Interview: Dewan Nazmul Hasan
‘MFS has changed lifestyles’
Dewan Nazmul Hasan has been working in corporate sector in Bangladesh and abroad for nearly three decades. He specialises in digital business, digital eco-system, credit management, merger & acquisition. Currently, he is the chief executive officer at Trust Axiata Digital Limited (TADL), a mobile financial service (MFS) and payment service provider (PSP) company jointly owned by ‘Trust Bank Limited, Bangladesh’ and ‘Axiata Digital Services Sdn Bhd, Malaysia’. TADL operates its MFS product under the brand name “tap”. Dewan Nazmul Hasan, in an interview with Prothom Alo, shares his experiences and speaks about various aspects of the MFS sector.
You have been working in the telecom industry for a long time. Now you are the founder CEO of a company that operates Mobile Financial Services (MFS) and Payment Service Provider (PSP) operation. Tell us about your journey.
I was born and brought up Dhaka. I studied at Motijheel Government Boys' High School and Dhaka College, then I went to Dhaka University to study management. Then I started studying finance at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers). After that, I joined Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation (Norad). It was really a good experience. Norad worked with the Santal community in the northern Bangladesh where they operated some hospitals and I supervised their accounts division.
Then I started at telecom industry, but I am a finance person. I also did Master of Professional Accounting (MPA), MBA separately and an MSc in Finance from the City University of New York. In fact, I work for five years, and then I take a break for a couple of years to study more. I had worked at the telecom company Robi for 23 years, including a three-year stint at Axiata Group, parent company of Robi, in Malaysia. Then I moved here to become the CEO of TADL at the end of 2020.
How did the idea of the "tap" come into being? How did it all start?
There has been an revolution after telcos came to Bangladesh. MFS is facilitating this. When I was the corporate finance head at Robi, I went to Bangladesh Bank and I asked them whether we could do anything like MFS. There were no guidelines at that time. They told us to submit an expression of interest (EOI). I was the first to submit them an EOI. Then the talks started and I was involved in throughout the entire process. Meanwhile, A2 came into being. There had been lots of discussion on MFS at a2i.
Though I am a finance person, I moved out to digital business, Robi Digital Service. Our digital services were more or less similar with MFS. Since digital service did not have a license, we provided some services including utility bills and ticket sales after securing tenders from Bangladesh Bank. However, the problem is telecom cannot do business in MFS. Our option was the recharge money that we used to pay utility bills through our distributors with the approval of Bangladesh Bank. At that time, I was the head of digital service, which was called Mobile Money, at Robi for a long time, and then I moved to Malaysia. In the meantime, process began to form the TADL. I was involved with it from the start like the initial discussion or securing the licence. I flew to Dhaka to felicitate the process.
In 2014, there was a discussion between Axiata Digital Service and the managing director of Trust Bank. We also had discussions with Bangladesh Army. Robi was involved with this, but there is regulation compliance so they cannot run the things and the process stalled. Then Axiata Digital Service came in place and got the license. If a local bank and a foreign venture come together it will be better, foreign investment expertise will follow, market will expand.
MFS license is different from others. bKash started in 2011 under PSO (payment service operator) licence, but the authorities concerned had defined its service like an MFS. Later, when the MFS guidelines came in 2018, then it changed to MFS. We also became eligible for it. MFS guidelines were upgraded in 2022. MFS took a robust shape during pandemic and created a huge value chain, but we were yet to enter the market. We came in 2021.
Have our policymakers always been friendly to MFS sector? What more can our policymakers do for the development of the sector?
MFS is bringing convenience products. The success of MFS is conversion. Our country has advanced much digitally, but it takes some time to shift the entire ecosystem. We are shifting the ecosystem, both regulators and MFS players are also very positive, thus we are marching forward. Since we are working to build the nation, we are among other initiators of digitalisation; we want more help from our policymakers. When our policymakers align with one or two companies and advocate for them openly, then the trust of people shifts. Since policymakers gave us a licence, they should protect us for the sake of business. When policymakers specify and asked people to take service from a certain company, then people tend to think only these companies provide better services, not the rest. Policymakers can speak for all and that will ensure a fair competition in business, and companies having the licence will sustain in business.
We, at "tap", want nothing but transparency. There will obviously be many business strategies, but that does not mean companies will continue to burn the market. When companies burn the market, it destroys competition. There should have a competitive business environment. Business must be done following some fundamental ethics. Competition Commission must intervene. Or else a very few companies with huge capital will sustain, the rest of players in the market may have the license, but they will have to quit. If there is an equal competition, our contribution will also become visible. Besides, regulators should formulate guidelines on agent and distribution.
Is there any new service "tap" is currently working on?
