Sherpa Hossainy's Blog

Myanmar-Bangladesh bilateral trade: Mired in lack of connectivity

Posted in Bangladesh, Banking, Business, Dhaka, Economy, Export and Import, Finance, Interviews, Investment, Myanmar, Yangon by Sherpa Hossainy on July 9, 2013

Bangladesh is keen to resolve all the barriers to trade and tap the huge potential of Myanmar, which it sees as a key regional partner and gateway to Southeast Asia, says Bangladesh Commerce Minister

Published in Myanmar Business Today (Vol 1, Issue 11) on April 4, 2013


A dearth of basic land, air and sea connectivity is daunting the prospects of boosting the bilateral trade between Myanmar and Bangladesh, the Minister for Commerce of Bangladesh said.

“The transport and communication infrastructure is very poor between Myanmar and Bangladesh despite being neighbours. We still haven’t been able to resume the air linkage and we don’t even have land links with Myanmar’s major cities. This is gravely hurting the prospects of a better trade,” GM Quader told Myanmar Business Today.

GM Quader, Minister for Commerce of Bangladesh, speaks to Myanmar Business Today during his visit to Myanmar at the Bangladesh Embassy in Yangon. Sherpa Hossainy

GM Quader, Minister for Commerce of Bangladesh, speaks to Myanmar Business Today during his visit to Myanmar at the Bangladesh Embassy in Yangon. Sherpa Hossainy

Myanmar and Bangladesh have been working to re-establish direct air link to connect Yangon and Dhaka after Biman Bangladesh Airlines, the national flag carrier of Bangladesh, suspended its flight between Dhaka and Yangon in 2007 against the backdrop of economic losses.

Bangladeshi cabinet in June last year approved a proposal for inking a deal with its Southeastern neighbour to resume direct flight service, which will allow seven passenger and four cargo flights to fly between Dhaka and Yangon every week.

“The agreement has been finalised and signed. However, Biman is not in a position financially to start a route which will take some time to become profitable, and airlines from Myanmar are also hesitant about getting into a financially risky venture,” Quader said.

During Bangladeshi Prime Minsiter Sheikh Hasina’s visit to Myanmar in 2011, the two countries agreed to develop their land, sea and air connectivity.

“These three are the biggest barriers for us. India, China and Thailand have a good connectivity structure with Myanmar in place via air, sea and land. We have to improve our connectivity if we have to improve the trade,” the Bangladeshi Commerce Minister said while visiting Myanmar last month.

When asked why Bangladesh have reacted slower than other Myanmar neighbours such as India, China and Thailand to the recent economic reform process the minister said they were “well-ahead than anyone even before the reforms began.”

“China and Thailand have basic advantages. Their manufacturing and production base is much stronger and they are way ahead than us in terms of investing in other countries.”

China is Myanmar’s biggest trading partner, followed by Thailand. Bilateral trade between China and Myanmar was worth about $3.6 billion in the fiscal year 2011-12, according to Myanmar’s Ministry of Commerce, while bilateral trade between Myanmar and Thailand stood at $4.576 billion in 2012. Myanmar-India bilateral trade reached $1.19 billion in 2009-10, making it Myanmar’s fourth largest trading partner after Thailand, China and Singapore.

Besides air linkage, Bangladesh and Myanmar also haven’t been able to develop any reliable road network in the bordering areas. However, the minister hoped that the proposed Asian Highway will hugely boost the road connectivity.

The Asian Highway project, also known as the Great Asian Highway, is a cooperative project among countries in Asia and Europe and the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), to improve the highway systems in Asia.

A sub-regional organisation of Asian nations called the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Forum for Regional Cooperation (BCIM), established in 1999 for greater integration of trade and investment between the four countries, organises a car rally, widely known as Kolkata to Kunming (K2K) car rally, to explore the potentials of expanding trade, investment and tourism, and enhance connectivity in the region along the Kolkata-Kunming route.

“We have to establish major road links with Myanmar to get access to Southeast Asia. Myanmar is our gateway to get into the markets of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia,” Quader said. Talks are also underway to allow Myanmar water vessels into Bangladesh’s inland waterways and vice versa to strengthen the sea connectivity, he added.

