Interview: Kamal Quadir

'You can set up a company, remaining honest and transparent'

The country's largest mobile finance service provider bKash commemorates its 12th founding anniversary today. In an interview with Prothom Alo's Shawkat Hossain, the bKash founder and chief executive officer Kamal Quadir speaks about the advancements achieved over these 12 years, the experiences, and future plans.

Q :

So bKash is 12 years old today. How did it all start? What was going on in your head?

Actually the volume of transactions through bKash is not the actual issue. Technologically speaking, there is no difference between a 1 taka 30 paisa transaction and a transaction of 1 lakh 30 taka. The technology is the same. That is why from the very outset I knew that we would have to have an extremely reliable platform to run a service of such massive dimensions.

From the start we kept in mind that this would have to be efficient and run in a controlled structure. It is extremely important to proceed in this controlled manner. And we had immense faith in Bangladesh. And that is why till date we have not appointed a single foreigner. There is no dearth of talent in the country.

bKash founder and CEO Kamal Quadir
Prothom Alo

Q :

When bKash reached its 10th anniversary, you had spoken at length. Now it's been 12 years. What differences have come about in these two years?

We have taken initiative to categorise the expenditure. For example, if someone uses the service a lot, there will be a certain cost. Then there will be a different cost in a different category. For example, in the case of sending money, there is 'priyo grahok' ('dear client') or 'priyo agent' ('dear agent') -- quite a few systems have been set up like this. This is a significant technological investment. Now a client can select five persons whom they have to send money more frequently. There will be no charge to send this money. Similarly, if you chose one particular agent, the cash out cost will fall from Tk 18.50 to Tk 14.90. We have analysed the data and seen that a large chunk of the clients do not actually send money to five persons. So if the option is given to select five persons, the more people can be benefitted. And 90 per cent of the transactions are within these five persons. If there are six persons, then that is 99 per cent, but then there is more misuse. That is why this special facility to send up till Tk 25,000 is provided in the case of five persons. And 99 per cent of the clients are pleased with this. The persons who really have to carry out more transactions, are getting free service and pay for additional service.  

Q :

bKash is now offering loans. How has the experience been?

bKash is an expanding company. We will not gain by increasing the client's costs. It will simply dissatisfy the client. So we continuously look for ways to cut the client's costs.

Q :

There has been fraud too. How do you deal with this?

There is fraudulence in all sorts of companies, but not many want to talk about it. We do. This is the area of bKash's strength that helps us go ahead. We have been around for 12 years, so people are viewing these matters in a matured manner. When we carry out surveys on thousands and thousands of clients regarding our brand, they tell us they like bKash because bKash tells them wherein the risks lie and how to remain safe. bKash doesn't have the propensity to conceal anything.

Q :

bKash is now providing loans. How has the experience been?

We have diversified financial services in the matter of products too. Earlier, a client could bring money to his account through bKash and use it in various areas. Now bKash clients can also sign up with financial institutions through bKash and can take loans. They can save too. We have initiated digital loans.

Three and a half years ago there were discussions between the regulatory authority, us and a scheduled bank about ways to start up digital loans. The regulatory authority at the time had said let's visit two countries and see how they carry this out, how they are curbing risks and how to prevent any misuse of digital loans. We visited Kenya and Tanzania and learnt a lot about this. After we returned, Bangladesh Bank said that we must carry out a pilot project for one year and test its feasibility. We did so and learnt some more. Then a year and a half ago, we started the first digital loans on a commercial basis with City Bank. The ceiling of this loan is just Tk 20,000. Most of those taking this loan are not financially solvent. And the rate of default is also very low, less than 1 per cent from the start till now.

A sort of list has been drawn up for these loans. There is digital KYC (Know Your Customer) and an algorithm is devised based in the type of transactions. Based on that, City Bank provides their loans to a manageable degree. Loans are now being provided for three months Every month the installments are automatically transferred to the bank. If anyone delays in paying the installment, they are given a phone call, a text message. The results have not been bad. Already loans totalling Tk 2.75 billion have been provided.

We have tried to carry out certain fundamental tasks over the past 12 years. This includes how to ensure the safety of the client's money, what structure will this entail, taking care of those in the company, creating a competitive work environment so the top talents will be attracted to work here, etc. We have tried to take up innumerable such initiatives.

bKash founder and CEO Kamal Quadir
Prothom Alo

Q :

12 years, 70 million clients, Tk 12 billion transactions daily -- which is the magic figure for you?

Actually numbers are not a big deal. I have my own litmus scale. For instance, I went to have breakfast at Star Hotel in the morning. I asked the person serving me there, how he sent money home. He sends money to his parents back home by bKash. That is certainly an achievement. But when I ask how they pay when they go shopping, they say in cash. So I note that they are comfortable to keep money with bKash and send it, but all people are not fully comfortable as yet to use bKash in many other ways to make life easier. That is our target now.

We see now that 75 per cent of the Tk 12 million daily transactions of bKash daily are digital transactions. bKash is being used to recharge mobile phones, send money, pay for any items or to pay some utility bill. This digital transaction habit that has been created is not insignificant at all.

Q :

What is your dream for bKash?

Actually there is no end to dreams. Dreams are a continual process. My dream right now is to see that over the next two years a large part of the population will use bKash for all sorts of payments. As I mentioned before, the more that digital transactions increase, the more costs will decrease. This is today's reality. Over 5 million people now pay for various services and products with bKash.

