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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

‘The demographic dividend might not be there after ten years; We have to act now’

An animated interview with Russell T Ahmed, President of BASIS and a pioneer of Bangladesh’s EdTech industry

Fintech: Can you please tell us about yourself? How do you end up having a successful IT career? Where did it start?

Russell T Ahmed: I was involved with IT business from the very onset of my career. I however didn’t have any education on technology; I did my graduation on business and finances. I graduated from IBA, Dhaka University in 1999— 31st batch. You may know some of my batchmates. Fahim Mashroor graduated from my preceding batch— he is 30th I am 31st. Yasir Azman is the CEO of Grameenphone, and he is from my same batch. We are like buddies. You might know Sharif from Brand Forum. One of my batchmates recently became the DMD of Citibank, the second man in World Bank Mohammad Anis—he is also from my batch.

I started my career in British Oxygen Company. Like every other IBA graduate, my career took off in a multinational company. IBA graduates usually hop from one job to another at the beginning of their career and they hope to land in a multinational. After that, I had a stint with ACME for quite some time. It was because after spending six months in a multinational, I realized that I was not cut out to climb the regular ladder in such an organization; rather being stuck in the process of slowly climbing one rung after another. I cannot show my dynamism, I cannot show anything. It was not my cup to tea to get caught up in that process.


So I decided to move and in the first year and a half, I went through three jobs. After spending some time at ACME I joined this American IT training institute called Executrain. Its office was located in Dhanmondi. This was basically how I came into the IT sector. After that I moved to Aamra group of companies, it was formerly known as Texas group of companies. When I joined Aamra, Reza Bhai was the CEO. Rezaul Hasan was from the 25th MBA batch. He gave me a call when he left Proshika and moved to Aamra. His message was “let’s raise this company together.” In two years Reza Bhai left to concentrate on his own business. I was only 28 at that point of time.

Aamra was looking for a CEO. I think Reza Bhai told the management to consider me and although I was young, I was quite capable. So at the age of 28 I became the CEO of a big group of companies. Each and every manager was older than me. To be frank, now it is not such a big deal, especially in the IT sector. You have CEOs as young as 22, 24. I am talking about 2003. At that time if I can recall Ittefaq newspaper published my interview. After being the CEO for a couple of years I was pretty successful and I remember telling something like this to the interviewer that “I wanted to be a big fish in a small pond, even big fishes get lost in a big pond. If there is a big fish in a small pond, it gets noticed.”

Fintech: Did you ever regret this decision of leaving multinational and its fat cheque and perks and venturing the hard path of entrepreneurship?

Russell T Ahmed: To be frank, many of my friends used to ask me regularly why I left a multinational to join a local company that too in IT where the prospects weren’t that good. I could foresee that IT is going to be the next big thing, so I grabbed my opportunity in IT. From 2001 to 2010 I was at Aamra. Then I helped launching Qubee in Bangladesh—the first Wimax service operator. Then I decided it was enough of working for others; I should do something for my own. That was in 2010. So my entrepreneur’s journey is not that long—just a little more than a decade. It was not an easy decision, I must admit. Sometimes my family was not supportive; I used to enjoy a fat salary, a handsome remuneration package in those days in 2010. My family could not support my decision to forego such a handsome package with numerous benefits to start something of my own.

Well I listened to my heart. After some time I organized this spelling bee competition since I used to work with education sector; to be precise with edutech. We had a partnership with The Daily Star for that competition. The Daily Star editor Mahfuz Anam Bhai asked me this question “Why? You were in corporate, were going good, had become a CEO at a young age, you could go a long way; you received a good remuneration package which would have been better in the future…so why did you leave?” I used to have regular conversations with Mahfuz bhai at that time; maybe he liked me for some reason. So I told him that if you give me the courage, I will tell you something but it might sound audacious.

I told him that after I graduated from IBA, I wanted to become a billionaire one day. But after some years as a professional, I realized that I might not be able to fulfill that audacious dream. So, my goal had changed and I had a new target: I wanted to live after my death; meaning I wanted to leave a legacy through which I would be remembered—I told that to Mahfuz bhai. I told him that Mahfuz Anam will live on after he passes away. I named few other persons like that of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, Bangabandhu, Professor Yunus who all have lived a “larger than life” life and would be remembered after their deaths.