Asian Highway mapThe Bangladeshi minister also pointed out banking as “one of the biggest barriers” to Myanmar Bangladesh bilateral trade as there is a cap on transaction amount in place. Both countries are trying to increase border trade, which was hit hard by the recent sectarian violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

“We are planning to set up wholesale markets and warehouses along the border. Bank draft margin has also been increased from $30,000 to $50,000 to facilitate trade. These issues were not stressed that much before as the trade volume was low and there were sanctions against Myanmar banks, but now we are developing mechanisms to remove the existing obstacles,” he said.

The border trade between the two countries is still low (125 commodities) compared to the existing potential and overseas trade. About 10,000 commodities are traded along the Myanmar-China border, while about 3,000 commodities are traded in Myanmar-Thailand border trade.

During the 6th Joint Trade Commission (JTC) meeting between Myanmar and Bangladesh held in Dhaka in November last year, both countries agreed to enhance the volume of bilateral trade to $500 million from around $100 million annually.

The bilateral trade between the two neighbours amounted to only about $79 million in 2011-12 fiscal year, while it stood at $170 million in fiscal 2010-11. Bangladesh exported goods to Myanmar worth $13.45 million during the fiscal year 2011-12.

However, the volume of unofficial trade between the two countries is about $300 million per year, Border Guards of Bangladesh (BGB) sources were quoted as saying in Bangladeshi media.

Bangladesh exports steel products, light engineering machinery, cement, dry foods, medicines and cosmetics to Myanmar and imports fish, timber, spices, synthetic foot-wears, among others. Besides the formal trade, a large quantity of petroleum products, fertilisers, agricultural inputs, and automobile parts are also smuggled into Myanmar.

The minister agreed that illegal border trade has been a problem as there were no formal banking channels in place. “Businesspeople don’t want to do illegal trade. But the payment system was complicated and they had to do transactions through hundis. But we are trying to clear the restrictions now so that all businesses can be done legally.”

During the Bangladesh Prime Minister’s visit Myanmar and Bangladesh signed memorandum of understandings to establish a Joint Commission for bilateral cooperation and a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).

Bangladesh is also interested in importing power from Myanmar as a power-starved country, the Minister said. “Not only power, we have to develop all kinds of infrastructures to facilitate business. Now people do business via Singapore or Bangkok and it takes a lot of time and money for businesspeople.”

“However, we have identified the barriers and efforts are being made from both sides to overcome those,” he said.

The Bangladeshi Commerce Minister said the trade volume between Myanmar and Bangladesh hasn’t reached a satisfactory level because of former Western sanctions and economic isolation of Myanmar, but the doors for business seem to have opened again.

“The opportunities are huge in Myanmar as it’s a very resourceful country. They have abundant agricultural products such as rice, pulse and beans. They have timber, oil and gas and jade, and most of the resources are mostly untapped here,” he said.

“The biggest advantage for Bangladesh is its geographical location. Many of our products are globally well-known for their quality such as readymade garments, leather and pharmaceuticals. Even Bangladesh’s shipbuilding industry, a sector where Bangladesh is recently registering remarkable export growth, has a great potential here.”

Bangladesh is the world’s second largest readymade garment exporter behind China with annual exports of about $20 billion and its leather industry is set to cross $1-billion mark in export earnings this fiscal year. The pharmaceutical industry in Bangladesh is one of the most developed hi-tech sectors within the country’s economy, with an export amount of over $50 million.

“If we can further the ties between the businesspeople of the two countries, and from the government’s part if we can ease the existing barriers then we can definitely develop our bilateral trade at a very faster rate,” he said.

“We both have goods that we need and can provide. So, the possibilities are endless.”

However, the Minister said it would take some time for Bangladeshi investors to come and invest in Myanmar because of Bangladesh government’s “rather strict” policy towards its businesspeople investing in other countries. “Only three to four months ago we started allowing foreign investments from Bangladesh in a case-by-case basis. Investment policy from our side to outside is still too restricted.”

“However, we are interested to invest in the cement industry in Myanmar as they have available raw materials. If Bangladeshi entrepreneurs are interested and Myanmar agrees to supply the raw materials we can go ahead and set up cement factories here,” Quader said. We also welcome any Myanmar investors who are interested to invest in Bangladesh, he added.

“We are very hopeful that there will be positive development. The Bangladeshi businesspeople who came here said they received overwhelming response from the Myanmar side.

“There is a huge trade prospect for both countries. The whole world is trying to establish their presence in Myanmar now. As a next door neighbour we shouldn’t just sit idly and let the opportunities fly past,” the Minister said.


