‘Connectivity is Productivity’: Iqbal Quadir at the BASE II Forum on tech for transformation
The recent BASE II Forum 2013 featured several distinguished panelists, including Iqbal Quadir, founder and director of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT, and founder of Grameenphone, which provides effective telephone access throughout Bangladesh. Quadir shared his knowledge and experience about how technology can support the BoP’s capacity to improve their own productivity.
He started with the premise that “all people want to better their conditions.” Quoting legendary economist Adam Smith, he noted: “The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition … is so powerful, that it is alone, and without any assistance … capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity…”
Quadir explained that along with economists like Smith, other intellectuals, contemporary scholars and leaders of many other fields have reached the same conclusion. Starting with this premise, he mentioned two points to consider:
First, “people are the most important resource that a country can have.” People have an innate capacity to work toward their own objectives, thus bettering their own conditions.
Second, several paradigms about the BoP need to be reconsidered in order to have greater impact. These paradigms include:
- The belief that “poor countries are under-resourced,” when in actuality “poor countries are extremely wasteful” (in terms of the resources and opportunities available that are not built upon).
- The belief that “poor people lack buying power” when it’s possible to enable access to “ productivity tools (and therefore) the creation of buying power.”
- The belief that people “need to have money to make money” when there can be a “shared access (that) can break the vicious cycle” and provide access to needed resources.
- The belief in people’s “inability to meet primary needs” at the BoP, when “income is the ability” to meet those needs.
In light of these points, Quadir explained that there is no need to offer charity to the BoP. Instead, there’s a need to connect them with solutions that would allow people, by their own means, to help themselves.
To that end, Quadir said “connectivity is productivity,” and that enabling connections and communication channels for the BoP can deliver major benefits. These include access to the knowledge they need to make informed decisions, and the elimination of intermediaries that inflate costs.
Quadir cited Grameenphone as a clear example of a solution that enables communication and enhances productivity at the BoP. The company has built the largest cellular network in Bangladesh, serving more than 40 million subscribers and providing a coverage area that includes 99 percent of the country’s population. Grameenphone’s network allows access to high-speed Internet and data services from anywhere within its coverage area. This service has been shown to improve people’s lives, both in and outside of work. Its success demonstrates the benefits that come from installing infrastructure and extending the use of technology for a variety of tasks.
Quadir also pointed out the role of technology in stimulating both supply and demand. By improving productivity, technology lowers prices on the supply side, while increasing purchasing power on the demand side. As more people take advantage of new technologies at work and in daily life, their incomes and overall quality of life will improve.
After listening to Quadir and his fellow panelist Stuart L. Hart, a few things stand out. First, there’s a clear opportunity to use technology to reach people at the BoP and improve their conditions, and a clear business case for doing so. But it’s important to emphasize the human element when doing business there, providing tools that help people solve their own problems. And there is still a need to explore how best to address the sustainability challenge when working with the BoP and technology. Moving forward, it will be helpful to identify more examples of companies and business models that have had success in these types of ventures.