So I thought about working on a vision that would allow me to live after my death. Being a business graduate I was involved with technology most of my life, so I thought would better try my luck in the technology sector to fulfill that vision. There is a huge variety of domains in technology to work with. I wanted to work in education which would be for the next generation. So if I can sustain my work, if it survives, it will help me to leave a legacy. Every time I remind myself that whatever I am doing, I should do something for the society. Every business has a consequence and I have a learning which I follow. My father imparted this lesson that never compromise with your ethics and values, you will not have to run after money; money will follow you. I try to practice as much as possible the ethics and values I learnt from my father and family.


I haven’t become that big, not many people know me but I am accountable to myself. Every person should to accountable to himself first. I tell that to my children. Wherever I have worked, be it a large organization or a small one, my organization is small where 45 people are employed, wherever I go I say this: a man is as big as his hunger. Someone had said that man is as big as his dreams but I say it is hunger. If you are hungry, that hunger will drive you to reach where you want to go. So my hunger is like this: if I can leave something behind for the society, no matter which I role I am fulfilling be it as the BASIS president or something else, if that which I leave can sustain, people will remember me. And people do remember you, whether they curse you or love you.

Fintech: So you do believe that an IT professional can bring positive social changes if s/he has visions?

Russell T Ahmed: Of course. I give myself the reminder that I should contribute to the nation, to any extent. Not everyone has to become the prime minster, minister or member of parliament…every single person has a role to contribute for his or her own nation. Wherever you are, in your own role, in your own position, capacity, with your own skill, if everyone thought for once what have I done for my nation, this nation will change. It will positively change. I believe that I am a very positive person.

At the start of my career, many of my friends went abroad. I also had chances to go. But I will not leave Bangladesh; I will not abandon my country. Being a son of a freedom fighter, I will not leave my country. It matters to me a lot that some people recognize me; greet me when I am walking in the street. So that is how I am trying, the rest is up to the will of Allah.

Fintech: So, why EdTech? Did you find it to be an unexplored area?

Russell T Ahmed:  When I started thinking about EdTech—which was back in 2010— people didn’t understand what it was. I had to struggle because I was early, in fact too early. In any business or something along that line, it has to be timely or well-timed, neither too early nor too late. For this reason, I am so happy to see 10-minute school doing well, I am so happy to see Shikho is coming up. Every success of 10-minute school or Shikho or whoever in EdTech, I am one of first persons to call and congratulate them. Whatever their success, when see it in the news, I instantly give them a call irrespective of where I am.

Recently Ayman Sadiq, the founder and CEO of 10 Minute School raised $2 million in seed funding. When I came to know about it, the first thing I did was to call Ayman and congratulate him. When we started out, we started with education maths gaming, converting mathematics into a game. We began making games to teach addition, subtraction etc. At that time even mobile application was not popular. I realized those games were introduced too early because there was already web-based games, in PCs and so on. What happened was I didn’t have any place to learn from, the fact that I ventured in EdTech, from whom will I learn about it.

Then I started travelling around the globe. After travelling to different countries around the world, I landed in London. In London it is called e-learning. I began learning from them. As I was still learning I thought of developing many products. Besides, I was involved with brands. I wanted to popularize a brand of my own. I was not very excited about offshore development. Whatever happens, my own brand will reach out to millions of households. So we came up with few products, and then scrapped them. Again we developed some new products but scrapped them afterwards. Normally what happens in the software sector in Bangladesh—with all due respect— is that there is low risk in offshore development. You get a job; you upload and deliver the job, that’s it.


When you are developing a product, you have to invest in it and then you have to do marketing. There is a lot of risk involved. Having learnt my lesson, somewhere in 2015 or 16, I landed at CLASSTUNE which is our LMS today. So today CLASSTUNE has half a million students. Since we are B2C, we sell our product directly to schools. We were generating revenue rather slowly, it was difficult to make people understand but we didn’t stop investing in product development. People around me said I was crazy, that I was taking too much risk. I said I have seen something in it, it will reach out. Where we stand today, I feel that we are at par with the global leaders in LMS like Blackboard, Schoology, Edmodo or even Firefly. If you place CLASSTUNE alongside these names, with humble pride, I would say that we are no less than them.