Your perception is your truth, but it’s not “the” truth

Posted in Bangladesh, Celebrity, Dhaka, Gurus, Interviews by Sherpa Hossainy on December 23, 2011

Published in Friday Features in The Independent on 23 December 2011

Read the article in Independent website

Digital print version (Page 25 and Page 31)

When we stumble upon a custom from another culture that does not tally with our proclivity we might indulge ourselves into thinking “What on earth is that?” and simply discard it as nonsense. It’s hard not to judge others and be sanctimonious rather than digging deeper or sparing a moment to understand others’ standpoints. However, while being pejorative and reaching a hasty conclusion appears to solve a dilemma quicker, it leaves a bitter taste in our mouth when it comes to cross-cultural communication.

In an exclusive interview with The Independent, renowned expert on cultural awareness and motivation, Pellegrino Riccardi, shared how empathy and understanding holds the key to successful cross-cultural communication. “Your perception is your truth, but it’s not ‘the’ truth. It’s easy to use our own standards to make a conclusion, but being judgmental doesn’t help any communication,” he said. To overcome cultural barriers, start looking for positives in other cultures, he added.

Pellegrino has had his fair share of cross-cultural exposure, as he was born to an Italian family, raised in the UK and lived and worked in Norway for the last 16 years. He recalled how he had to “switch” and “re-programme” to Italian culture after coming from a “British” school. “It was a conflict growing up as a child.  But later in life I learned it was a great advantage.” The cross-cultural communication expert travels around the world providing services for international companies and groups.

Pellegrino Riccardi at a lecture session in Ericsson office (Photo: Arild Klokkerhaug)

It was his first visit to Bangladesh, following an invitation from the Nordic Chamber of Commerce and Industry (NCCI) in Bangladesh. While here, he shared his experiences and expertise with members of top multinational companies about how culture and nationality affects communication. Pellegrino uses “edutainment”, which he believes is the magic formula for teaching along with a mixture of humor and theory.

According to Pellegrino, we have four basic needs, regardless of nationality: certainty, significance, relationship/connection, and, surprisingly, uncertainty (problems and surprises as life would be tedious if we always knew what’s coming). “While working with other cultures we react when we come across people’s actions and words that we are not prepared for,” he said, adding that people are surprised when they hear his British accent after seeing his “very Italian” name. Pellegrino said, “As humans we like our expectations to be met, we like to know what’s coming — more than we think we do.”

When people work in global companies they come across a lot of surprises, which makes international work exciting but too many surprises stress the body. Pellegrino said, “People who are culturally intelligent are good at tolerating and dealing with uncertainties.” Cultural intelligence consists of cultural knowledge, tolerating uncertainty, behavioural flexibility, being non-judgemental and self-questioning, he added.

Here’s an interesting scenario to understand the difference of interpretation of some core human values. Imagine you are in a car, which your best friend is driving. Suddenly s/he hits a pedestrian. It was purely an accident, but the pedestrian gets killed. Although it was an accident, you knew your friend was driving at 40km in a 30km zone. The case goes to court and the lawyer said that telling the court that your friend was driving at 30kmh would save her/him. The question is (answer in yes or no): Will you ‘lie’ to save your friend?

In this case, a study revealed that the percentage of people saying “no” was highest in Germany, Sweden, Norway, USA and UK; Poland, France, Italy had a lower percentage of “no” and India, Russia and Nigeria had few saying “yes”. After more extensive research Richard Lewis Communications, a communication research center, developed a cultural behaviour model, which categorises cultures in three groups — Blue, Red and Yellow — and found attributes that define a specific culture. However, a culture could also be in between these colours due to the diversity of human personalities. The colours themselves aren’t significant except as a point of reference.

Blue culture was found to be based on individualism, equality, freedom and very much linear and fact-oriented while Red culture was based on emotion, collectivism, hierarchy and more people-oriented. Yellow culture was found to be about obedience, harmony and intuition. Switzerland, Norway, Germany, USA were found to have Blue cultures while Denmark, Ireland and Australia have Blue with a touch of Red. Israel, South Africa, France, Russia were more close to Red while Portugal, Italy, Spain, Mexico, Nigeria were found to be Red. In the spectrum, Bangladesh, Turkey, Iran, India and Pakistan were close to Red with a touch of Yellow. UK, Sweden, Finland and Canada are also close to Blue and Korea, Thailand, China and Vietnam belong to Yellow.