Q :

You have coined a very popular term -- 'manob ATM' ('human ATM'). Why do you say this?

When I started work 12 years ago, electricity still hadn't reached 100 per cent of the areas in the country. It has now. This could be used to install many more ATMs perhaps. However, this entails a huge investment. Instead of doing that, a system can be put in place where the purpose of having an ATM is served. Those who are working on behalf of bKash, they are functioning as ATM machines. People go to the ATM to withdraw cash. And our human ATM is giving cash and taking cash too.

And it is also an achievement that by doing so, we have provided employment to 330,000 people. Also, an ATM requires electricity and air-conditioning. This is not required in this case. There is no need to set up new machines that damage the environment. We have the human resources and so human ATMs are an effective system in the context of our country.

Q :

What have you done about financial security?

The money doesn't remain with us anymore. It remains in the government securities. The law says that a minimum 25 per cent of our funds must be kept in government securities. Everyone will be reassured to know that at this moment, 77 per cent of bKash's funds are kept with the government securities at present. That is the biggest security. The remaining 23 per cent is kept under a framework formed according to a policy devised by our board of directors. For example, a parameter is in place regarding loan ratio, financial health and so.

Q :

Can bKash be profitable?

From the beginning, a tech-based company has to steadily invest in the development of products, services and technology. So there will be no profits in the initial years. And that is normal. Then bKash made profit for four years. But the revenue was reinvested to improve the service standard and that was quite a large investment. The investment was made with the future in mind, not profits. The results of that investment are now being seen. Last year too bKash made a profit.

Q :

Bangladesh Bank has come up with digital bank guidelines. What are your plans in this regard?

We have worked with digital loans for the past three years. We have learnt a lot and still are learning. Then again, there are our shareholders who have experience with running digital banks. Costs can be cut and the digital framework used to provide digital bank facilities. bKash is associated with BRAC Bank, IFC, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Ant Group and SoftBank Vision Fund. This has been a strength for bKash. bKash has learnt accurate intervention from BRAC Bank. From IFC it has learnt how a governance system has to be in an institutions DNA. It has learnt from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation various aspects of inclusive financial components.

As an example, we would keep all our money in one bank. Our shareholders said that it was risky to keep all our funds in one bank. We increased the number of banks. Ant Group provided excellent technological concepts, SoftBank is introducing institutions that efficiently use digital loans and digital technology services. bKash is learning from all over the world in this manner and practicing here in the country. Bangladesh Bank has published digital bank guidelines. We are also observing the matter in all seriousness. If our shareholders get the opportunity, we will be able to effectively  apply in Bangladesh what we have managed to learn.

I say with all humility, bKash has brought USD 381 million into the country as foreign investment. We are providing digital loans in association with another bank. If the bKash shareholders get this opportunity, they will be able to bring in more investment and most efficiently provide low cast digital loans. If we could establish a digital bank, that would be a great opportunity for us.

Q :

What message do you want to give on bKash's 12th anniversary?

'Shekhar amar jonmobhumi, amar bikash thekai ke? ('When my motherland is my roots, who can stop my growth?') That is our message now. We never used such words before, but we are now. In Prothom Alo it was reported that Bangladesh now stands second in producing betel leaf, betel nut and dried chillies. We are such a small country, but are second in the world. So who can stop our growth! With such limited opportunities and facilities, two of Bangladesh's scientists have won such renown and recognition in the international arena. Who can stop our growth! There are so many more examples.

Before we reached this slogan, we first did research on our brand equity. We wanted to see the relation between the people of this country and this brand. We found that we had actually been able to build us a deep relationship with the people by means of our service. This encouraged us hugely. bKash is not just a profit-based organisation. It is linked to the digital transactions of the people. The country is going ahead. In this situation if bKash can create confidence in the people by providing reliable service, that is an important matter. We are a commercial company, but we are helping people in their time management. We are making life easy. This has a value. So who can stop the growth of these people! 'Bikash' (flourish, grow) is such an evocative word and can be used in so many ways. We have tried to imply that the person who uses bKash can feel a certain inner strength.

We are 12 years old. People have accepted bKash. We have work with integrity, paid our taxes on time, we have worked well and so our investors have made their investments. Remaining with a transparent and honest environment, we have the opportunity to work in the fundamental areas of the country as a commercial company. That is hugely encouraging.

Q :

On a personal level, how satisfied are you. Could you achieve what you set out to do?

I went to the US recently and visited MIT. The teachers asked me, "What have you been doing since you passed out from here?" Actually from my childhood I would be asked what I wanted to study or do in life. I would say, let me go to America first and then I'll see what I study. I went to America and I said, "I'm studying economics. Let me pass and go to New York and then let's see what I do." I started working and again the questions came, who do you want to do? Then I said, I want to go back to Bangladesh. I just got this very natural feeling that my place as actually Bangladesh. I want to work here. That feeling was at the most important juncture of my life. I returned. I feel that was an extremely important decision for me. I am extremely happy about it.

Finally, there is still a lot to be done in Bangladesh. I won't say that I have done a lot, but I want to state very emphatically that that bKash is an example that a business company can be established in Bangladesh, remaining completely honest and transparent.


* This interview appeared in the print an online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir