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    Volume 9 Issue 3 | January 15, 2010|

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Elephant on the Move
Inflection Point in Bangladesh: January 2010

Zain Mahmood

Painting by Gautam Chakroborty

There comes a point of time, in the life of a nation, when things are on a path of change; it's a generational change. It's a change, both material and psychological, that is different from its previous generations. My visit to Bangladesh this winter only confirmed my feelings about this emerging nation and the inflection point that it is experiencing with chaos and hope, uncertainty and confidence. There is something unprecedented going on here.

My first interaction with the Bangladesh of 2010, happens on the plane to Dhaka. The shonar manush (golden people) that I meet on the plane, on their way back from their work in the Middle East, are different. Five years ago, when I travelled these routes, there was a visible fear in their eyes; today, I see confidence; they don't just stand around accepting their fate, they ask questions, help each other and move forward. They have trendy haircuts and wear funky sunglasses to catch a nap; I hear twenty cell phones beep around me, as our planes land on the Dhaka runway.

Bangladesh receives more than $10 billion of remittances from over one million migrant workers in the Middle East, Japan, Malaysia, Brunei and to a lesser degree many EU nations and the United States. They are the lifeblood of this nation. They provide sustenance to every service, production and retail sector and are the largest source of income for this emerging nation.

Even the airport is expanding with new terminals. The number of airlines queuing to ferry people back and forth to Dhaka has doubled in the last three years. The lines, through immigration and customs, while cumbersome and illogical, move ahead.

At the small boutique hotel, the staff is impeccable in their service. Their English is good and they genuinely want to help you to achieve your goals. The rooms are bright and dynamic. The food is extra-ordinary. The car service we use is meticulous in keeping time and flexible beyond comprehension when we want to stay out till 4 in the morning. Bangladesh is becoming more of a service oriented nation and a customer service culture than ever before.

On the roads and markets, the traffic is incomprehensible. As if nothing moves forever. But it does. Things do keep moving. We do make it to the dinner parties (albeit late). Everyone starts dinners around 9 pm.

While stuck in traffic, I discover the amazing new Radio Foorti (Fun); one of the tens of new FM radio channels that broadcasts weather, sports, politics, music and traffic: all the ingredients of new Dhaka life. This amazing new media has spawned a great music industry in Dhaka in just over two years. There are now hundreds of music stars and bands coming out every day. In the past, we would go and seek out one or two new bands or musicians every year. This year, there are so many, at the neighbourhood CD store, that I couldn't even count them.

Interestingly enough, when I ride with two of my friends (who in the past, listened to western rock bands), they play Bangla music on their CD players. One of them, introduce us to the #1 song in Bangladesh “ Bahir Bole Dure Thakook, Bhitor Boley Ashook Na” (The outside says stay afar, the inside says come closer), a beautiful melody, both symbolic and amazing in its reach.

Through interactions and coincidences, I meet three new entrepreneurs, in their twenties and thirties; the first one is a twenty something software engineer, graduated from the US and returned home to start a software services company. He tells me about his dream of taking his company public in less than five years. Next, a cousin, tells me about the land he has recently acquired to set up a solar power plant that will supply industries in a certain region of Bangladesh; the third is a couple, who are setting up the first sports bar in Bangladesh in the next sixty days. Their market research on menu options, target marketing concepts, is just amazing. This is the new face of entrepreneurship of Bangladesh that I have never seen in the past. Armed with better information, easier access to capital and a much bigger sense of “freedom” (vs their previous generations), these folks are not stuck with retail or garments or real-estate; they are helping Bangladesh branch out to services and completely new economic activity.

Photo: Anisur Rahman

Upon the advice of a friend, I visit an art gallery in Uttara, with an amazing collection of charcoal and oil on canvass. I acquire a small piece of an emerging artist and view many other great artists. I am most impressed by the work of Goutam Chakroborty, the owner of the gallery. His own series titled: ‘Elephants’, has a level of brightness and dynamism; notwithstanding the symbolic nature of the Hindu God of wealth, that is amazingly reflective of the current Bangladesh I see out on the streets.

I enjoy a cold coffee with a friend at a cafe, where wi-fi is free and the waffle-sandwich is amazing. We talk about emerging HR trends in this nation. Everywhere, I notice hope, prosperity, anxiety and dexterity. As if the nation is shrugging off its brooding past and looking forward to an amazing future.

Of course, not everything is perfect. But in my lifetime, never has it been perfect. Roads have always been congested, there has always been poverty, and corruption and some religious zealotry. But overall, as I talk to people in the markets, and streets, I feel a palpable sense that things are moving forward. I hear lamentations from my business friends that there is no support from the government; in fact the government is instigating the labourers for more wages. When I attend the different rooftop parties with live bands and free-flowing booze, Manolo Blahnic shoes and live Tandoori ovens… I am not certain that I can fully agree with my rich friends' lamentations.

Elephantine or not, Bangladesh is on the move. Things are changing. The young crowd, the generation which has grown up post the military juntas of the 80s, is changing this nation forever. Global Warming maybe changing its coastline, but, I see hope in the ambition that the problems here will be solved by the people here, not necessarily by the consultants of the treacherous multi-lateral lending institutions.

I look forward to visiting this land again. When I left 25 five years ago, things were dismal from every view; I never anticipated seeing the changes that I see today. At the doorstep of 2010, I envision Bangladesh as a Middle Income Country in 2015 and beyond. The Elephant is moving forward.

Zain Mahmood is President and CEO of Parkson Corporation in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.


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