Fintech: Are you ready to go global with your products?

Russell T Ahmed: Yes,we are ready to go to the global market. Penetrating the global market is quite difficult in terms of investment and those sorts of things like infrastructure but we are ready to go. The total market size of many European countries in not close to half a million. Now coming back to the EdTech domain…considering the technology and content in this domain, no matter how much content you can provide, no matter how digitalization is brought into it, we can’t forget the fact that physical (in-person) education has no alternative. A child will never grow up on only computer based education. He has to go to the teacher; he has to take lessons from the teacher etc. It doesn’t matter how many digital courses are introduced, this physical (in-person) education has no alternative. Edtech can enhance the quality of physical education. EdTech can never replace formal education; it can work as a facilitator. For this reason, you can see the benefits of EdTech in distant learning, organized learning and in tracking management systems.

Speaking about tracking management system, right how we are enabling AI where we can see what the child is doing, which book is he reading, how long is he reading, which subject he is interested in, in which subjects he is doing well by studying less etc. By means of AI analytics we can understand the inclination of the child, so we can notify the parents to encourage their child to study science or other subjects like history etc.

Now we can even appraise the teacher’s performance. We set parameters like the teacher’s attendance, something which is very importance in the context of our country. The teacher is absent or he cannot be traced, so we give weightage to his attendance. Thirdly, we see the amount of resource material generated by the teacher and then set a weightage on it. Fourthly, we look into the results of his respective students and measure his performance on this basis.

We have all this talk about MPO enlistment in our country,;what I have learnt from UK is that they appraise the performance of the school as well as that of the teacher. Don’t forget, no matter what we talk about a developing nation like Bangladesh or a developed country like US or UK, 85 to 90 percent of schools are owned by the government. Through subsidy or any other means, government has some investments in those schools.

So what the UK government do, they set up a benchmark. For example for this year the target is mathematics and English focused. We are giving you money anyways but if your average scores in maths and English are 85 plus which is higher than the target set earlier, then you will receive bonus. All these measurements are possible through a system. With our system, we can measure all these parameters.

Fintech: In Bangladesh, EdTechs like 10-Minute school focuses on content. Does your company also focus on content? Or something else?

Russell T Ahmed: Many people tell me “Russell Bhai, you are in this line for so many years but why aren’t you going for content while others are so content-focused.” Let me tell you why. First of all, we have to understand the limitations of content because we have our resource limitation. Given that the world is moving forward rapidly, you cannot create just another content that doesn’t match up to it using powerpoint, images etc. It is because everything is just a click away, that saying – “buy local products and be blessed’ is not relevant anymore.

Any product is a click away on dot.com. So you can compare with the rest of the world. Now if you want to cover the overall curriculum, we don’t have that much resource to cover this area to produce animated content for the entire curriculum considering the demand of the industry and also children. But I appreciate the kind of content coming up from all these good friends of mine.

So I think EdTech is a type of a place where a comprehensive approach is very much needed. This comprehensive approach is necessary because we have the government, private institutions and academicians. Teachers’ ability to adopt is the biggest challenge for EdTech. The benefits of which I can explain, for example my system is used at St. Joseph’s school or SFX Green Herald school. Now my system is also used by a school in Kurigram. We are all aware of this reality where the teacher of St. Joseph’s school is teaching the same book, the same lessons the teacher in that school in Kurigram is teaching.

But is the quality of both these teachers same? Is the delivery of education same? Is their approach the same? No. Otherwise St. Joseph’s won’t be St. Joseph’s. There are limitations in that Kurigram school. But the resource materials produced by the teacher of St. Joseph’s school, or the teaching method, the level of homework, how he is designing the question bank, all these parameters are included in my system. If somehow St. Joseph’s school gives permission to make these parameters accessible then they will become the learning method for the teacher in Kurigram. This is where distant learning plays its part.

However the challenge is, be it St. Joseph’s or a school in Kurigram, teachers don’t want to take in anything new on board.

Fintech: What can be other applications of Edtech?

