High hopes for a ‘Silicon Valley’ sink in despair

The Jashore Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park was supposed to be Bangladesh’s Silicon Valley. The park would open doors to an economy based in meritocracy. But three years down the line, it is sunk in despair.

Why has this park met which such an unfortunate predicament? It is because investments haven’t been as expected. Most of the investors now work with training, digital marketing, call centres and graphic designing. The park has failed to go anywhere near meeting the employment targets. A section of the investors have left the park. The dormitories, constructed at a huge expense, lie vacant. The amphitheatre is rented out for weddings.

The Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park was inaugurated in December 2017. The government set up this park on a plot little over 12 acres in Nazir Shankarpur of Jashore town at a cost of Tk 3.05 billion (Tk 305 crore). Before it began running, state minister for information and communication technology Zunaid Ahmed told the media that the Jashore hi-tech park would be the Silicon Valley of Bangladesh.

Despite several attempts, it wasn’t possible to speak to state minister Zunaid Ahmed to ask him about the present state of the Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park. Written questions were even sent to him, but no reply has been received.

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Managing director of the hi-tech park Hosne Ara Begum told Prothom Alo that there were certain problems. The investors had all sorts of demands. They wanted rent exemption, electricity bill exemption and other facilities, which could not be provided. The demands of the investors were not all justified.

About the failure to attract foreign investment, Hosne Ara said, “Rather than bringing in big companies, the main purpose was to work on software. We would also encourage the big companies, but they did not come.”

Only Tk 600 million invested

The hi-tech park authorities have said that so far only Tk 600 million (Tk 60 crore) has been invested in the park so far. The private firm Tech City, in charge of the park’s management, said that 50 companies have leased spaces there and 38 of these were functioning. A visit to the park saw 32 companies in operation there.

The main 15-storey building of park has 137,000 sq ft area to be leased out. So far around 95,000 sq ft has been leased to various firms. An area of around 10,000 ft leased by three firms lies idle. So 38 per cent of the place remains vacant. And as the investment hasn’t been satisfactory, neither has employment. A total of 1,400 persons work there now. When it was set up, it had been said that the park would employ 5,000 people.

The type of investment hasn’t been very inspiring either. Most of the companies are training oriented. They provide training under various projects. There are only six firms there that make software. There are Micro Dream IT, Technosoft Bangladesh, Soft X Technology, Destiny Inc Dot, Semi Colon IT and Angsha International. Other companies are involved in call centres, digital marketing, graphics design and such work.

There is no foreign investment in the park. Destiny Inc Dot is said to have Japanese investment, but actually it is owned by a Bangladeshi who lives in Japan.

The rule is to make a pilot project first. Based on the success of the pilot project, the other projects will be taken up. This provides the opportunity to identity errors and problems. But we are not doing that. We just have projects for the sake of projects
Muhammad Fowzul Kabir Khan, mega-project expert and former secretary

Former vice chancellor of Jashore Science and Technology University, Abdus Sattar, has a company at the hi-tech park called N Solution. He told Prothom Alo, “I had thought foreign companies would invest in the Jashore hi-tech park and we would learn from them. But nothing has happened.” He is now concerned about the future of his company.

17 companies leave the park

In three years, 17 companies have left the Jashore hi-tech park. Some of the companies have said that their expectations hadn’t been met. One of the main problems was lack of a skilled workforce. There were also differences over lease value, a lack of good power supply and other unmet demands, the investors said.

They said the short-term training provided by the government cannot create a skilled workforce. In 2017 a grand job fair had been arranged at the Jashore park and there had been many applicants. But no workforce had emerged from there.

According to Fahim Masrur, it is not enough just to make a park. The government has to work towards expanding the technology sector, to create a demand. Before creating such parks, attention must be paid to creating a skilled workforce

The project director of the Jashore hi-tech park at the time had been joint secretary Mohammad Jahangir Alam (presently with the expatriate welfare ministry). “Many young people had applied for jobs, but as this is to do with IT, not all applications could be accepted,” he told Prothom Alo.

Dhaka Colo Limited had wanted to set up a data centre there but was unable to do so. Chief marketing officer of the company, Rezaul Karim, told Prothom Alo, a data centre needs several alternative sources of power. There must be at least two generators. But there is no space to install a generator at the hi-tech park. There was no alternative source of electricity either.

The company, Tech City Bangladesh, had been given the responsibility to run the Jashore hi-tech park for 15 years. The investors have innumerable complaints against them. They complained that they charged some companies rent of Tk 18 per sq ft and some Tk 22 per sq ft. Other than six companies, over three months’ rent is due from the others. Those who took lease directly from the hi-tech park authorities, pay Tk 14 per sq ft.

Managing director of Tech City, Md Wahidur Rahman, told Prothom Alo, there were certain policy problems. There were a lot of differences between reality and the basis on which they took up the contract for the park. Running such a huge complex involved big expenditure, but the government fixed the rent without taking everything into consideration. He complained that many of the companies were not paying rent and there was about Tk 6 million to Tk 7 million in rent due.

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Weddings in the amphitheatre, dormitory empty

The Jashore hi-tech park dormitory is of three-star standard. It has 90 rooms, 12 VIP suites, 36 family deluxe rooms and 30 two-bed rooms. It can accommodate 140 persons. The charges for the VIP room are Tk 7,600 per night and the charges for the two other types of rooms are Tk 3,800 per night. But for the companies investing in the park, the charges are Tk 800.

The dormitory was set up for local and foreign investors, buyers and employees. A visit to the dormitory on 22 October revealed that most of the rooms were empty. There were only 12 guests staying on the premises. Throughout the entire month of September, the dormitory had 162 guests.

The amphitheatre had been made for conferences, meetings and seminars. Now it is even rented out for weddings. In February, the wedding of the son of a transport businessman in Jashore was held in the amphitheatre. Around 2,500 guests attended the event.

Former president of the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information (BASIS), Fahim Masrur, told Prothom Alo, Bangladesh’s information sector isn’t that big. It is not as if thousands of companies are sprouting up in the country. If companies are not being set up, who will go to the hi-tech park?

He said, most of the companies in the country have a staff of about 20 or 30. It is hardly financially feasible to move out of Dhaka to the park with such a small staff size.

According to Fahim Masrur, it is not enough just to make a park. The government has to work towards expanding the technology sector, to create a demand. Before creating such parks, attention must be paid to creating a skilled workforce.

‘Projects for the sake of projects’

The government is working with an aim to set up 18 hi-tech parks to create an investment-friendly environment and generate employment through the development and expansion of the IT industry. Over the last five years, the hi-tech parks that have been created include the Janata Tower Software Technology Park at Janata Tower in Dhaka, the Sheikh Hasina Software Technology Park in Jashore, Bangabandhu Hi-Tech City in Gazipur, the Sheikh Kamal IT Training and Incubation Centre in Natore, and the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Hi-Tech Park in Rajshahi.

Mega-project expert and former secretary Muhammad Fowzul Kabir Khan told Prothom Alo, “Before starting such projects, feasibility studies must be carried out, skilled workforce must be prepared, along with other facilities. The rule is to make a pilot project first. Based on the success of the pilot project, the other projects will be taken up. This provides the opportunity to identity errors and problems. But we are not doing that. We just have projects for the sake of projects.”

* The report has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir