Thursday, September 3, 2009

Interview of Abdullah H Kafi about Canon, ASOCIO and ICT Sector of Bangladesh

This is an interview of Abdullah H Kafi, Vice President of Asian-Oceanian Computing Industry Organization (ASOCIO). He is also the CEO of JAN Associates and Former President, Bangladesh Computer Samity (BCS). I took this interview for Computer Bichitra (one of the leading computer magazines in Bangladesh) in or around October 2004 and then, it was published in the magazine. It was a long interview and. I hope that you will have the patience to go through it. Well, I wish you read it full because it contains a lot of information and insight views about ICT sector of Bangladesh. I am again reposting it today.

Mr. Abdullah H Kafi is one of the pioneering figures in the ICT industry of Bangladesh. He has been associated with this sector for more than 20 years and he has been successful in every aspect of this industry. He is a founding member of Bangladesh Computer Samity (BCS), the largest ICT trade organization of Bangladesh. In fact he worked in every position of the Executive Body of BCS including his presidency in the term 2000-2001. He is a very successful computer business entrepreneur and has turned JAN Associates as one of the largest and most successful Computer business farms of Bangladesh. JAN is the distributor of Canon System Products in Bangladesh. It is the most successful distributor of Canon in the Asia Pacific region. He has successfully completed the target of sales for the last nine years and has made Canon the most successful brand in terms of printing solutions in Bangladesh.

When he was the president of BCS he took some important initiatives for the Bangladesh IT sector. For example at that time BCS organized the first software show and also BCS carried out a survey on the ICT sector. The first ASOCIO (Asian-Oceanian Computing Industry Organization) multilateral trade visit was held at Dhaka. His presidency would be remembered for lifting of monopoly on VSAT of BTTB. It is worth mentioning here that he was the convenor of the first BCS Computer show in 1993. His contribution in the development of the ICT sector is immense. He is also actively participating in the development of the ICT sector of Asia too.

In recognition of his contribution in ICT sector of this region ASOCIO has recently awarded him for his outstanding contribution in developing the ICT sector of this region for such a long-term. It is the most Prestigious honour for this region in the ICT sector and Mr. Kafi is the first Bangladeshi who is awarded. In addition to ASOCIO Mr. Kafi has close contact with WITSA (World Information Technology and Services Alliance). Recently he gave us a long interview where he talked freely about different issues. Here is the interview for our readers:

Razib Ahmed: I like to know about your personal background.

Abdullah H Kafi: I completed my SSC from Kushtia District School and the HSC from Kushtia College. Then I joined Geography Department of University of Dhaka. I finished my studies in 1980 and then I joined Center for Urban Studies. I did not have any attraction for government jobs as the salary was too little (1000 Taka) and then I always wanted to do something exciting in my life and not be limited to government bureaucracy.

I come from a well off family and I never had to suffer any financial hardship. As a number of my relatives were abroad, I wanted to leave my country as well. But then I changed my decision and stayed in my country to contribute in some way. In those days, most students had the dream to be doctors or engineers. Unfortunately I did not have the scope and then had to settle for studying Geography.

Razib Ahmed: How did you come in the computer sector?

Abdullah H Kafi: In 1974 when I was a student of Dhaka University I saw an advertisement about computer training in London in English daily. I was fascinated with it and written to my relatives (who lived in England) to find more information about it. However, my family and relatives were not so enthusiastic about it because to them studying at Oxford or Cambridge mattered, not going to England for a computer training course. I like to say here that I got admission in Dhaka Dental College too but my family did not like the idea of becoming a Dentist. I also got a scholarship to study at Russia but my family did not like to send me in any East European Country.

After I finished my studies at University of Dhaka, I saw an advertisement of a company. It stated an offer of a 2 months trainging on computer and the persons who would secure the top three positions in the exam after 2 months would be hired by the company. I topped in that course and I got a job as a programmer in the company in an attractive salary (more than twice of the government pay scale, Tk. 2000). It was an American Company and I started my job at the computer industry on 1 October 1981. My bosses became highly satisfied with my performance and increased my salary to Tk. 3500 after 3 months.

Razib Ahmed: What kind of works did you have to do then?