Russell T Ahmed: Firstly, with the help of education technology you can bring everyone under the same standard quality. Say you are an excellent teacher, while teaching in-person you cannot teach more than 30 students in a classroom but with the help of technology you can teach 300,000. So here is a place where this digital divide or physical divide can be eliminated. Since our resources are so limited, the government cannot do something about this instantly.

If I go back to the UK example, the most lucrative government job is that of a primary school teacher. Highest salary is given to that teacher and the number of vacations is high, summer vacation, winter vacation etc. It is one of the most sought after jobs in UK. Everyone wants to be a primary school teacher. Now, the question is can Bangladesh reach there in a matter of a day? Will you change the policy will the teachers’ salary increase? Look at Dhaka University or major institutions, look at my IBA, did the best students become teachers? No.

The best students go abroad. The change won’t happen overnight but we can slowly but surely go there with the help of technology. Here lies the challenge. You see the lifestyle of a teacher, that mathematics book he uses to teach hasn’t changed in 20 years. He doesn’t really have to give that much of an effort to teach. He goes to school to teach, provides private tuitions if there is any opportunity and with all that he is happy with his lifestyle. Why will he change? With new technology he has to learn anew, new approach etc. but he has no incentive. He has to be incentivized to go for new mode of learning. Whether in the mode of training or anything else, he has to be incentivized.

Now you think about the school’s point of view. It is not a business house like yours or mine. Your challenge is to sell more copies of your magazine. I do ten taka business today and I would like to take it to twenty tomorrow. A school doesn’t have this business challenge whether it is private or public. It has 1,000 students, when 100 pass out, 100 new students are enrolled. The volume of students don’t increase year to year, it takes years for a massive investment meant to increase its capacity. So even from the school’s point of view, it is not much of a challenge to accept something new.

A school, an institution is not so dynamic like a business house. Of course I am not saying that a school should become a business center but it must be given a different form of incentive. The school needs to be encouraged, made interested so it thinks about teaching something new to its student every day. We have to find out why is the standard of education in Bangladesh going down? Teachers also have a lifetime. The teacher who taught me and you, he is still teaching. He doesn’t have to urge to learn new methods. With so many years of experience, he doesn’t need to give much effort to teach, he doesn’t even need to look at the text book and he doesn’t need to study to become updated.

A doctor or a lawyer has to study every day to learn, to gather new knowledge but why would a teacher learn new things? He doesn’t need to learn because he is fine. There is nothing distinct in this technology for him. He gets his salary and earns from private tuitions, he might have tension about getting more private students but even there his capacity is limited. How many batches can he teach? They have to think collectively where they can feel this urge; they need to feel excited to learn something new.

Fintech: As you are the president of BASIS now, how will you evaluate Bangladesh’s digital adaptation; especially in the EdTech sector?

Russell T Ahmed: We all talk about Digital Bangladesh but at the end of the month, if I am unable to pay the salary of people working in my industry, we cannot say that we have truly achieved success in this sector. If you study the global market of EdTech, the billion dollar companies of EdTech have all grown by doing business with the government. The government has to decide if it wants to set up a smart-school. So I am so grateful to our prime minister and Mr Zunaid Ahmed Palak for giving the green signal for the School of Future project.

After four years of discussion and convincing people, this project was finally accepted. Today or tomorrow, the government has to go there. The School of Future is one project that if it really becomes big, the schooling system of Bangladesh is bound to change. The government has to step forward while we in the private sector can work with one or two schools at best. I kept talking about and they finally listened, they said I understand this subject and they requested me to provide a concept note with which they can move forward.

Finally the project got approved in the Ecnec meeting and the prime minister herself didn’t take that much time to give her approval. The pilot project requires a small budget. But the project has been designed beautifully. There are four pillars in the School of Future: number one is the platform for LMS (learning management system) where all the schools need to be connected, the same system will be followed. Number two is content development, digital content will be developed. Number three is hardware, hardware here isn’t just the laptop but smartboards, robotics and all these things. And number four is teacher’s training to use this system.

I take humble pride in the fact that I was involved with this process as much as I could. Then we went through the regular tender process, competing with 28 companies and CLASSTUNE has got the contract for the elements part. This project is in the process of being rolled out. The pilot project will include 300 schools. The schools have been distributed according to the constituency of 300 members of parliament. Still we are facing challenges, like I mentioned earlier challenges from teachers, challenges from schools and the challenges of breaking new grounds. If this project can be scaled up to 3,000 schools, or 30,000 schools, it is bound to change Bangladesh. You will feel the pressure to enter the system.

