OP-ED: The future of online business in Bangladesh

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While there is a lot of opportunity, an integrated business plan is needed

I was almost tempted to caption this article as “e-commerce.” Then I decided to go with the popular term “shopping online.” While Covid-19 has forced me to try this with purchasing mangoes from Chapai Nawabganj, imported dry fruits, superior dates, fresh fruits from Rangamati, original and famous sweets from Comilla and Jessore, honey from the Sundarbans, blended tea from Sylhet, fitness equipment, and books online, my friends and cousins have even bought clothes and boutique products online. 

Some of my friends even asked for a few reliable online companies’ names, where they can invest as angel investors. Online food business has also seen a spike during Covid. While we used to know about Chaldal.com, Bikroy.com, Rokomari.com, hungrynaki.com, and Foodpanda, I am sure you all know, there are so many that came up over the last six to eight months’ time. 

To my pleasant surprise, I have discovered that Comilla Roshomalai or Sadek Golla from Jamtola or Jessore, Porabarir Chamcham, Hilsha fish from Chandpur, all are available fresh at a much lower price than the high street shops. 

The online kitchen folks are ready to cook you any “taki macher or bele macher bhorta” “loitkya shutki” or “beef with satkora” or “kala bhuna” or any such food you have been longing for. While most of these were initially “cash on delivery,” I have gotten many of them to accept payment through bKash. My friends and families were doubtful about quality and weight initially; these doubts are mostly gone. The survivors have learned their lessons — behave well or get lost.

The coronavirus pandemic has shown us how important the e-commerce or online industry is for a nation seeking sustainable development, not only allowing people to stay safe at home and still have access to essential and non-essential goods and services but, at the same time, creating a pathway for a more efficient system.

This is something that Bangladesh would do well to take advantage of, especially considering our plans for a Digital Bangladesh. The e-commerce market currently stands at $2.77 billion, but could soon rise to $3.77bn or more, becoming a significant contributor to Bangladesh’s fast-growing domestic economy and generating income and employment for millions. 

However, for the e-commerce industry to reach its full potential, we must incentivize businesses so that they are encouraged to focus and invest. According to stakeholders, there are infrastructural and logistical issues which stand as obstacles towards progress in the industry and must be addressed if e-commerce is to become a sustainable income and employment-generating powerhouse.

For one, currently, there is the need for clear government policy which addresses the e-commerce industry — taking freelancing, self-employed, and out-sourcing businesses into account. For example, the ease of acquiring trade licenses and an encouraging VAT would go a long way towards allowing the industry to grow.

Additionally, digital and internet services and sound delivery systems — essential components of e-commerce — need to be focused on and improved. These improvements not only aid in expanding the reach and scope of e-commerce, but also create an eco-system that prioritizes inclusivity, allowing people from all across the country to enter the industry, be it as a customer or a businessperson. 

The government has already formulated a National Digital Commerce Policy in this regard, and we hope that it addresses the challenges facing the industry and creates the opportunity for e-commerce to reach its potential, not only within Bangladesh, but across the world.

In a recent discussion, the e-commerce operators were also focusing on “developing last leg delivery” “warehousing,” “diversifying domestic sourcing” as well as “e-commerce literacy” to expand and scale up the target market.

When I asked my mango supplier why he was late on delivery, he told me during April and May most of the Pathao and Uber drivers became their delivery men; once the economy started to open up they all went back their old professions. When I asked my neighbourhood supershop manager, he told me they could only home deliver 40-50% of their home delivery orders. 

In the future, in order to cater to all demands, they need to focus more on logistics improvement. Maybe they require a “home delivery company.”

The future of online shopping or e-commerce is bright, but we need to come up with an integrated business plan with reliable supply chain management. Because many will come to grab the opportunity created, at the same time, most of them will die a premature death if they are not organized well.

Mamun Rashid is an economic analyst.

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