Fellows Friday with Kamal Quadir

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Creator of CellBazaar, a virtual marketplace that can be accessed via mobile phone, Kamal Quadir is on to his next mobile phone-based venture, bKash. This new company provides access to financial services through the mobile phone. Kamal divides his time between homes in America and Bangladesh, yet this nationally-recognized artist still squeezes in time to paint — sometimes while on an airplane home!

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Interactive Fellows Friday Feature:

Join the conversation by answering Fellows’ weekly questions via Facebook. This week, Kamal asks:

Which is the hottest place for an entrepreneur in the world today?

Starting Saturday, click here to respond!

Since selling CellBazaar, what have you been up to?

I wanted to take some time off after selling CellBazaar. But a week after selling CellBazaar, I took over this extremely exciting company, bKash. We launched nation-wide service of bKash yesterday.

“Bikash” in Bengali means “blooming” or “prosperity.” “Kash” sounds like “cash,” and “b” can stand for Bangladesh. bKash is about creating financial services for people in Bangladesh who don’t have access to banks. Bangladesh has a tremendous mobile network. It’s one of the best-networked countries in the world: 97 percent of the population has access to mobile phones. Yet only nine percent have access to conventional banking. bKash is trying to minimize that gap.

Cell phones are like mini-computers: you can maintain a bank account with a mobile phone. We have made a mobile phone-based financial service, which is safe, convenient, and easy to use. I have been helping to build the company since January 2008.

Did your CellBazaar experiences help prepare you for bKash?

At CellBazaar, I learned how to use mobile technology in effective ways, which is helping me tremendously at bKash.

There are many technological innovations taking place all over the world that could improve lives in Bangladesh in many ways. The challenge is finding the right technology and communicating that to 160 million people. Most of them do not have access to the Internet or regular media, and do not read English. Sixty percent of the population doesn’t have access to electricity. How do you include them in the technological possibilities? It’s a fascinating challenge to work on.

With CellBazaar, we approached this problem by making a virtual marketplace, accessible via the cell phone, so even a farmer in a remote corner of the country can easily and efficiently sell his bag of potatoes. The technology itself is a small piece of the puzzle. Figuring out its execution and limitations is the key.

A farmer uses CellBazaar to post his items.

What’s your philosophy for striking at poverty?

The beginning of saving is the ending of poverty.

The reason is that, when you save a dollar, when you say, “I won’t die today if I set  aside some of today’s resource for a future day,” then you belong to a different category, because you are planning and making a provision for your future.

Let me give an example to elaborate this issue. When Bangladeshi women who work, say, in a textile factory receive their salaries, one of their concerns is where to save it. They don’t have a place to save. They often give it to their husbands, brothers, or fathers for safekeeping. Even though she’s the one who earned it, she’s not fully empowered with the money she earned. bKash is a tool that can help these women become fully empowered, because it allows people to have digital accounts if they have mobile phones.

Today, Bangladesh has a good-sized middle class. If you look at some of the social indices, it’s one of the healthiest countries among the developing countries. The abject poverty where people are starving does not exist in Bangladesh anymore to a large extent. So the poverty we are addressing is a level above that. We believe we’ve come to a place where if you apply technology, the country can actually take more people to the middle-income world.

A bKash user applies the technology to save and transfer funds over her mobile phone.

There are many aspiring social entrepreneurs out there who are trying to take their passion and ideas to the next level. What is one piece of advice you would give to them based on your own experiences and successes? Learn more about how to become a great social entrepreneur from all of the TED Fellows on the Case Foundation’s Social Citizens blog.

Every country, and every community, is very different. What I find is a good way of solving problems in Bangladesh or the US may not be applicable to somewhere else. So a social entrepreneur must figure out, “What is the competitive advantage we have here?”

I spoke of Bangladesh’s tremendous mobile network before. But Bangladesh has other competitive advantages. For example, how is Bangladesh able to feed the equivalent of half the US population, from land area that is the size of the state of Wisconsin? We have farms that can be harvested four times a year. Things grow very quickly. If you have a mango seed and plant it, in a few years you’ll have a mango tree growing mangoes.

In such a populous country, our biggest resource is our people. When I do a project here, a lot of people are always involved. When I did CellBazaar, I involved hundreds of people to educate millions of people on how to use the technology.

This time, with bKash, which is a joint venture of a US company Money in Motion and BRAC Bank, I am literally deploying thousands of people to teach millions of people how to use bKash. Why spend money on expensive newspaper or television ads that may not reach the target market very well? If I teach common people to go door-to-door to teach people how to use this mobile banking, it is not only creating jobs, it’s also giving people first-hand teaching of a new technology which really cannot be taught with those expensive ads.

So finding the advantage and capitalizing on it is the important thing. Think hard and find out, “Is this my competitive advantage?”

Why did you decide to move back to Bangladesh?

I am from Bangladesh. I was born in the year Bangladesh became independent. I have a very strong connection to Bangladesh. I moved to America in 1990, and now I go back to Cambridge, Massachusetts every three months or so.

I’m comfortable working in both places. But things are really happening here in Bangladesh.  And I am motivated by working for social goals – making direct, visible improvements in people’s lives. Here, you can do a project that touches millions of people, and though it may only be one dollar per person, you create a million dollars of value.

What has the TED Fellowship meant to you?

The TED Fellowship gives a tremendous opportunity to meet people of your type of mindset, people who are engaging in your type of activities, from a common platform. It is very reassuring. It tells you that someone is encouraging you to do what you believe in doing, so continue doing it.

Your artwork is in the permanent collection at the Bangladesh National Museum. What is your favorite medium?

I did all my work on silkscreen during my senior year. I thought I would be an artist — and I still think I am an artist. I try to work quite regularly. But now given the time constraints, I prefer working with watercolors. With watercolor, you can think in your mind for a long time, and then execute the art piece in a relatively short period.

I try to use the natural flow of water. If I were painting a landscape of say, the pond in Central Park, and I saw the color on the paper moving a certain way, I try to maintain that. I don’t try to control too much. Once the natural shape takes place, I try to find the pond within that shape.

I’ll take watercolors with me when I’m traveling, sometimes even on the aircraft.

I hope my children will learn to paint. I would love to teach them when they get a bit older.