Pellegrino Riccardi at a lecture session (Photo: Arild Klokkerhaug)

Truth or integrity in some cultures may be interpreted in a different way than another, none of which are necessarily bad. It depends on perspective. “About flexible truth you have to get around the cultural aspect and understand there is a positive intention,” Pellegrino said. The perception of Blue culture about the Reds is that you can’t trust them but to think from a Red perspective, Blues can’t be trusted because they’ll not be there for you in a difficult situation like the car accident scenario. But we are programmed to do our best and behind any behaviour there is usually a positive intention, Pellegrino said.

System, institution and rules play an important part in Blue life and there is a policy of “zero tolerance”. Blues believe systems work and they can be perfect, though pragmatically they never are. The important commodity in Red culture is “people” whereas Blues choose personal attachments carefully because it gets harder saying no, if you are too close. In order to make the Blue system work there has to be a distance maintained. “Blues communicate in a straight line, when there is unpredictability they become insecure. The recent financial crisis is all about Blue cultures getting nervous about volatility and that is very infectious,” Pellegrino said.

In cross-cultural communication, body language plays a crucial role. Research has shown that when people communicate, as much as 55 per cent of the message is communicated through body language and 38 per cent through tone of voice. Only 7 per cent is through words. Thus, without tone and body language the chances of misunderstanding and misinterpretation increase dramatically. For reds, it is important to make clear how they feel and for blues it’s about control and composure. “Some things considered normal in Red culture would be regarded as violent outburst in Blue societies. So there could be lot of misinterpretation between the Reds and Blues,” Pellegrino said.

Another important trait of Red culture is collectivism, which the individualist blue culture perceives rather negatively, thinking it makes everyone slow. There was an interesting poster from an anti-Obama campaign when he tried to introduce the welfare system where everybody pays tax and the money goes for the ones who need it. The anti-Obama slogan read: “Collectivism is slavery”.

Nevertheless, the communication skills trainer thinks there’s way for both the cultures to work in cohesion by understanding each other’s strength. Individualists are innovators; they are good at pushing forward, while collectivists are great team workers, which says a lot about having more production in Asia, Pellegrino said. “Blues seem to have forgotten how to be collective, how to work together.” However, Pellegrino thinks “money has a lot to do with individualism” and it is hard to say if Red cultures like India or Bangladesh would lose collectivism if people start earning more. The recent financial crisis, however, has dealt a blow to individualism, he thinks.

Pellegrino Riccardi speaking at a lecture session in Ericsson office (Photo: Arild Klokkerhaug)

Pellegrino also shared his views about the extreme power distance and hierarchical structure that exists in Red culture that he says works as a “fear factor”. “In a Red culture it is very difficult to be honest upwards. It creates friction and an underlying communication problem,” he said. “It’s a basic need for human to be able to say what they think. By that you get to know each other better,” Pellegrino said.

In Red cultures “togetherness” also leads to nepotism but Pellegrino said the Blue cultures should not feel too self-righteous. “It’s everywhere. In Germany two-thirds of all jobs are acquired through personal contact. Reciprocity in Blue culture is ‘corruption’ or ‘networking’ at best. It’s all the same, just different labels.” Pellegrino thinks there is a greater need for multinational companies to find out how corporate values differ around the world. “The values created in Stockholm would not always translate completely in a Red culture — there will always be a local flavour,” he said.

Pellegrino also provides training on motivation and negotiation skills. He said negotiation focuses on understanding others’ perceptions. “We should try to see others’ problems from their point of view. The question is are we willing to go there and take the risk of understanding how others see it?” He said negotiators sometimes think they are right and understanding others would make them weak. “But negotiation is not about winning, it’s about finding a common solution,” he said.

Pellegrino hopes that people will understand more about cultural differences after his sessions and they will learn to appreciate different ways of interacting and thinking of different people. You can even disagree but once you start judging people, you cease to communicate, he said. “People find it difficult to change, unless they have to; they still have to adapt to every culture they work around.”