Abdullah H Kafi: After I joined that company I was asked to take classes or in other words teach students. At first, I felt discomfort because I did not have any teaching experience. My boss told me that in our life we could never realized our true potential unless we are in a challenging situation. I still remember this lesson today and I try to follow the same principle in my own organization. I have one advantage that I can realize the feelings of a person by looking at his/her eyes. I could easily understand if my students were satisfied or not with my teaching. From the first day of teaching, I started working very hard. Often I used to study at my office until midnight or suppose if I had a class at 9 AM I used to come to office at 7 AM and then prepared myself for the class. So, I studied much more when I was a teacher than my university days. This hard work brought good result for me and I earned good reputation as a dedicated and hard working teacher. Then Flora Limited offered me to take care of their computer business and they offered me almost double salary.

Razib Ahmed: In Flora what kind of works did you do? What was the condition of Flora at that time?

Abdullah H Kafi: At that time, I was seriously contemplating of going abroad. The Chairman of Flora, Mr. M. N. Islam, requested me to come to his office and talk to him. He told me that he wanted to start the computer business of Flora and offered me to take charge. I gave him some conditions such as I must get full freedom and also I would not go for any marketing. When I look back to my life I feel amused that 21 years ago I wanted to avoid marketing and now my profession is to make sure best marketing of Canon products. I tried to bring change in the way of computer business and brought some of my friends and put them in different positions in Flora Computers. Then I wrote to many International companies inculding EPSON and they invited us to talk to them in Singapore. Mr. Islam and I went to Singapore and talked to them. Then their representatives came to Dhaka and met us. Thus Flora developed the partnership with EPSON. I told you that I wanted to stay away from marketing but what happened that we could not do well in selling our products in the market. I felt bad about it and started to be active in this field. I tried to motivate and convince my relatives, friends and every person with whom I was close to and requested them to buy EPSON. I was so lucky that I got good co-operation from them. Here I specially like to mention the name of Mr. M A Matin with gratitude for his support in those days. He was in British American Tobacco and you know that they have a policy of using US products only whenever possible. Mr. Matin tried very sincerely to convince his decision-makers to go for EPSON. I also got success at UNDP, World Bank and some other multinational and donor organizations.

Razib Ahmed: What were the conditions of printers and the market of printers in those days?

Abdullah H Kafi: Except Flora who used to sell EPSON there were no other single company who used to sell only printers. But there were other companies who used to sell Seikosha, Oki and other brands. At that time, people would mainly buy dot matrix printers. There were no Ink Jet printers and Laser printer was in its early days. In fact, laser printers were too much expensive. A laser printer would cost over one hundred thousand taka and there were no color printers. The market was very small. I remember that in the year 1984 we sold 20 printers and we felt satisfied with it.

Razib Ahmed: What about the conditions of PCs in those days!

Abdullah H Kafi: The PC of that time would look like a child’s toy of today. The price of a PC was more than two lakh taka. The first PC I used had only 32 kilobyte RAM. It did not have any hard disk. The size of floppy disk was 8” and it had storage capacity of 70 kilobytes only. The monitor was 12” and of course monochrome.

Razib Ahmed: You just told that in those days the size of the market of computers was very small. Why did you feel the need for setting up an Association for the computer industry when the market and supplierswas so small?

Abdullah H Kafi: Yes, it is true that the market was very small compared to what it is today. However, some companies (both local and foreign) were operating and they found that they were facing more or less the same problems- Tax and duty related problems, importing, and payment, awareness etc. And we did not get proper co-operation from the government and decision makers. So, we felt the need for co-ordination among the companies. During those days one of our closest colleagues, Mr Moin Khan (Managing Director, Computer Sollutions Ltd) and I started to move around to contact all the companies. We talked to respectable figures like Mr. SM Kamal, who was the country Manager of IBM, MR. Aftabul Islam, Country Manager of NCR, Mr. Sajjad, Manager of IBM, Saiful Taha Shahid, Managing Director Beximco Computers and Didar Hossain of Graphics Information Systems. All of them felt excited and they asked me to arrange a lunch party in a Chinese restaurant. As Moin Khan and I were young naturally we had to work hard but all of them played very significant roles. Specially, Mr. SM Kamal who was like a mentor to all of us, and Mr. Aftabul Islam made all our works so much easier. That is why they rightfully were elected the President and the Vice President of first BCS Executive Council. The logo of BCS also has special significance. Mr. Hashem Khan, a prominent artist of Banglaesh, designed the logo of BCS. I must say that we were very lucky and grateful to Mr. Hashem Khan because he designed the logo at a time when he was very ill. This logo represents our nation. It has water lily shape and the colours of our national flag. I feel lucky to be related with its creation.