Fintech: You mentioned somewhere that the ICT sector will supersede the garment sector. On what basis did you say that?

Russell T Ahmed: You see the garment sector is not in competition with the ICT sector; many people misunderstood the calculation here. First of all, we have a lot of things to learn from the garment sector, the way they started their journey. The problem is garment sector has relatively lower value addition than the IT sector. Even our PM and the ICT advisor say that the IT sector has potential to earn 10 to 12 billion dollars. The market is so big; I think that we from Bangladesh can reach up to 20 billion dollar by 2031 which is not even one percent of the total market.

And from all our study and my recent visit to four destinations, I went to central Europe, UK and Japan. Next we will go to USA. Our three biggest markets, 34 percent of our total export goes to US, 17 percent goes to UK (13 percent to UK but it comes to 17-18 percent when you include EU) and 8 percent goes to Japan. So my visit was very target oriented. UK has 1 million HR shortage in their industry. EU has 1.5 million. Japan has 8.5 lac. US, we don’t know the actual figures but we know that it is the biggest market. Each of these markets—you are talking about US, UK, EU and other developed countries—has the potential to spend billions of dollars for getting skilled IT personnel.

In Bangla there is a saying, the boat doesn’t come to port every day. Right now the boat is in our port. Every bad time creates an opportunity. Now in this time of crisis, dollar crisis and other things, what are the long-term solutions? Your export earning has to surplus your import expenses. That is when your reserve will rise. Now after garment, the only sector that has the potential to go up to this level is ICT. Our neighboring country exports 260 billion dollars, we have our demographic dividend. The demographic dividend that we have today, will it be there in 2031, 70 percent of our population is below 35 years. Will this demographic dividend be there in 2031? No, it won’t. 70 percent will come down to 40 percent, naturally. Population cannot increase rapidly.

Even the Ukraine war created an opportunity for us. Ukraine has been a big offshore destination for US and developed EU nations. And all these offshore destinations are looking for an alternative to India; they don’t want to be so depended on India. As I said earlier, Bangladesh’s name is not on that list. Now is the right time, we have to do two things. So far we have arrived in Digital Bangladesh, the whole credit goes to our honorable prime minister, there is no doubt about it. Her declaration of Digital Bangladesh changed everything. The task force meeting of Digital Bangladesh takes place on 7 April which is chaired by the prime minister at the Bongobhaban. I am also a member of that committee. I told her when the announcement of Digital Bangladesh was first made; people involved in this industry were shaky, unsure. Initially, we couldn’t believe it. Today Digital Bangladesh is a reality.

The shift of mind, a paradigm shift has happened in the minds of people. Today when the honorable prime minister talks about Smart Bangladesh, she gives us the vision for 2041 and it is not in the realm of unthinkable anymore because people know it is possible. And people feel that they want to be a part of it. I want to be a part of it. Considering all these good things, if you can bring them together, have a comprehensive plan. For that you need two things. First of all, you need to promote the industry internationally, going for industry branding which is demand generation. The need is there, you just have to bring it to Bangladesh or else Philippines, Vietnam will take it. The amount 20 billion is less than one percent but no one will give that up. It is business; no one will leave it for charity. You will have to get into the competition or you will lose it.

Secondly, you need the supply after demand generation. Here we have to face massive challenges. Human resource development, capacity development is the supply side of things. We need organized planning to make sure where the human capital will be utilized properly. We mustn’t forget that there are many universities and a lot of training is being given. There is still a shortage of people in the industry. We just cannot find good people. They are running the way they want. I have mentioned this in different forums. Now give this responsibility to the industry, let the industry create its own workers and adopt them. So if we can fulfill this demand and supply, there is no reason why we cannot go beyond the garment sector. Where is the space for the garment sector to expand? How much can they expand? But we want it to grow even bigger. ICT has all the potential, attention should come here.

