Why I gave up beaches and beers for Bangladesh
And how my perception of emerging markets shifted radically as a result.
After finishing up over 3 years at Uber in August 2018, I thought things couldn’t get any crazier — but I’m constantly surprising myself.
While many I knew were taking the time to decompress and soul search post the now infamous Uber-Grab merger in South East Asia, an interesting offer rattled through my WhatsApp.
It was from my buddy Deep, short for Pardeep. The first launcher for Uber Eats and a Toronto native, we had met in India while working on bringing the food delivery product to India. Although we got along well, and had both tried to stay in touch — the fast and frenetic pace of our lives meant that conversations were often sporadic and short, marked by an absence of detail.
Dhaka? Where was that? I spent the next five minutes rifling through a multitude of results Google had spat back at me. Admittedly, I knew nothing about Bangladesh and its even lesser known capital. The figures were astounding; this small nation contained just over 2% of the total global population — and Dhaka was listed as the densest place on the planet since the demolition of the Kowloon Walled City in 1994.
Dhaka has 44,500 people per square kilometre.
By contrast, Sydney has 1237 people per square kilometre making it roughly 2.8% of the size. Questions ran through my head; how could infrastructure keep pace? Was there any cohesion to the chaos? Scale scares me sometimes, in addition to my own spontaneity — but I couldn’t help myself. It was too late, my flights were booked, the beaches and beers of Australia well behind me.
I had to see this to believe it.
From zero to hero — technology’s impact
From the moment I stepped foot in Bangladesh I knew I was witnessing something very special. Before my very eyes, a country was growing up — fast. At university I had been fascinated with the economics of developing nations, and the challenging paradox of economic convergence. It has become clear to me, now more so than ever, that technology is itself a great equaliser. While this statement is controversial, and has been debated in the realm of academia ad naseum, less than five minutes in Bangladesh would suggest the contrary. Even at the airport, I was greeted with colourful advertisements for a number of all products technological; mobile network providers, digital payment wallets and a multitude of other on-demand services were all on offer here.
Any notion that Bangladesh was a small, primitive country wedged somewhere in South Asia were quickly dispelled. Internet users have increased more than 2x in the last two years alone, to reach over 80 million people. In parallel, mobile phone ownership has also skyrocketed to 154 million — meaning that almost every person has access to one. Why is that important? Bangladesh has one of the most developed MFS (Mobile Financial Service) sectors in the world. Products such as bKash and Rocket have allowed the unbanked masses across the country to access basic financial services, products they were previously excluded from. Unfortunately, this type of economic empowerment is the story of technology often left untold, separate to the spectre of social media and privacy pervasiveness that we have come to understand as synonymous with technology.
But there’s more. Technology also helps move thousands of people through Bangladesh each and every day; and it was this mission that brought me here in the first place.
Pathao and the magic behind ‘Moving Bangladesh’
I met Deep the next morning for a traditional Bengali breakfast; shobji (সবজি, Bengali for vegetables), paratha (পরটা, a kind of fried bread) and a dud cha (দুধ চা, milk tea). As a side note, this breakfast has become possibly my favourite thing about the country — second only to the warmth and hospitality of the Bengali people offering it. Across the next forty minutes or so he caught me up; he’d been working here at a company called Pathao ( পাঠাও, to send) which started as a third-party logistics provider to support the growing eCommerce sector. Founded by two local Bengali entrepreneurs with a passion for hustle (Elius Hussain and Shifat Adnan), the company had exceeded all expectations to become a poster child for the startup scene in Bangladesh.
In less than two years from launch, they had expanded into other verticals— ridesharing and food delivery — with total monthly transactions growing by 4x in less than 12 months. Immediately I knew what I was dealing with. I had seen this type of accelerated growth at Uber — first during the early phases of our Australia launch, and then again when I headed to Singapore to scale Uber Eats across Asia.
Pathao is the platform super-app that will unlock Bangladesh.
Turns out despite our time apart, he knew me pretty well — I was hooked. In my own mind, I finally had the chance to do what I always wanted to with what I had learned at Uber — develop David instead of going with Goliath, but more on that another day. From that point forward, I haven’t looked back. While my friends back home might be enjoying an Aperol spritz at sundown, I’ve been out here in Bangladesh, building.