Razib Ahmed: Why did BCS take the initiative to start a Computer Show? Did you play any role in organizing the first BCS Computer Show in 1993?

Abdullah H Kafi: Although BCS was formed as a trade organization; its members in those days gave equal importance to make people aware about the computer technology as doing their business. Actually, we felt that if the common people did not know about this technology then Bangladesh would suffer in the long run. So we took the initiative in 1993 and all the members including our president of that time, Mr Sazzad Hussain requested me to play the key part and thus I became the convenor of the first BCS Computer Show. In this regard I must mention that apart from the executive committee such as Mr. sajjad hussain, Mr. Moin Khan, Mr SD Shahid, and others, Khan Akhter Aalm of Sigma Trade International provided us much encouragement that time. He told that if we needed then we could organize the Show in the roof of his house. His determination and enthusiasm moved all of us. And also, we were grateful to Mr. S M Kamal and Mr. Aftabul Islam for their total support and encouragement. I am saying these things because at that time BCS was not such a big organization like now. It even did not have a healthy fund to organize a grand fair. So, we had to do most of the works by ourselves. We organized our first fair at Pan Pacific Sonargaon Hotel overcoming many obstacles. We had to think of our expenses in every step as we did not have money enough in our fund. We had to work day and night. Moin, Sajjad Bhai, Nazmul, Rana and Jabbar- all worked from our heart but we were still afraid whether enough people would turn up.

Extensive coverage created enormous interest among the people and visitors from all walks of life came to see the First BCS Computer Show. Mr. Shamshul Haque, the then Commerce Minister (now the Information Minister of this cabinet) inaugurated the show. It was a huge success for BCS and for the ICT sector of Bangladesh. I like to say that I might have been the convenor of the First BCS Computer Show but without the blind support of the pioneers the Show would have never become a success.

Here I like to thank the media for supporting us all the way from our first day. I must say that without the moral support from media BCS could never have been so successful. Especially we had been demanding zero duty on computers from our first day. But for a long time successive governments ignored this demand. However, the media motivated the people and in one stage this demand became a very popular one. As a result, the government yielded in 1998 and after it ICT became a household name in Bangladesh. I like to recall the contribution of Mr. Nazimuddin Mostan (of Daily Ittefaq), Late Prof M A Kader (founder of the monthly Computer Jagat), B I Lenin (Executive Editor of Computer Bichitra), Abir Hassan, Kamal Arsalan and many other journalists who dedicated in writing for the ICT sector. Thanks to their dedication, the people came to know about the importance of computer technology in modern life. The journalists played a vital role in making the people aware of computers and at the same time creating pressure on the government to implement ICT technology. In this regard I also like to remember the role of Mostafa Jabbar (of Ananda Computer and has made the popular Bangla software, Bijoy). He has been writing in the media for a long time.

Razib Ahmed: You were in every post of BCS Executive body. Please tell us something about your experience in working with BCS.

Abdullah H Kafi: I am obviously grateful to all the members of BCS who elected me to serve them. I feel that if a person wants to contribute then it does not matter what kind of post he is in. However, the leadership of the committee must appreciate this. Often I did the works of others and the others did which was my work. And this kind of liberty and fellow feeling existed in the past in BCS and I think that it something which is missing for the last few years.

Razib Ahmed: During your presidency you took some important initiatives. For example, during that time BCS first organized software fair, the government put an end to the monopoly on VSAT, ASOCIO multilateral trade visit and so on. You must have spent a very busy time.

Abdullah H Kafi: Another important event took place- the first ever survey on the ICT sector took place too. But I don’t like to take credit for them totally. Frankly speaking, the members of the Executive councils before my tenure prepared the ground for me to take charge and implement these things. I want to share with you one experience in this regard. When we tried to motivate the government to put an end to the monopoly of BTTB on VSAT so that the charge of using Internet came within the reach of the common people then I received all sorts of co-operations from many persons. Kamal Bhai, at that time was the President of BASIS. Sajjad Bhai (Former Country Manager IBM and former president of BCS), Aftab Bhai (President, AMCHAM & Former President, BCS), Atiqul Ahsan (the then Secretary General of BCS), Rafel Kabir of DNS group- all of us worked together and by providing data on Internet use and other kinds of suggestions. As a result, it helped us to significantly lower the licence fee of VSAT which was only US$3,500 per annum while prior to that it was US$96,000 per annum. I like to say that it was a cumulative effort. May be some of us were in the front side but we received outstanding support from many members of BCS. I have always tried to take suggestion from all the senior members of BCS and whatever has been achieved during my tenure I like to give due credit to all the members who have supported and guided me.