Stressing the need to give significance to others, Pellegrino said: “Sometimes while communicating we forget to give importance to others, which we should do to be better connected. When we stop giving each other significance, relationships fail. We have to learn to coexist and try to understand one another; that’s the only way to grow.”  Pellegrino thinks some become conceited thinking that they are from a supposedly better culture and they have seen it all, but this approach never helps — the onus is always on an individual to learn about other cultures. “Whoever is coming to Bangladesh has to learn about Bangladeshi culture, it is not the other way around,” he said. “Every culture has its ‘good’, ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ side. End of the day we all have similarities as well, lest we forget that.”

Solar Cold Storage – a new horizon for farmers

Posted in Bangladesh, Business, Energy and power, Interviews, Renewable energy, Technology by Sherpa Hossainy on September 14, 2011

Published in The Independent on 9 September 2011

Read the article on Independent website
Digital print version

Farmers in Bangladesh might finally get free from the clutches of hoarders and middlemen, thanks to a novel green technology — solar cold storage.

The impoverished farmers are most often denied fair prices during harvesting season as they are forced to sell off their produce to unscrupulous middlemen, who stockpile and sell those at much higher prices later.

Bangladesh Clean Technology Company Ltd (BCTCL) is going to introduce new solar-based micro cold storages in Bangladesh at affordable prices in a bid to give the farmers a chance to store their produce and save themselves from the menacing grip of hoarders.

“The opportunists take advantage of farmers’ inability to store their produce. So they count big losses and sell their produce at a much lower price to the cold storage owners,” said Iqbal Sufi, managing director of BCTCL.

The hoarders usually store the produce for a few months and sell it later at four to five times higher prices. The farmers and customers get extorted and exploited in the process, Sufi added.

“Instead of the traditional cold storages that are used to store potatoes, we are going to introduce micro cold storages. Such cold storages can be used to store any kinds of vegetable, fruit and other agro-products,” said Sufi.

A traditional 1,000-tonne cold storage costs about Tk 3.5 crore ($473,970) and consumes a large amount of electricity. They are rarely used to store any other agro-products except for potatoes in Bangladesh.

Micro cold storages are usually 100-500 tonnes in size and run solely by solar power. It has a backup generator, which is only used initially to achieve the standard cooling temperature.

A 100-tonne capacity micro cold storage costs around Tk 35 lakh ($47,400) and there is little or no electricity cost incurred.

Infrastructure Development Company Ltd (IDCOL) has expressed interest to finance the project with assistance from the World Bank’s renewable energy development funds. BCTCL will submit the project proposal to IDCOL within a week and Sufi expects to start the project one or two months after the official paperwork is done.

The company is planning to introduce four 500-tonne capacity cold storages in Rangpur, Jessore, Munshiganj and Savar in the first phase and also aims to introduce those all over Bangladesh, even in Hatia island where it can be used to store dried fishes.

The World Bank will provide 50 per cent subsidy to the poor farmers who will buy the micro cold storages directly. Thirty per cent of the money will be given as loan at six per cent interest rates, which has to be paid back within six years. The rest 20 per cent, which is around Tk 3-4 lakh, has to be paid at the beginning.

Sufi said there are many farmers who can afford to pay the first down payment. “There are plenty of people who live abroad and upon coming back to Bangladesh invest their hard-earned money in risky ventures without thinking it through.

“They can invest their money to buy this cold storage and store their produces. Also, they can rent out space in such solar-run storage to the farmers who want to store their produces,” he said.

The micro solar cold storages can be used all year round unlike the traditional ones, which are only operational 8-9 months and used as one-time solution.

Sufi said: “If someone keeps a sack of potato for a whole season he can get Tk 300 as rent; whereas using micro solar cold storage you can store dry chillies, which are becoming increasingly popular as a all-year-round produce, and get Tk 500.”

The power consumption to store dry chillies is almost one third of potato and it is more profitable to store them than potato, he added. In these multi-purpose cold storages farmers can also opt for storing imported vegetables and hybrid seeds, and they can store four different types of produce at the same time.

“We have done the practical research and feasibility study and it is obviously much more profitable than the traditional potato cold storages,” Sufi said. A farmer can get back his investments within three to four years, he pointed out.

Unlike typical cold storages, which sprang up all around Bangladesh, solar cold storages are significantly energy-efficient and have modern designs.

“The existing structures of the cold storages are at least a hundred years old. You will not see this technology anywhere in the world nowadays,” said the BCTCL boss.

The ammonia-based traditional cold storages are only suitable for potatoes only, as other produces are affected by the leaked ammonia inside the storage.

