introduced to the service when someone from CellBazaar came and told him about their service. He was interested but also a little bewildered by how he could go about the process. “I did not know how to start the process up," he says, "someone showed me and then I listed my onions.” He goes on to say “within a week I got a few phone calls and even a few customers, it was not a large number of customers, but they were extra customers none the less. For me it has served its purpose.”

From poultry and fish to retail and motorcycle sellers, everyone can benefit from CellBazaar's services

Mohammad Aftabuddin from the same Shambazar area is one who has made quite a success out of his CellBazaar posting. After being helped by an employee from CellBazaar to make his posting he has done brisk business through his cellphone. Aftabuddin says, “I sell everything- tomatoes, bananas, papayas and many other items, so when people call to ask about one item I inform them of the others as well. Due to this I have got quite a few customers, in fact I have a shipment of Jali going out to Chittagong tonight, a deal made through my CellBazaar booking.” He was also quick to add that most of the calls made to him were made from outside Dhaka, and that they ordered in large numbers. He sends most of his produce to Comilla, Narshingdi and Chittagong.

Another side of the spectrum is portrayed by a fish seller by the name of Abdul Haque. While his CellBazaar posting has not made him buckets of money, it has brought in a few extra customers. “My first listing was made through my friends phone and since then I have brought my own and now the listing is in my number” says Haque, he also adds “some people call, but never show up, I guess it is only to find out the general market price before they go shopping.”

The really savvy users are the young people of the country. Mohammad Sharif is young man who works at a motorcycle shop, and he was innovative enough to sign up for CellBazaar and listed a few of the motorcycles of the shop for sale. Within days the shop started receiving calls and enquiries regarding their motorcycles. Sharif says “at first I was surprised when people started calling and asking for information, then a few people actually showed up, the great part was that we actually sold two bikes through the process. They both cost over one lakh so it was fantastic to make money out of a simple SMS posting.” While the young one was the savvy user, the older owner of the shop nodded on, possibly not fully understanding the process that had gone on to give him two sales.

Some might say Cell Bazaar is only for the educated, because it requires a certain level of English to be able to use it. It is a correct statement in many ways and then again it does not wholly justify itself. At CellBazaar they have found out that most SMS's made come from Polli phones with prepaid sim cards that offer special deals for young people and then finally post paid users in that order. If that is truly the case then a simple listing should not be that tough to make, but over and above the education barrier is the fear of technology barrier. There is a common acceptance that technology is only for the young people and only they know how to use it, but that misconception must be shattered if we are to truly advance technologically. For ideas like CellBazaar to truly work the nation must come along for the ride, educationally and technologically, both the country and the company stand to benefit tremendously.

CellBazaar has its intricacies as well, as mentioned earlier people often sell more than one item but only understand enough to list one item. What happens then is that when the call is made to inquire about one item, the potential customer is told about all the other items for sale. Also one post can be valid for quite a long time because things like fish and livestock, their stocks are constantly being replenished and the market price is always fluctuating. This means one can adjust the price in one's post to suit the market price as well as keeping the post alive so that people will continue to call. What was interesting was that many people did not know they could adjust the prices of their posts, as one wholesaler was surprised by the price that was listed in for his onions, a post he made more than 6 months ago. Logically with prices quite low now, one could have seen his old post at a high price and would not call him because of that. These are a few areas the company could look into, keeping their users updated.

What is most interesting about CellBazaar is that it is not Dhaka-centric, there are currently roughly 10,000 items listed in over 60 different locations around the country, from Lakshmipur to Pirojpur to Magura and even in the remote areas of Kurigram. This is where the idea really comes to life, it has the possibility to connect the nation in a way no one could have even thought of before, the overbearing middlemen who hike up prices could be done away with and personal finance could be handled from one's own pocket. Quadir says some of the most interesting times he has been through is when he has received calls asking for new sections to be added, he says he did not even know there was a need for separate section for mushrooms. Quadir says “recently I saw someone post a cow in the chicken section and when I called him to ask why, he said that was because we didn't have a cow section. I laughed and immediately put one up, and there even found a posting of a cow which included the number of teeth it had!” It only goes to show the endless possibilities of an idea that started up in the MIT media labs and ended in Khulna with a cow with four teeth.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2008