Iqbal Quadir: Increasing Productivity through Connectivity

This post was written by Brett Spusta, SEMBA ’17

“Connectivity is productivity,” a mantra which has guided entrepreneur Iqbal Quadir to put cell phones in the hands of over 100 million Bangladeshi people. A country once thought to be synonymous with poverty is now seeing unprecedented economic growth due, in part, to the success of Iqbal Quadir and his venture, Grameen Phone, a micro-loan based company which allows those at the base of the pyramid access to modern communication. Iqbal, who is a SEMBA advisory board member, visited the SEMBA class as part of the Entrepreneur in Residence series. He proved to be a model of the disruptive and visionary values that SEMBA represents. He demonstrated that capital is not the source of innovation and development; rather, development is the source for capital.

Iqbal outlined six well-known, well-supported problems in the developing world when adopting modern technology:

1. Poor infrastructure
2. Technology is expensive
3. Low purchasing power
4. Poor education
5. Unemployed young population
6. Poor inclusivity

He then confidently stated “cell phones — IT in general — because of Moore’s law, can compensate for all these problems.” Given these problems, how could a country that has an average annual per capita GDP of $250 even consider technology as a necessity? Experts would claim they are focused on meeting basic needs; food, water, health, and safety, not modern conveniences like a cell phone. Given the current annual GDP per capita of $1400, it would seem the experts were wrong. Cell phone connectivity provided means for specialization and exchange of gods and services, thereby improving overall productivity. Digital technology has brought billions of dollars of infrastructure investments from private companies, provided sources of income, promoted self-teaching, given the young population employment and expertise, and has naturally scaled up and increased inclusivity throughout the region.

Bringing together the ideas of classic economics from Adam Smith, Moore’s law (which states that the relative computing power will double every two years and the price of technology will fall proportionally), and his own experiences in Bangladesh and insights from everyday occurrences, Iqbal was able to envision what would become Grameen Phone and his more recent business venture, Bkash (think Venmo for the developing world). He expressed the importance of “warding off the experts”– ignoring the status quo and staying true to personal beliefs and visions. Iqbal proved naysayers wrong about the benefits of bringing a digital revolution to the developing world. The entrepreneurial activity and economic growth which have been the result of Grameen Phone and Bkash are both outstanding and awe-inspiring. Iqbal and his successful distribution of phone technology has transformed the economy in developing regions — from finance, to transportation, to education, and healthcare.