Sufi said there is a need to get out of the trend of building potato cold storages, and put attention towards other agro-products such as tomato and chilli.

“The climate of this country makes vegetables and other produces quickly perishable. You either have to eat them or sell them at low prices within two days,” he said.

Sufi believes now it is the time to build the infrastructure to save the farmers and ensure fair prices for their products.

“The farmers won’t be able to hold on to their produces if they don’t have storages of their own. We are introducing the technology keeping this in mind,” he said.

Beach house export prospect bright

Posted in Bangladesh, Business, Export and Import, Interviews by Sherpa Hossainy on September 4, 2011

Published in The Independent on 4 September 2011

Read the article on Independent website

Digital print version

“Sometimes I find it hard to believe that I export such an unusual product,” said Anowarul Islam, managing director of Pioneer Group, as he explained export prospects of an unconventional product — beach house.

As the name suggests, beach houses are small huts placed by beaches, used for refreshment, taking foods and changing by the beach-goers as they enjoy the sun-bathing.

Islam told The Independent that earlier he was reluctant to share the concept with anyone because there are some “idea-thieves” in Bangladesh. “Now we are an established company and I feel there is a need to share,” he added.

Raw material for beach house (hay)

The lone exporter of beach houses, Pioneer Overseas Corporation (POC), a sister concern of Pioneer Group, started exporting beach houses in 2006 on a trial basis after a Bulgarian company expressed interest to buy the exceptional product.

Islam said POC, established in 1982, was mainly involved in exporting kite-parts made of bamboo, mainly to Pakistan. Through one of his Pakistani clients he met a Bulgaria-based company Baron Ltd representative, who was impressed by the motifs of the old-style small village huts made of bamboo and hay — known as “Kachari Ghor” in Bangladesh.

Raw material for beach house (hay)

“The Bulgarian buyer said there is a big demand for such houses in Europe and wanted us to make something similar,” Islam said. It was so successful and profitable that the company never looked back.

The raw materials of beach houses are primarily bamboo poles and sticks, paddy straw and hay. “The raw materials are purely natural and local; we don’t use any imported item,” said Islam.

So far POC has exported 400 such houses, which are usually 10’X10’ in size, mainly to Bulgaria, Croatia and Pakistan. The total export volume of POC now stands at $450,000.

“Last year we made 75 shipments, and this year 37 shipments are completed and 100 more are in the pipeline,” he said. Manufacturing cost of one beach house is around $1,500-2,000, depending on the intricacy of design.

The house parts like roof, bamboo poles and walls are shipped usually in 40′ containers and get assembled abroad.

As the world now shifts to using more eco-friendly products, demand for bamboo-made beach houses are surging exponentially. “Beach houses have a high demand in sea-side hotels and resorts in Europe nowadays,” he said.

Islam said that big orders for temples — a collection of beach houses which can accommodate 100 to 150 people as opposed to 10’X10’ beach houses which are for couples — are coming in but material and manpower shortage poses a big problem. “It’s a big project, we have orders, but we can’t take them as this will require more money, manpower, complex designs and raw materials,” he said.

Currently POC is working with a workforce of 500 craft persons, but the figure was only 20 when it started. “Mostly indigenous people are employed by us as they are really adroit at this,” Islam said.

Most manufacturing takes place in Rangamati, Kaptai, Chittagong and Sunamganj where good quality raw materials are available, he added.

As demand rises, the beach house manufacturing might face a raw material crunch as production of quality bamboo is few and far between. “We need 1,000,000 bamboos every year, and we are trying to lease 100 to 150 hills in Rangamati to cultivate bamboos,” Islam said.

POC only could get lease of six hills as the government seems unenthusiastic about POC’s venture and more interested to lease the hills for cultivation of rubber, a much-vaunted export item.

Islam said: “We are the only one with an application. No one really knows much about it and does not appreciate what we are doing.  “If we can produce quality bamboo in our own hills, our costs will come down and we can take more orders.”

Roof of a beach house

Naming India, Indonesia and Vietnam as the biggest market players globally, Islam said there is a need to use improved tools to accelerate the manufacturing process.

“One labourer can only cut 120 pieces of bamboos a day using manual tools, whereas in a foreign country 1,000 can be cut because of availability of superior tools,” he said.

Anowarul Islam sought government incentives and effective policies to boost the production of bamboos to have adequate supply of raw materials. Recently the commerce minister said the government will declare handicrafts as a thrust sector and exempt it from all existing value added tax to boost its exports.

