These days Dhaka is abuzz with entrepreneurial activity. I was visiting Dhaka, on my way to meet the Managing Director of a microcredit organisation as part of string of interviews I was conducting in Bangladesh about business advice and entrepreneurship in South Asia, when a hand suddenly appeared in the gap between the lift doors as they were closing. In stepped a flustered young man visibly agitated and upset. He’d arrived late to his business Management exam being conducted in the same building; he’d missed the cut off point and not been allowed to sit the exam. Frustrated and disappointed he headed to the lift and lunged to get his hand in the closing doors forcing them reopen. This is how I met Delwar*. With a little time before the interview, I bought him a consolatory coffee on the corner of a busy road in Dhanmondi, downtown Dhaka, and Delwar talked in vague but hopeful terms about becoming an entrepreneur and going into business, getting started and looking for advice.
When I returned to the lift, I met a man and a woman in their early twenties clutching picture frames. My curious examination of the frames was registered by the young pair, and they disclosed they were running a pop-up installation in their shared workspace and invited me to visit after my meeting, which I did. The office was that of a Swiss funded tech start-up hub, which housed digital entrepreneurs. It was open-plan with high stools, long benches, and shared workstations; they even had their own coffee corner, lending the space a modern Google-esque feel. The exhibition was a collection of international travel photographs taken by one of their fellow digital entrepreneurs. The digital entrepreneurs operating in this space developing ideas and building networks for expansion, seemed to exist in a different solar system to the types of businesses support systems and development assistance offered by the company I had just visited in the same building and whom I had arrived in Dhanmondi to meet.
On the 11th floor, I met a senior manager of a Bangladeshi-based Micro Industries Development Assistance and Services company, known as MIDAS. MIDAS is one of the early instantiations of micro-credit facilities for small businesses; a model of business development popular in the early 1980s, when high-risk collateral free loans were given to SMEs and micro-projects. This kind of advisory agency is an enduring legacy of what could perhaps be called a ‘traditional’ model of business development as aid. Today however, MIDAS does not give out loans, its own money appears to be in property (they own the building and the fortuitous lift) but their advisory services are focussed on supporting entrepreneurs to access credit from elsewhere.
The ongoing work of organisations like MIDAS and the chance meetings in a lift in downtown Dhaka: a young student (and would-be-entrepreneur) pursuing a conventional course in business management, a group of ‘digital entrepreneurs’ working in (and creating) new tech markets with Swiss funding, draw together just a few of the changes afoot in the world of business development in South Asia. In (Sri Lanka and) Bangladesh, we are seeing new types of ‘business model’ encouraged as a precondition for start-up finance. The three encounters in a Dhaka lift brought to life different interpretations of what entrepreneurship, as a particular category of activity in South Asia, might look like and how people are going about trying to achieve it. Anyone interested in the future of business in South Asian economies may want to pay close attention to the likes of Delwar, the digital entrepreneurs, and business support facilities such as MIDAS as they make their next moves.
*All names of individuals have been changed for anonymity.
About the author
Dr Luke Heslop is a Lecturer in Anthropology and Global Challenges at Brunel University London.