Managing and coordinating an event like Softexpo 2017 is no easy task. Ask Syed Almas Kabir, the convener of Softexpo 2017, and you will know why.
From February 1-4, Kabir had spent over 50 hours inside Bangabandhu International Conference Center (BICC)- in suits and ties- embodying what ‘busy bee’ actually looks like. In between attending and moderating different seminars, coordinating business meetings, attending high profile guests, solving different problems at the venue and seeping countless cups of coffee, he had still found time to talk with Fintech about the purposes of arranging the largest event in the IT sector of the country.
FINTECH: There hasn’t been any BASIS Softexpo for a while. The last one was held in 2012. After that it was arranged along with Digital World. Why it is being revived now?
SAK: When the government decided to organise Digital World in 2012, we became the main organiser. BASIS did all the organising work including logistics and everything else. We kept a zone separated for Softexpo in that event. Later we realised that there was a fundamental difference between the original Softexpo and the Digital World. Digital World was a platform for showcasing the achievement of the government in reaching its promised ‘digital Bangladesh’. It was designed to convey to the public the milestones that the government attained. It was meant to reach the general public.
On the contrary, Softexpo was meant for IT buyers. It was more of a B2B (Business to business) and B2G (Business to government) platform rather than a public event. So, the original purpose started to get lost when Softexpos were being arranged as a part of Digital World. Our members have felt that too. The visitors weren’t really relevant to Softexpo. That is the reason we have reverted back to a separate Softexpo. But that doesn’t mean that we abandoned Digital World.
FINTECH: So, there is going to be a Digital World as well…
SAK: Yes, of course. Digital World is going to be held on December 9 to 12 this year. It hasn’t been finalized yet. However, the tentative time is the second week of December. Like I said, from 9 to 12; I think those will be the dates. So, we are going to do both. That one (Digital World) will be organized in broader scale. There will be stalls for the hardware manufacturers as well as for the importers. All relevant ministries, directorates and divisions too will showcase their success in digitization and all of those will be arranged for a bigger audience. Softexpo is mainly for business to business, and this is completely catered to the needs of our members in BASIS.
FINTECH: Do you think the Softexpo will be able to create renewed interest on local software among the banks and large corporation?
SAK: You will find that the big Bangladeshi banks, corporations and everyone tend to prefer foreign software. The main reason behind this is a lack of confidence on Bangladeshi software or services. People worry “is this (local software) going to work?” So, we wanted that people from the relevant industries would come here and see that many quality works are also being done here locally and those can easily compete with the products developed by the foreign companies.
FINTECH: The after sell services and maintenance services provided by the foreign software companies are below average. Do you think the local companies have an edge in these areas?
SAK: The truth is when you deploy a large scale enterprise solution (ERP) software or core banking software (CBS) in the organization, you put yourself at the mercy of foreign engineers. You have to rely on their after sales and maintenance services and in Bangladesh, they have clearly shown inefficiencies and ignorance in providing so. On the other hand, the local companies which have attained the capacities to produce ERP or CBS solutions have been providing excellent after sales and maintenance services. So, of course I think that the local companies have edges in these areas.
One of the big proofs of that is the Flora System. I think they [Flora] are providing CBS solutions to over 12 banks and they are doing excellent work. They are providing services at the one tenth costs of what foreign software companies were charging.
FINTECH: South Bangla Agriculture and Commerce Bank (SBAC) had recently replaced Temenos with Florabank software…
SAK: Exactly. You see, it worked. So, what does that mean? That means that the system works. And it is efficient. So, that is the kind of reliability we want to create and promote and Softexpo is the perfect platform to do so.
FINTECH: If we could put a complimentary question to that…we recently interviewed Mustafa Jabbar. He said that BASIS started its journey with the focus on export, meaning that software or IT enabled services developed here will be sold to foreign customers. However that vision has changed. The software developers of the country could work for the next 20 years just to cater the need in the local market. Do you also agree with that?
SAK: Definitely! One of our targets at BASIS is that we will aggregate revenue of one billion US dollars from the export of software and related services by 2018. But that’s not all; at the same time we will acquire local work worth an extra $1 billion. So, in truth, it’s no longer one billion that we are targeting. It’s one plus one-two billion-that we are actually targeting.
FINTECH: The figure commonly cited as the current software and ITES export is $700 million. Is this the industry data because the data from Bangladesh Bank and Export Promotion Bureau (EPB) give a different picture?
SAK: No, let me clear up the confusion here. Many people say many things about this discrepancies in data. The thing is, if you look at Bangladesh Bank’s report the figure is one hundred and fifty million. If you look at the EPB’s report, it’s probably one hundred million. The problem lies elsewhere. There are software companies of different sizes and scales. Some work on products and projects worth two thousand dollars, some on ten thousand dollars and some even fifty thousand dollars and more in the online marketplace. So after the completion of projects, when you receive the payment from outside, naturally you are required to fill up an EXP (export) form of Bangladesh Bank. Unfortunately, Bangladesh Bank does not require this if the amount is less than ten thousand dollars. So, any payment under ten thousand dollars is not being recorded with the central bank ledger.
FINTECH: BASIS President recently spoke about this confusion in data and said that it will be cleared up by the end of this year so that one uniform data would showcase the export growth of the software and ITES industry. My question is-how that will be done?
SAK: It will be done in two ways. We have had a meeting with the finance minister in last week. The meeting wasn’t on this issue but it came up. The minister said that the EXP form of Bangladesh Bank will be amended. The first problem with the form is the ten thousand dollars threshold. Another problem is that there is a lack of category. The form has a provision for “IT”. But different types of services under IT are not listed. So, we are hoping if the form is changed correctly then the data will be more accurate. And the second way is that we are preparing to conduct a market research done by BASIS. In fact, the previous day when we were on stage, the planning minister was telling me and the State Minister for ICT Junaid Ahmed Palak to carry out a market research and find out the real data. We will do that shortly.
FINTECH: So, you think that the confusion over data will be cleared up through this way?
SAK: Yes, a lot of confusion will be cleared up. You can never be completely accurate. But there will not be so much discrepancy in the data as we have now.
FINTECH: One of the essential parts of the Softexpo is the matchmaking sessions. What kind of responses you are getting?
SAK: Fantastic! Eight European companies have come to the fair. We have already conducted forty-five meetings and more is going on today. Our main purpose is to build confidence on the local software and we believe these personalized B2B sessions are the best way to build that.
Aside from the B2B meetings, we have the stalls set up by different software companies and they are the biggest advertisements of what we have achieved in the last few years in the software sector. Representatives from the foreign companies as well as from some of the large local corporate houses have already visited those stalls and expressed their satisfactions. They said that they didn’t know Bangladesh had come so far.
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