The iconic figure in Bangladesh’s information and communications technology Mustafa Jabbar’s most notable works include introducing and revolutionizing the usage of Bengali language in computing, helping the incorporation of ICT in education, helping formalize ICT education, and working as a key figure to popularize the concept of a digital Bangladesh.
Writer of numerous books, including books on information technology and other subjects, Jabbar has won more than 15 national and international awards for his contribution to education and technological advancement.
Born in 1949 in the Brahmanbaria district, Jabbar grew up to be a cultural and political activist. He fought in Bangladesh’s bloody liberation war in 1971. He started his professional life as a journalist in 1972 while he was still a student at University of Dhaka. He started computer business in 1987. In the same year he published the weekly magazine Anandapatra, which was composed in a computer.
A year later he unveiled Bijoy Bangla keyboard and software on 16 December, 1988. Jabbar released his Bengali keyboard software for Windows in 1993. Currently Mustafa Jabbar is the president of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS), of which he was a co-founder
In 1987, when Mustafa Jabbar first tried to bring his computer in Bangladesh, he was quizzed by the customs for two straight days as they thought Jabbar was bringing a printing machine. Back then, computer was almost an alien product in this country. With that computer, under a modest setup named ‘Ananda Computers’ in the Arambagh area of the capital, he started the journey of ‘Bijoy’-the first Bengali language keyboard in Bangladesh.
Ananda Computers is still at that Arambagh address and the ambience inside haven’t changed much in all these years. When I went there a few weeks ago to meet with him for this interview, I figured out that Mustafa Jabbar hasn’t changed much either.
In case of adopting with latest technology trends however, he makes no compromises. He is always up to date with what’s happening around in the technology world. Fintech finds out that and more in the interview with this IT icon of the country.
FINTECH: Bangladeshi software companies have grown up in the last couple of years yet the large corporations, especially the banks still prefer to use Core Banking Software developed by the foreign companies. Do you think our local companies have the capacity to design and deploy such large scale Core Banking software or to create large financial technology solutions?
Mustafa Jabbar: If you asked me that question few years ago, I would have said that the local companies didn’t have the capacity to provide such solutions. For designing such large scale software and solutions, a certain level of expertise is required which the software developers of the country didn’t possess earlier. But if you ask me now whether we have attained that capacity, I would say, ‘yes’.
Just few months ago, South Bangla Agriculturae and Commerce Bank had deployed international standard banking software in their bank, replacing the one provided by a foreign developer. After that success of SBAC, I believe the banks in Bangladesh should realize that they don’t need to buy foreign software anymore. If only they are brave enough to trust the local software developer, that’s good enough.
“Designing cyber security solution is not an easy task but the local software developers have better understanding of the systems of local companies and that would give the local developers an edge over the foreign companies.”
This will not only put the local software developers into a fast lane but also will give the banks a better option to save their expenses on buying expensive foreign software.
This doesn’t only apply to the banks, but also to the large industries that are increasingly using technology to manage the supply chain.
Now many of the member software farms of Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS) are working on building ERP solutions. They also have the capacity to provide regular support service against the software.
FINTECH: So, is it the lack of knowledge among the large corporations or banks or a lack of trust in our local developers that bars them to employ our local developers in developing their solution?
Mustafa Jabbar: You have spotted it right. The banks that are still stuck with software and solutions services provided by the foreign owned companies are doing so because of their lack of knowledge of the development that had happened in the local industry or simply because of their lack of trust on us, which I believe is meaningless.
I believe the change is in the pipeline, because previously, banks were thinking that they had to be aligned with the international standards in terms of having their banking solutions so they went for the internationally reputed foreign software developers. But now they also realize that they need to comply with all the rules and regulation of the country, especially of the rules of import which have got stringent in the last few years. So now they might find using local software more lucrative.
Besides, many banks and industries now have to use software modules to perform specific functions and these modules are being developed by our programmers. They are forced to do that because usage of those modules has become imperative. So what happens, because of a lack of support service from the foreign vendors, the banks and the large industries are being compelled to use local software farms to create those modules for them.
So ultimately, they realize, if the local software firms can deliver those modules, they could have delivered the whole package as well. The banks and the industries have realized that support service is a very important part of the solution package. In my knowledge, I know that none of the foreign software developer has its support center in Bangladesh.
So, the truth is, the software developers of the country are not only just ready to provide solutions to the bank, but it is already happening. I know that at least 20 something banks are using local software now. This mostly started to happen in the last few years. Now, I don’t find any valid reason behind the usage of foreign software.