Russell T Ahmed
Russell T Ahmed, President of BASIS and a pioneer of Bangladesh’s EdTech industry

Russell T Ahmed: Definitely not. First of all you have to understand the contribution of freelancing in the economy. We say there are six lac freelancers. But in reality there aren’t six lac freelancers active after registration. So the total contribution of freelancers in Bangladesh’s economy is about 11 to 12 million dollars. Around 20 thousand freelancers make this contribution. Active freelancers are not more than 15 to 20 thousand. From freelancing to entrepreneurship, it is a journey, they have to take it. Someone gets a big job and brings his friends on board. There are a number of such examples, it happened in BASIS too.

Fintech: What is your opinion about freelancing? Is it an impediment to local software creation?  

When they become an entrepreneur and open a company, they get the membership of BASIS. If we could make the six lac freelancers active by enhancing their skills, if they could be given additional training then their contribution to the economy would have been massive in terms of earning foreign currency. From BASIS’s mandate, we can only work with companies. But why do we work with youth? Why do we go to universities? It is because they are our next people to join the industry. Similarly, when freelancers start to do freelancing, at some time they will come to entrepreneurship. That is why we are thinking about enhancing the skills of freelancers. We talk about the chicken-and-egg problem so freelancing is not really obstructing local software creation.

This thought came to me recently, the place where we are standing now, there is so much opportunity, so much positivity, and there is no scope for this debate of which came first, the egg or the chicken. The egg and the chicken must come together. First we have training and then we have something else, first we go for marketing and then something else…No. We need everything together. If we have this then we will do that, no, there is no scope for that. For example, when your HR supply will be plenty, I have a requirement from couple of US and European organizations, they want 10,000 people from me. Do you think Bangladesh has the capability to provide 10,000 people at one time? No, we don’t have that.

It is true that the ICT sector is the only sector that generates highest graduate employment. We are not the highest employment industry but we are the highest graduate employment industry. However, incidence of graduate unemployment is also very high. This is the sad part..only if s/he can be brought into our fold with proper training! For example, it requires less skill to become a software tester and the industry is worth 30 million dollars. HSC or B.Com pass can be a tester. Bangladesh can earn 3 million dollars but we haven’t even looked into it. Is it possible for BASIS to do it alone? BASIS can work as an eye-opener and talk about it. If we can have a collective effort with the aim of creating one lac testers tomorrow…we will be able to bag millions from the global market.

Fintech: Why our industry and academia don’t collaborate with each other much?

Russell T Ahmed: The problem is, in our country, industry and academia are not able to talk with each other, or they don’t. There is no one to listen to me. But now I want to talk, want to be heard. I have proposed to form a committee where the government, academia and the industry will be included. If no one else can do it then give me the responsibility, let me create people because I have the demand. People say there is no job in Bangladesh but I say there are no people to give that job to. So now you will say if the candidate is really good, if there any job for him? Or really good people will be created after the creation of the job market? I don’t want to get into the chicken-and-egg debate. We have to do everything together.


The boat will not arrive at your port every day; the boat will be at port for the next five years for the ICT industry. After that it will leave. We really have to make use of the next five years, go full throttle. That is why we need to take a comprehensive, consolidated approach. We are at such an opportune moment, if we can make use of it properly, it will do wonders for Bangladesh. If we can’t then we will keep on missing the bus.

Fintech:  Can you briefly tell us about the roadmap for BASIS under your leadership?

Russell T Ahmed: We have identified seven pillars for BASIS. We will be concentrating on them. From day one we have declared that HR capacity development, foreign market enhancement, local market, startup ecosystem, industry promotion, access to finance and IPR will be our areas to work on. Now if you ask me what happened two years ago, I will not be able to give you an answer. If you ask me what is my top most priority, it is HR development. For that I am sharing my plans to various places. Secondly I have to earn foreign currency, for that export is my second target. Third is—developing capacity for BASIS members operating in the local market. We are focusing more on these three among the seven pillars. What I want to see before I leave, an existing setup for HR development by 2023 which will keep the supply chain intact for the next five to ten years. If that happens I will be happy because it is our raw material.

We have to make investors from other countries that they can invest and get return on their investment from Bangladesh. This has to be done every single day. Having met 300 people during my trips abroad, I believe I have created 30 brand ambassadors for Bangladesh. I am expecting three investments especially which I am following up.

Fintech: Thank you for giving us time.

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