We are also working on nano loans. You will be able to borrow for a very short time, even for a day. There will be nothing other than a minimal charge. There are advantages of nano-loan. Let me share my experience, I went to a wholesale fish market. Poor fish traders come and there are some lenders siting at the market. These fish traders borrow Tk 10-15 thousand from these lenders and buy fish at wholesale price. These traders sell the fish throughout the day and repay the loan plus Tk 300 in the evening. Can you imagine what the interest rate will be in a month or more? It may exceed 100 per cent! The person who is working hard is being deceived and a group of people is making profit out it; they are the middlemen. They also have musclemen who beat and harass the borrower if he fails to repay on time. People may not understand about nano loan at first. It might take time and lenders may convince traders saying this kind of nano loan is dangerous. We still have more to work on. If the government works more on it, people will get more benefit. MFS has brought change to lifestyles, given you security. People tend to go to mobile-recharge points less in this these days.
We will launch an Islamic DPS next week (launched at end-December), a nano-DPS system. Say, you save Tk 100 a week or you plan to make deposit for six months. It will take only a couple of minutes to open a DPS. There is no need to go to any bank. With an NID, you can open it. Once you make a saving and it becomes matured, you can encash it at your account.
Sometimes people become victim of fraud through MFS. How to prevent this?
A team of auditors reviewed our operations several months ago and they expressed satisfaction after finding not a bit of discrepancy between our electronic money and our bank balance. They also found not a single "tap" account carrying out any discrepancy in transaction, no money laundering to be specific. When a "tap" account finds any suspicious activities, the account will be suspended automatically. Another thing is not to share your PIN with anyone because then we cannot do anything there. We always tell customers never share your PIN with anyone. Everyone must maintain secrecy on PIN.
Recently, the IMF warned, “The worst is yet to come, and for many people 2023 will feel like a recession.” When business is bad, everything slows. How will your company tackle a likely global economic downturn?
It is obvious that the situation will take a toll on people’s purchasing power. However, our regular services, including send money, cash in, cash out, P2P, utility bills, will not be affected, but when it comes to payment, especially payment for luxury products, we might suffer. When people’s income pattern changes, people’s spending changes. Thus our business will also suffer. However, we hope 60 per cent of our business operations will not be affected. The remaining 40 per cent will take a hit.
About competent work force, with youth unemployment rate currently, according to ILO, standing at 10.6 per cent in Bangladesh, do businesses get adequate skilled work force to run their operations? Tell us from your experience.
Let me tell you my perspective. I recruit freshers at my company. The average age of employees is 25-26 years at my company. I train them. Yet most of them leave. Nowadays, brilliant students are coming. Previously, there was a perception on ‘public’ versus ‘private’ among recruiters and that is changing. Students from private universities are very qualified. I recruited a young group of engineers and most of them left after getting freelancing or foreign jobs with higher salary. They have fundamental knowledge. Maybe they could not learn everything. Therefore, we need to train them to help them learn further. Our university education is good, but many might not get opportunity. Say, a student got enrolment at Comilla University, not at Dhaka University, does it means he/she is not good at studies? No, they are good at studies, but maybe they face financial hardship. Students in Bangladesh have a very good understanding. All we need to train these graduates for a while. Yes, there are a percentage of students who come to university with no intention to learning and they will suffer from consequence in future.
As a CEO, what is your advice to young graduates who plan to start their career in the corporate sector, especially in the MFS sector?
Many young graduates do not understand MFS well. MFS has transformed to another thing and that is digital banking, which is the future; people will use it. One day the time will come when banks will be busy with corporate activities. We will do the retail activities. Perhaps, banks will carry out some specific operations. We will be in the field. In fact, MFS is a market-oriented business. You can look at my office. There is no renovation. It is an open space office. Startups are like this. If I have money, it is not necessary I have to spend it. Startups must have adaptability. We will not just think sitting at the desk. We have to go to the field, go to the people, and observe their behaviour, whether people’s behaviour changes, what people think, what products people want. I always tell my employees to go to market otherwise, you will not know what they want. If you do not know what people want, you won't be able to fix the problem of your products, so you will just spend money and ultimately the company will not get any benefit.
Those who work hard will get the reward. You cannot sit idle. Wherever you go, you must work. If you have education, you will succeed. Another thing is you must have a determination and must be innovative. There are still lots of room for innovation in MFS. There has been a big transformation, but we still need more innovation. There are lot of innovative people in our country. Perhaps, they do not get the opportunity. New graduates must learn analytics. Today’s business is totally on analytics like big data analytics; which customers want what products, where do the customers live, what are their needs? There is a lot of space for research and data analytics. Spend time reading research papers of various universities. Maybe, you have a job at a small company. So what? Your life is not small. Your life will not be stuck there. You must have the drive, you must express yourself.