Razib Ahmed: You have received a special honour from ASOCIO. We know that ASOCIO honoured total 9 persons including you. How do you feel to be included in the same award with a legend like late Dewan Mehta?

Abdullah H Kafi: Of course it is one of the happiest moments for me in my life. I am happy for myself and also I am happy that the ICT sector of Bangladesh has received a rare honour. ASOCIO has given this award to commemorate the 20th Anniversary of the organization. They mainly evaluated two things- contribution for the Asian ICT industry and contribution towards ASOCIO.

I personally think that Asia has huge potential in the ICT sector. We are strong in every side. And ASOCIO is providing the much needed leadership to the region. In the last few years ASOCIO is seriously working to bring the countries of this region closer.

Razib Ahmed: Now let us turn our attention from home to abroad. We have seen that you are among the few persons in the ICT sector of Bangladesh who tries to keep in touch with the rest of the world. When and why did you start to keep in touch with the international ICT arena?

Abdullah H Kafi: I always felt and still feel today that to make our ICT sector grow and flourish we need to have good relationship with the outside world. We need to develop brand image for our ICT industry in the world and to do so we must increase our interaction with the rest of the world. Although BCS started contacting the International ICT organizations since 1994 the contact was not so frequent. When I took charge as President, we focused on it and started contacting with ASOCIO, WITSA and other international organizations. Fortunately, at that time there was an Officers Meeting of ASOCIO in our neighboring country, Myanmar. S M Kamal, the then President of BASIS, Atique (Secretary General of BCS that time) and I joined the meeting. During the ASOCIO Officers meeting we proposed for an event where a single country could be focused. Our proposal was accepted and Mr. Harris Tan- the then President of ASOCIO formally announced that the first country for ASOCIO multilateral trade visit will be BCS and Bangladesh. Fortunately, the First ASOCIO multilateral trade visit was very successful and after that I develolped a close relationship with ASOCIO. They invite me in all their programs whether I am the president of BCS or not. In the same way, I have developed a close contact WITSA as it is the parent organization of ASOCIO.

Razib Ahmed: How would you evaluate the role of ASOCIO in Asia?

Abdullah H Kafi: ASOCIO as evolved a great deal over the years. In the west there are the central Asian nations and then in the east ASOCIO has China and Japan and in the west we have Australia and New Zealand. In the past, mainly the rich countries were its members and they had all the importance. However, in the last few years ASOCIO has become more open and democratic. For example, in the past, there were two levels of membership- full member and associate member. But now all are full members and have a say in the running of this organization. ASOCIO is no longer a club of rich countries only. ASOCIO is now giving importance to the economies of the countries and their industry leaders too. For example, their awarding me symbolizes the fact that ASOCIO is giving importance to poor countries as I am the only person who got the award from the poor countries of ASOCIO. It is not only a personal achievement for me but recognition of the contribution of poor countries in ASOCIO. May be I was a bit active and that is why they recognized my contribution. ASOCIO has also helped to form contact between country to country. For example, Korea has formed special relationship with Thailand, Malaysia and Nepal. Our BCS leaders should pursue aggressively to form special relations with rich and developed members of ASOCIO and since I have good contact with ASOCIO I can easily help Bangladesh to get the best. However, if our leadership are not active then we will lose a golden opportunity as other developing countries would use this opportunity. The same goes for WITSA too. Nepal and Sri Lanka have been greatly benefited from WITSA where as we failed. There are many scopes to get support from ASOCIO and WITSA.

Razib Ahmed: What is your view about the current industry leaders, decision-makers, academicians of the ICT sector of Bangladesh?

Abdullah H Kafi: I think we need to focus on quality. It is true that the quantity has increased but not the quality. I think that we need to show respects to the senior figures of ICT industry. Without the contributions of pioneers like S M Kamal, Aftabul Islam, Sajjad Hossain and others, the ICT industry could never become so large like now. We need to be more patient and honest and need to elect leaders who would work honestly. To develop the industry we need to focus on human resource. Actaully, we have not much to demand from the government except that the government ensures a proper environment for doing business like improving the condition of law and order. I respect the academicians. However, I like to tell some academicians that it is better to remain focused in one’s own area of expertise. It is the duty of the academicians to carry out quality research and develop human resources by training their students in the best way. They should not interfere the way we do business because they are not in this field.

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