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Bangladesh: an X-factor market for social entrepreneurs Maria A. May, BRAC Social Innovation Lab

If you are the kind of social entrepreneur that likes to drink opportunity out of a fire hose, come to Bangladesh!

Dhaka, its capital city, has been ranked as the world’s most unlivable city by the Economist Intelligence Unit, not once, but several times (in 2015, it came in second to last, to Damascus).  When Bangladesh makes the international news, it is usually regarding a factory collapse or a natural disaster. And yet, for social entrepreneurs, Bangladesh offers an X factor: an environment ripe with opportunities and the potential for huge impact. 

Few places in the world are socially and economically shifting as fast as Bangladesh. Every year, Dhaka grows by half a million new residents – equivalent to the entire city of Vancouver. 

Millions more Bangladeshis live abroad and send money home, accounting for $15 billion, or eight percent of GDP a year. In addition, an increasing number of youth and educated women are entering the workforce at a staggering rate. Uniquely, most workers are self-employed. With so much in flux, social entrepreneurs will quickly realize the potential this emerging economy holds.

The future looks hopeful. The Boston Consulting Group estimates at least 30 million people will move out of poverty by 2025. With more than half the population in Bangladesh living below the poverty line, this shift will be dramatic. At this rate, an average of 8,000 people would move out of poverty every day for the next ten years. While these households will still face economic hardship, for the first time ever, their increasing wealth would allow them to pay for the products and services they need.

All of these trends offer exciting opportunities for social entrepreneurship. Housekeepers and garment factory workers want safe daycare services for their children while they’re at work. International migrants seek opportunities to build their skills to access competitive jobs abroad. Street vendors and rickshaw drivers pursue security for their markets and physical assets.

Parents look for fortified rice and healthy baby food for their family. The millions of single grocery store owners and pharmacists look to improve their management skills to establish chains or franchises. Farmers search for cold storage solutions to reduce spoilage. Aging workers need financial security for retirement. 

Solve any one of these problems at scale and you will impact hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people.

But be warned: despite a burgeoning economy, Bangladesh offers little tangible support to social entrepreneurs. Capital is tough to come by, formal licenses take time and money, and you will likely suffer from food poisoning more than once. Disruptions are the norm, but maybe that’s part of the draw: there is a special kind of creativity that emerges in resource-limited environments. 

Some have dubbed it “jugaad” or frugal innovation, essentially the ability to do more with less. Take a quick ride through Dhaka’s slums and you’ll see dozens of examples of "jugaad" in practice; faced with extreme constraints, people rely on improvisation as a way to survive. The lean start-up mindset comes naturally in an environment like this.

In addition, constraints like these can breed innovations made for scale. Increasingly, large companies like GE are looking to South Asia for guidance on how to build better low-cost products. A product that might be minimally viable in Silicon Valley could be just right for the local market: consumers aren’t looking for bells and whistles, but rather something that’s affordable and gets the job done.

This doesn’t mean dumbing products down, but rather getting deep client insights and prioritising the core functions they need. It looks like designing the equivalent of the Nokia 1100 instead of an iPhone.

The objective of social entrepreneurship is not to create the most high-tech solution, but rather to find opportunities to touch millions of lives. Bangladesh is a breathing, living, thriving lab of innovation—a perfect environment for ideas that can change the world.

Maria A. May leads BRAC’s Social Innovation Lab in Bangladesh