FINTECH: Security solutions are very important for the banks. Especially the issue of ensuring full-proof cyber security becomes very important after the last Bangladesh Bank heist. The commercial banks of the country however still don’t give attention in ensuring cyber security as of now. Why do you think this is happening?
Mustafa Jabbar: Forget the commercial banks; the latest heist in the Bangladesh Bank system proved that even the central bank is not secured. I
“I will say the government system of Bangladesh will truly become digital when all of the ministries will be brought under national enterprise architecture and when they all will be able to be brought under the same network where they can share their works faster and in a secured manner digitally.”
don’t think they have sufficient security solution in their hand. Otherwise, the incident like the bank heist wouldn’t have happened. Especially, the way through which the money was being transferred was like a joke.
Now, if you ask me whether our programmers and developers have the capacity to provide security solutions, I would say ‘yes’. Designing cyber security solution is not an easy task but the local software developers have better understanding of the systems of local companies and that would give the local developers an edge over the foreign companies.
Ensuring cyber security depends on the specific organization. This was not the first incident of cyber heist in Bangladesh. The global card companies in fact assumed that 10% of their money will fall under some sort of card fraud or scam. The truth is cyber heist or card forgery is prevailing in large scale in the Western world. The numbers of the incidents of cyber heist or card forgery in Bangladesh is very low in comparison with those countries.
FINTECH: Is it because Bangladeshi people still are not accustomed with paying with plastic money?
Mustafa Jabbar: I wouldn’t say that the usage of plastic money or digital money is very low in Bangladesh. Everyday Tk 700 crore worth of money transaction is made through mobile banking in Bangladesh. How many incidents of frauds or forgery happen on a daily basis here?
I think the incidents of forgery are not taking place in this country because of two reasons. First, the average people of Bangladesh are honest and they do honest money transaction. They are not criminal minded. Second one is that we are being able to use technology safely here.
FINTECH: In many programs, where you attended as a speaker, you have said that Bangladeshi people adopted well with technological changes. You often use the example of bKash saying that when bKash first came no one realized that it would grow in such a manner within such a short span of time. Like bKash, technological innovations are creating a disruption in the banking on a regular basis. Are we ready for technological disruption in the banking market?
Mustafa Jabbar: I have an evaluation about the people of Bangladesh. The people here are ahead of the people of any other countries in terms of adopting with something new. Let’s look at the example of mobile phone. In Bangladesh there are now around 11 crore mobile phone subscribers. No one teaches them to use these mobile phones. They have learned all those by themselves. The penetration of mobile phone network has not been able to achieve such success in such a short span of time in any other country in the world. You will be surprised to see that the ease with which common people have been adopting the new
“In Bangladesh, we shall consider only books, songs, cinema as intellectual property. There is just one software patent in Bangladesh and that patent is mine. This is because we are not serious about research and innovation here. So the main problem here is lack of awareness.”
changes and the technological disruption, is absent at the policy-making level.
The problem actually lies within the policymakers. We need to create changes at that level because they are very rigid in welcoming changes. You cannot change the bureaucrats, politicians and the policymakers here so easily. If you look at the last seven years, how many ministries of the government are adopting with the technological changes? The answer is very few.
FINTECH: The Ministry of Finance has adopted well with technological changes. They have been trying to make the office as much paperless as possible…..
Mustafa Jabbar: That’s just one example. But an example doesn’t reflect on overall situation. We have two young state ministers in the ICT division and in the telecom division. Why can’t they completely change their own ministries? Why they are still depending on the age old file system. I believe they still have failed to implement the backbone of the true spirit of Digital Bangladesh.
I will say the government system of Bangladesh will truly become digital when all of the ministries will be brought under national enterprise architecture and when they all will be able to be brought under the same network where they can share their works faster and in a secured manner digitally.
FINTECH: The government has taken the project to implement NEA (National Enterprise Architecture)…..
Mustafa Jabbar: I know about the project. But is it finished yet? Why it is not? I have been hearing about this project for the last five or six years. There are many good projects in the pipeline but you have to look at the implementation rate.
I would consider the development when this will be implemented at the upazila level everywhere and when the government officials at that level will use their computers to send report instead of doing that with the age old paper filing system.
FINTECH: You are one of the sufferers of the lack of intellectual property right (IPR) in Bangladesh. We have seen your cases regarding Bijoy. IPR is intricately related with digital development. Do you think without having a strong IPR movement, Bangladesh will be able to attain intellectual revolution?
“I have told the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that when you export RMG products worth of $10 billion, you have value addition of $3 billion to $4 billion but when you export $1 billion of software, you have the value addition of $1 billion.”
