Gone are the days when youths in Rajshahi had to scramble for jobs with hardly any employment opportunities in their own "city of education".
They had to flock to different industrial cities and towns – Dhaka, Narayanganj and Chattogram in particular – in search of jobs.
Rajshahi has now been growing as a hub of start-up founders and freelancers centring on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Hi-Tech Park, thanks to ceaseless efforts on the part of the Information and Communication Technology Division.
Monjurul Morshed, Khairul Alam, Mahfuzur Rahman are a few names – starting from scratch, they have come up through the ranks and now own businesses worth crores of taka. More than 2,000 freelancers have now been engaged in outsourcing jobs under them.
Local people have already started popularising Rajshahi as a "digital town".
Jashore is also following in its footsteps with the making of start-ups and freelancers in the town based on Sheikh Hasina Software Park.
Likewise, Sheikh Kamal IT Training and Incubation Centres in Natore and Magura are driving down unemployment by imparting freelancing training to educated youths.
With the development of such IT infrastructure across the country, the government is now on the road to materialising its "Digital Bangladesh" dream.
In 2016, Monjurul Morshed, chief executive officer of MD Infotech based in Rajshahi, a fast growing outsourcing firm, started outsourcing as a freelancer. The man, who initially worked in web design and digital marketing, is currently working on customer service, operations, accounts and product development for companies such as Amazon and Walmart.
He is also working on developing necessary software for robotics and automation. His company has currently employed over 600 freelancers and is earning Tk400-Tk500 crore a year.
Talking about his success, Monjurul said, "I have gone through a lot of hurdles in my life to reach this position today.
"Initially when I started in Chattogram and later shifted to Gaibandha, I did not get enough work orders for not having a permanent office and government recognition. After coming to Rajshahi Hi-Tech Park, my company has expanded with many big orders flowing in because of all necessary logistic support."
His IT firm is also enjoying a seven-year tax break, he noted.
Md Khairul Alam, chief executive officer at Fleet Bangladesh – another Rajshahi-based IT firm, said, "I quit my job at Nitol Niloy Group with a salary of Tk48,000 and ventured into freelancing to become an entrepreneur. I could easily open an office in Rajshahi Hi-Tech Park. At present, I spend Tk2.5 crore on staff salaries per month."
However, freelancers and IT entrepreneurs say they are still facing many problems, such as a slow Internet speed, disruption in work owing to power outages and also a slow pace in IT infrastructure development work.
Besides, there is a lack of skilled people in the country for advanced level work, such as software development, making of 3D animation, and gaming. The government must give priority to these issues, they think.
Work on the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Hi-tech Park project, which was supposed to be completed between 2016 and June 2021, has not finished yet. The project tenure has been extended to December 2022. Besides, its allocation has also escalated from Tk287 crore to Tk335 crore.
Monjurul said, "The number of orders our company has can employ 15,000 freelancers. We need more space to manage such a large team. But in the park in Rajshahi, I have only 1,500 square feet. So we will have to take office elsewhere. "
"As many of our freelancers work from marginal areas, we are finding it very difficult to maintain time in completing our work because we have to deal with slow Internet speed in these places," he added.
Freelancer Association of Bangladesh's Secretary and Rajshahi Tech's Chief Executive Officer Mahfuzur Rehman said, "We lack skilled people. Moreover, for outsourcing, we have to spend a lot of money abroad on marketing or creating game apps and promotions. Moreover, sending dollars abroad is quite difficult, which needs to be made easier."
State Minister for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) Zunaid Ahmed Palak, "In order to build a digital Bangladesh, we have emphasised on providing high-speed Internet across the country at affordable prices. But we are still lagging behind in Internet speed."
The situation will improve if the ongoing projects are implemented, he also said.
He further said, "ICT education has been made compulsory in schools and colleges. We are now giving preliminary IT education and working to give more advanced level education."
The Bangladesh Submarine Cable Company Limited is working to ensure high-speed Internet supply at affordable prices. Two submarine cable landing stations have been set up under this company and one more in the pipeline, the state minister said.
Besides, several private companies are providing Internet services. In 2007, the price of 1 megabits per second Internet was Tk78,000, which is now only Tk200.
According to the ICT Division, optical fibre cables have been installed to bring 3,800 union parishads out of 4,554 under broadband Internet.
Junaid Ahmed Palak said, "Our main goal is to install optical fibre to spread broadband internet across the country."
Meanwhile, Sheikh Hasina Software Park in Jashore started its journey in 2017. Some 56 IT entrepreneurs have invested in the park. Of them, 47 are conducting activities. The park has employed about 2,000 young people.
Two other large hi-tech parks are Bangabandhu Hi-Tech City in Gazipur and Bangabandhu Hi-Tech Park in Sylhet. Besides, there are nine software technology parks, 12 IT parks and 13 Sheikh Kamal IT Training and Incubation Centres across the country.
There are also a number of free online training programmes for freelancers, such as learning and earning development.
Zunaid Ahmed Palak, said, "We started from scratch. We want to build a hi-tech industry in the country in the style of Malaysia. We need time for this."
"Bangladesh's ICT export amounted to $1.3 billion in FY21, while it was only $26 million in 2008. We want to boost our ICT exports to $25 billion by 2041," he added.