As of July 2020, a total of 14.5 million confirmed cases and about 600,000 deaths around the world have already made Covid-19 one of the deadliest pandemics the world has ever experienced. The whole world has never been shut down like this in modern human history.
But what impacts did Covid-19 have on our "Information and Communication Technology" (ICT) sector? Where does the recent revolutionary digitalisation of Bangladesh stand in all of this? And is it all doom and gloom or are there still some opportunities for ICT in this crisis?
Digital Bangladesh, a halted dream?
Bangladesh's ICT sector has been growing by 40 percent annually since 2010, as per July 2019 reports published by United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD); thanks to the present government's ardent efforts of driving an all-encompassing plan towards a "Digital Bangladesh".
In FY 2016-17, the sector had already registered export earnings worth USD 800 million, garnered USD 1.54 billion from the domestic market, and the e-commerce market stood at USD 1.6 billion as of last year and is expected to increase to USD 3 billion by 2023, according to a report published in a Bangladesh daily in December 2019.
All was going well and along came Covid-19. According to an interview recently published in a popular online daily, Syed Almas Kabir, president of BASIS and CEO of MetroNet Bangladesh Ltd, stated that the country's ICT industry already lost about USD 1.3 billion worth of business due to the pandemic.
"We earned about $1 billion by exporting our software and ICT products last year. But this year, 70-80 percent of our global work orders were cancelled," Syed added. This was an inevitable sideffect of the pandemic since 35 percent of Bangladesh's IT and ITES export revenue comes from the US, 15 percent from the UK, followed by a good percentage from the EU; and we have already seen how these regions are faring since the outbreak.
Blessing in disguise for some?
However, amid all this pandemonium, with the whole urban population under strict lockdown and employees working from home, some of the e-commerce and e-services companies in Bangladesh have experienced unprecedented growth. Business-to-consumer (B2C) platforms like Daraz, Pathao, Chaldal, have seen sharp uptake on their businesses.
BPO companies that cater to the medical sector of North America such as Therap and Augmedix are also doing well given the galloping demand and pressure on healthcare. But the question remains, is it really enough for thousands of companies and about one million people that are employed in the sector?
Turning the tide
As it looks like the world is not going back to the known "normal" ways of life any time soon, ICT, like any other industry, must find its way to adapt to the situation as swiftly as possible. There are of course opportunities lurking even in these dark times for the more diligent to seek.
Gamification of education
Raisul Kabir, co-founder and CEO of BrainStation-23, a prominent software firm of Bangladesh, said there are obvious potentials for growth here in these times if companies are agile and willing to pivot fast. He said video streaming and online learning platforms are strong segments to explore now, with most of the educational institutes taking classes online. Gamification of education could really be another lucrative sector to provide the students with self-learning opportunities in more interactive ways.
With growing concern over healthcare and social distancing, telehealth is another developing industry with massive potentials. In January, Chinese telecom AHS designed a 5G powered system that enabled physicians to connect with affected people and give consultation without any physical interaction and avoiding any risk of contraction. An effort like this proves how significantly ICT can impact the healthcare industry.
Promotion of the local software industry
In that same interview mentioned earlier, Syed Almas Kabir, president of BASIS expressed how local companies are now realising the folly in their obsession over foreign software. Local corporates are now inclining towards the domestic market for their software requirements, which indeed is a breather for the ICT industry of Bangladesh.
New tech to the rescue
As predicted by International Data Corporation (IDC), the global IT watchdog, over the next five years, all growth in traditional tech spending will be driven by these four platforms: cloud, mobile, social, and big data/analytics. With the world literally becoming hyper-digital with an unprecedented surge in big data, next-gen security technologies like Blockchain would drive the growth significantly.
So far, the emergence of "Internet of Things" (IoT) has helped the market grow rapidly, and over the next few years, new technologies such as robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), and augmented reality (AR) or virtual reality (VR) will also expand to make up about 25 percent of the total ICT spending, as predicted by IDC. Bangladesh's ICT sector, being highly linked with the global IT and ICT industry, must look forward to seizing these opportunities, now more than ever.
Usage of AR and VR
Companies are already realising how AR could be a highly effective tool for training homebound employees. Retailers can also use AR to find innovative ways to market their products and capture the attention of the customers. Not to mention, the gaming industry is already venturing into a whole new dimension via AR and VR.
AI, IoT, and robotics in industries
Manufacturing, being one of the hardest-hit industries, would have to rely more on innovative solutions incorporating IoT, AI, and robotics, leveraging their labor-intensive operations.
Development and retention of talents
Investing in developing an adequate talent pool to tackle the demand of these new techs, should be a prime focus at the moment. The Bangladesh government, in the last few years, has taken good initiatives on building a number of training facilities and programs on emerging technology but the drive needs to be scaled up substantially. And besides these efforts of resource development, local conglomerates must also work towards incorporating these new techs into their operation to set the foundation of a truly digital nation.
Speedy internet, consistent power, and convenient payment gateway
For all these predictions of growth and nourishing the promise the sector has already shown, a few things have become paramount for the government to ensure - speedy and uninterrupted internet connection, consistent power supply, and favorable payment gateways for the international market, especially for some 650,000 freelancers who are churning up a fair share of the overall export revenue for the industry. Perhaps, it is time to lift the ban on PayPal or come up with a convenient payment solution as soon as possible.
This is a very unique and unusual crisis for business in every sector. However, the leaders must look beyond the threats and adapt as quickly as they can to overcome these trying times and reassure their employees and co-workers to try and make the best of their abilities at all times. Perhaps this new norm of work from home suits the ICT industry like no other as most of the work can be done virtually and remotely with the right management tools and guidelines.
Md Islam is the CEO of BiGS IT LIMITED.