The global handicrafts market is $120 billion and the present export volume of handicrafts from Bangladesh is merely $4.47 million.

“We have spoken to the chairman of National Board of Revenue, the Environment Ministry and the International Business Forum of Bangladesh for support and we hope this new product will catch the high-ups’ attention,” Islam said.

The beach house export also involves other handicrafts item as they are used to decorate those houses.

“It’s not that only beach houses are exported; there are many decorative items needed for the house like flower vase and wall mat, which are also exported.

“Now we are also providing Nakshikatha to add aesthetic value to the beach houses; so beach house exports will also help other handicraft items’ export to grow,” Islam added.

You can hear the sound of a clock ticking

Posted in Bangladesh, Climate change, Dhaka, Environment, Interviews, Renewable energy by Sherpa Hossainy on July 30, 2011

My interview with UK govt Climate Envoy John Ashton

Published in The Independent (Op-ed page) on 29 July 2011

Read the article on The Independent website

Digital print version

The voice of urgency on climate change, despite being a globally burning issue, is yet to be widely heard in Bangladesh. The correlation of climate change with global economy, food and international security and human existence are appearing to be far more complex and steadily demanding action from a politically motivated force.

Unfortunately, few countries are so directly exposed than Bangladesh to some of the stresses that eventually everyone will be feeling as a result of climate change, if a successful response can’t be summoned. However, building a coalition of highly ambitious forces and putting political momentum into the issue is posing to be a great challenge for climate change diplomacy.

In a mission to build the much needed political response for a stronger cooperation, John Ashton, international climate politics expert and British Foreign Secretary William Hague’s Special Representative for Climate Change, came to Bangladesh recently.

“My goal is to work with like-minded people around the world to push up the level of ambition in the global response to climate change,” John Ashton told The Independent in an exclusive interview. Ashton lamented that in nearly 15 years of his involvement in this issue he can’t remember of a time when the available political momentum globally had been lower than it is now.

“You could even say that we have hardly begun to respond to this challenge at the scale we need to. It’s human nature to focus on the important at the expense of the urgent, and there are so many distractions that people regard as important,” he said.

John Ashton, William Hague’s Special Representative for Climate Change

Describing climate change as a “multiplier of stresses”, Ashton said that it’s a widely made mistake to regard climate change as a separate set of issues that are not intimately connected with other stresses society is dealing with.

Ashton said it would be interesting to see if the two main political parties in Bangladesh can transcend the deep and bitter political rivalry between them and focus on the mission.

“I think I’m fortunate to come from a country where there is a cross party consensus,” said Ashton, referring to his appointment by a Conservative Foreign Minister even after representing two previous Labour Party Foreign Secretaries in the UK. Although it is a very political role, it’s a non-party political role, he said.

Ashton said it’s imperative to pull a finely resilient carbon neutral global economy through effective politics based on a legally binding framework.

“When governments or politicians make voluntary promises it does not fill people with confidence that they will try to the limits to carry out that promise even if there are distractions. We need them to make promises that people can have faith in. That’s why this battle between legally binding and voluntary is so important,” the diplomat said.

Following the watershed at the climate talks in Copenhagen 2009, Ashton remained unconvinced about a fully fledged legally binding framework as an outcome of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban, South Africa, in December this year.

“This is an extremely difficult political subject that would take years to construct. I hope we can come out with a higher degree of confidence that would lead to a legally binding project,” he said.

Responding to a question whether Bangladesh would be able sustain its growth in a low carbon economy Ashton said there is no contradiction between simultaneously wanting to have high growth and a carbon resilient growth.

“Both could be mutually reinforcing if we do it the right way. It is better to use the efficient form of energy which is low carbon rather than the inefficient energy,” he said.

Ashton cited example of the new Chinese five-year plan, which focused more on the quality of growth rather than the quantity after Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao termed the country’s economic model as “uncoordinated, unbalanced and unsustainable”.

“There’s a growing realisation that if you don’t pay attention to the quality of growth you may find that the price of having very rapid growth in a very short term is that your growth then collapses, because it contains the seeds of its own destruction,” he said.

John Ashton, UK Govt climate envoy

Voicing optimism about the prospect of renewable energy in Bangladesh, Ashton said that an enormous amount can be done with the available opportunities as they don’t require a huge capital, or technologies that are not yet invented.

