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<nettime> [drik] Roundtable discussion on E-commerce in Bangladesh
partha (by way of Name.Space.Admin) on Sat, 22 May 1999 01:56:36 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> [drik] Roundtable discussion on E-commerce in Bangladesh

     [asciified and reformatted--tb]

 Round table on E-Commerce: by UNB and Drik

Talk of E-Commerce and immediately the mind jumps to the  million dollar jets
being bought through the Internet, images of precocious teenagers taking the
stock market by storm and blue chip companies being given the run around by
back room companies that started only yesterday. One thinks of state of the art
technology,  and yuppies in pin stripe suits.   Combine that with the ultimate
in state of the art, the legendary Media Lab at MIT and you have the makings of
a high tech combination reserved for board rooms in New York, or London. The
presentation on Tuesday the 18th May, in Dhaka by Michael Best of the Media Lab
surprisingly was about small scale shrimp farmers in rural Bangladesh, and how
farmers could find the best market rates for produce by checking city prices.
Amongst the selected audience were representatives from the Ministry of
Commerce, telecommunication experts, Grameen Bank, UNICEF, BARD, Probortona,
UNB, The Independent and other media representatives and of course
representatives from Dhaka Courier and Drik Picture Library, the organizers of
the event.  

Best, a computer engineer in the research team of Patti Maes, the professor at
the forefront of E-Commerce technology at MIT, had come to Bangladesh on the
invitation of Drik Picture Library, which had primarily been setup to challenge
western stereotypical representation of majority world countries.

Drik currently distributes its images through the Internet to clients all over
the world, but the monetary transactions take place through conventional means.
Using software developed by Shabbir Ahmed the system administrator at Drik,
Best hopes to setup a complete E-Commerce unit which will allow products in bit
(computer files) or atomic form (physical objects) to be sold through an
entirely automated system with secure money transactions and protection of
privacy. Drik hopes to use this technology to sell images from its stock of
over 100,000, to clients from all parts of the globe. Since the images can also
be sent entirely in digital form, freight charges, delays and the red tape
involved in getting their own pictures back, tax free, can be entirely avoided.
For Drik, the greatest benefit is from avoiding the risk of loss or damage to
their valuable originals.

The seminar, however, was designed to deal with a much broader agenda and 
looked specifically at how E-Commerce could be used for poverty

Besides Best's lucid descriptions of models studied in Thailand and Cambodia,
the roundtable was kept simmering by questions and observations of participants
who were all curious, though not all equally knowledgable on E-Commerce issues
. Michael Best was introduced by  Drik who also explained the nature of the
technical collaboration between the Media Lab and Drik, and what it hoped to
attain in terms of grass roots development. Mr Enayetullah Khan who moderated
the event, talked of telecommunication facilities being a basic human right,
and how rural communities had been failed by both the government and the
private sectors, and could not even aspire to telephones, let alone E-Commerce
facilities. Professor Harunur Rashid the Chief Editor of Dhaka Courier, pulled
no punches when he suggested, in a typical tongue in cheek fashion, that the
best way forward would be through the abolition of the information ministry,
since the role that the ministry played was that of a sentry and not that of a
facilitator. Dr S D Khan, who was secretary of telecommunications when the
first Email networks in Bangladesh were setup, did point out that BTTB itself
is now offering connectivity at lower rates than that being offered by
independent ISPs, but failed to address the incongruence of BTTB being
effectively the regulator and the provider of such services.

Shahidul Alam, in his introduction talked about the exciting and creative
working environment at MIT and how the association between the two
organizations Drik and the Media Lab came about through a global brainstorming
group called 2B1, assembled at the Lab by digital guru Nicholas Negroponti, the
director of the Lab. Through 2B1, and later, in part, the Junior Summit, where
a working class child from Bangladesh, Hamida Akhtar Brishti  was  present as a
delegate, efforts were being made to find technological solutions to overcome
the resource limitations of children in the developing world.  