Mustafa Jabbar: If you look at the history of evolution of technology in other countries, you will see that when the technological revolution started to take place there, initially it brought some kind of confusion along with it. Before the technological revolution, people patented inventions which were tangible. That means something which they could see, hear or feel. Previously, we considered those as wealth.
With the transformation from the agricultural world to the industrial world, the definition of wealth has changed. Technological innovation didn’t come in a tangible form. It came as concepts and ideas. The industrial world uses that idea. Just look at a car, it has materials worth of may be Tk 1 lakh. But we are buying it with Tk 20 lakh. The rest Tk 19 lakh is the price of technology.
In Bangladesh, we still consider only books, songs, cinema as intellectual property. There is just one software patent in Bangladesh and that patent is mine. This is because we are not serious about research and innovation here. So the main problem here is lack of awareness. You will be amazed to know even the innovators and researchers in different government organizations here don’t patent their innovations.
Piracy is taking place in all over the world and Bangladesh is not free from that. I have heard from a number of software developers here that their solutions have been pirated since they didn’t patent those. Years of hard work and investments were in vain just because of their lack of awareness.
Besides, we lack the legal protection even in the existing acts. When we want to protect our software by patenting, it is being patented under the category of literary work. The patent ing act doesn’t even allow software to be patented. In terms of check-mark, there is no particular classification for software here in Bangladesh. We have a patent act here which was enacted back in 1911. No amendments have been made on that act since.
FINTECH: You had been the president of Bangladesh Computer Samity (BCS), now you are the president of BASIS. What are the basic differences that you have notices running these two organizations?
Mustafa Jabbar: BCS was born in 1987. At that time, we only imported computers and related machineries from other countries. So BCS was formed to bring all the importers and computer shop owners under one umbrella so that we could push for our demands like exemption of VAT and duty on computer machineries. We were successful in our venture. Because of BCS, computers in Bangladesh have become a household thing. BCS has played active role in making computer popular across the country.
Besides, because of active persuasion of BCS, computer science has been included in the curriculum of the text book. BASIS was born in the hand of BCS. The government formed a task-force in 1997 to aid software development in the country. I was there in the task-force along with Prof Jamilur Reza Chowdhury. We placed a total of 45 recommendations.
At that time, I was the president of BCS. Just before the end of my tenure, BASIS was formed. One of the main ideas behind the formation of BASIS was software development. BASIS, from the inception was software centric and its members were mainly software developers. There were others like me who had stakes in both hardware and software business.
I previously served BASIS for two terms as director and I was involved with the initial development of the organization. The software industry was very small then. Now it has become bigger.
I believe BCS carries the past of the country, whereas BASIS carries the present and the future. I wouldn’t go back to take the leadership of BCS unless I have started manufacturing computers locally. I can tell you that some of the members of BCS have the financial capacity to start hardware manufacturing business but ironically they are not doing it.
Walton has started manufacturing computer hardware and they have entered into the export market too. They proved that they don’t only have the capacity to do business here but also in the foreign market.
FINTECH: As the president of BASIS, what is your vision for the organization in the upcoming years?
Mustafa Jabbar: BASIS has put more concentration on the export market but it hasn’t put enough emphasis into its own market. May be the idea of previous BASIS committee was that it should have been export oriented but the truth is we have a huge market inside our own country.
Only by providing software solutions to different government agencies, our software companies can remain busy in the next 20 years. As the incumbent president, I have been able to instigate that thought in the industry that we have to focus more on our own country’s market.
ICT division too now believes that our own software developers should develop software solutions for our own people.
Also I am focusing on promoting intellectual property right. I tried and failed to get people interested in IPR and wasn’t able to conduct a seminar in IPR since 1997, now people force me to conduct seminar or workshop to raise awareness on IPR.
Another issue that we are working on now is that the Bangladesh government provides cash incentive on export. But unfortunately, it doesn’t provide any cash incentive on software export. This is ironic because software export provides 100% value addition. If you export a garment product, you have 20-30% value addition because the rest goes in importing raw materials and in production.
I have told the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina that when you export RMG products worth of $10 billion, you have value addition of $3 billion to $4 billion but when you export $1 billion of software, you have the value addition of $1 billion. The Prime Minister understood and she, in principle, agreed upon our proposal of providing cash incentive on software export. Hopefully in the next budget it will be implemented.
The last, but not least, goal is the magic number of $1 billion. No other sector except the RMG sector in Bangladesh has been able to attain the coveted billion dollar mark in the export basket. We want to attain that by 2018. Our current software export stands at 700 million. I believe we will not only be able to achieve that target of $1 billion, we will exceed that.