In his interesting multimedia presentation, Best talked of how the Media Lab
was interested in using technology for developing sustainable efforts in
lifelong education. Entertainment opportunities of technology, particularly for
the rural and underserved communities, equity of access, were issues that he
felt E-Commerce could address. Using case studies in Latin America, South East
Asia and comparing them, looking at what was cost appropriate and practical for
local conditions, and above all by attempting to find solutions to problems the
community faced and not by trying out technological solutions merely because
they were available, this soft spoken computer specialist slowly elicited
responses from an initially reserved set of participants. He defined E-Commerce
as Internet mediated commercial enterprise, not merely buying and selling on
the net, reminding us that at present times, not much of E-Commerce
transactions get completed on the net.

E-Commerce is a very broad range of potential technologies, management styles,
and so forth, broadly conceived, any kind of Internet facilitators and
communicators for the realization of commercial enterprise.  E-Commerce can be
better defined as an integrated package of education, learning, business or
commerce, entertainment, and so on for exchange despite geographical distances.
It is more than mere buying and selling things on-line and essentially use of
E-Commerce in such behavior is just the misuse of a great tool. Community
centered micro enterprise E-Commerce can connect rural Bangladesh (80% of the
population) with the global economy.

Best made repeated comparisons with conventional 'bricks and mortar' type of
trading, reminding us that the basic principles of marketing and building
customer loyalty had not changed because of E-Commerce. Using the example of
the hugely successful virtual bookshop Amazon.com, he talked of personalized
responses and the human touch which continued to make Amazon the most
successful bookseller, despite the fact that it neither had the best stock, nor
the best prices. 'It did have one more thing' he mentioned wryly, 'a head
start.' Using convincing statistical data  he responded to discussants who
expressed concern over the low bandwidth and high costs of connectivity.

The immediate use of E-Commerce is necessary because it counts who is first on
the web. In South-East Asian and Latin American countries, E-Commerce is
changing the very scenario of trade within and beyond the country.  While
presently Thailand has a revenue of around 2 million US $ through E-Commerce,
the amount is boosting up by a staggering 10,000 % by the year 2002. This
present 2 million annual E-Commerce trading is less than what a single company
in Thailand spends on printing its annual reports. This represents the
opportunities, and the challenges.

Using relevant local examples, Best demonstrated how villagers without
sophisticated expertise, could add value to commercial transactions conducted
electronically. E-Commerce itself is rapidly changing the business transactions
across territorial borders and increasingly including all possible market forms
and transactions-norms electronically. People can now even auction, person to
person, use a bargaining agent for purchases on E-Commerce. While it has its
own business limitations and challenges as well as customer limitations and
challenges, E-Commerce is  the need of tomorrow's world-order.

The discussions were simple, to the point and sometimes animated, but failed to
address the fact that antiquated regulations were a principal factor in
stifling technological development in Bangladesh, though, while rounding up,
Professor Rashid made an impassioned plea for decision makers in our country to
wake up from their slumber and react to the changing global situation.

While recognizing the technical gap, he also reminded us that the generation
gap, and in the case of the Internet, the cultural gap, were factors to be
overcome. My son is far more conversant with the computer than I am.  It is a
reality we must learn to accept and to utilize.

Throughout the roundtable Best espoused a pragmatic approach. The emphasis was
on 'getting on with it.' He reminded us of the dangers of letting the possible
difficulties get in the way of timely utilization of the medium. It was
encouraging to see a scientist from the Media Lab, capable of speaking plain

A Drik report.  Dhaka, 19th May 1999


Partha Pratim Sarker
Drik Multimedia
House: 58, Road: 15A (New), Dhanmondi,
Dhaka 1209, Bangladesh.
Voice: (880-2) 812954, 9120125, 823412 (off.) 9120125 (res.)
Fax: (880-2) 9115044
Email: partha {AT} drik.net  or   msarker {AT} mailexcite.com
WWW: <<http://www.drik.net>http://www.drik.net

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