“I’m a bit puzzled why there are no solar water heaters in Bangladesh. In China and South America nearly every house has them. They are extremely cheap and in warm countries they can provide all the hot waters needed.” Ashton said.

Advising on Bangladesh’s 2.5 billion tonnes of high quality coal resource in its northern districts, Ashton said it would be wrong to exclude coal although it sits right at the heart of the problem.

Coal is still a very important part of the power generation worldwide. In Germany 50 per cent of all electricity comes from coal, in UK it is about 30 per cent, in America and China it’s 50 and 83 per cent respectively.

Ashton pointed out power crisis as a “particular bottleneck” for Bangladesh and said there are two things to do about coal: one is to move away from coal to lower carbon gas or other renewable; and another is to use it but increasingly apply carbon capture storage (CCS) technology that will make coal carbon-neutral.

“If you have suitable geological conditions for CCS, you can ask the donors and international financial institutions to fund for coal-fired power stations with CCS to become a part of the first-wave of CCS in the world,” Ashton advised, asking to seek help from the climate financing fund of World Bank and Department for International Development (DFID).

“World Bank can pay for the additional costs so that building such a power station is no more costly than a conventional one. It is clearly not reasonable to expect Bangladesh to pay the additional costs of CCS,” he said.

Ashton rebutted the claim of CCS technology being unproven, terming it as “nonsense” and said, “This is not some over-the-horizon technology; this is something that has been on use for a long time in an industrial scale.”

Although Ashton said that he holds no ideological standpoint on whether grants or loans should be given to the vulnerable countries to deal with climate change, rather he opted to go for the suitable financing mechanism available.

“You need a mixture of grants and loans, and you need to make sure that you are using the balance which is suitable for particular circumstances,” he said.  The climate envoy said: “The development community in the industrialised countries needs to take this much more seriously that there is a significant component of adaptation funding that has to be grant based.”

The UK is trying to help in this regard from a moral imperative and climate change is about responding to a deep inequity, he added.

“Those countries which will suffer the most, the soonest, and have the least capacity to deal with the consequences tend to be the countries which have contributed the least to the problem. Unless it’s reflected in the responses we would not be able to gain trust in the international system,” Ashton said.

But he stressed on maintaining a very high degree of transparency so that people can see whether they can be sure to put the money in, and the money don’t get diverted elsewhere.

He said there are some more areas where there is far more sensible to use loan – because it’s easier to bring business-based approach, and private sector players who will give you more efficiency in the interventions.

Urging everyone to build a century of cooperation Ashton said: “We have to learn to define ourselves and our various national identities on the basis of what we all have in common, rather than on the basis what divides us.

Ashton said: “The key is to try and build a willingness to see these problems through each others eyes. If we try to do this just on the basis of a negotiation, where we send negotiators in a big resort in Bali, or in a conference centre in Durban, we don’t learn very much about the realities.”

Putting the onus of a carbon resilient economy on the developed nations, Ashton said, “It is incumbent upon the high carbon and particularly industrialised economies to take the lead in mapping the path for a low-carbon growth model.

John Ashton, William Hague’s Special Representative for Climate Change, in an interview with The Independent

“Everybody’s life is going to be touched very significantly by climate change. The only legitimate conversation to have is one in which everyone has a voice — a global conversation.”

Describing the global spike in grain prices in 2008, following a drought in large part of Australia, one of the world’s leading grain producers, as “a prequel of what to come”, Ashton said the existing double-digit food price inflation in Bangladesh could take a grave shape if the climatic extremes are not dealt urgently. Last year in Russia, heat wave and drought led the Russian government to ban the exports of wheat that saw an immediate surge in international prices of wheat.

On the flipside of the climate change issue, there is an “anti climate change” sect who claim that the issue is a “fairy tale” and the earth will take care of itself. Blasting those critiques, Ashton said: “There are people who still say that the earth is flat. For some there is more cynical motivation because they want to prevent certain actions being taken.

“If you just dismissively say I don’t care about it, it seems to me a deeply immoral position and unacceptable according to the political morality of every society that shares this.”

Making living out of nothing at all

Posted in Bangladesh, Business, Dhaka, Industries, Interviews by Sherpa Hossainy on February 5, 2011

Published in The Daily Star’s Business section (in the special page — Business Life) on 31st January 2011

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MD Shahjahan, 50, a father of three, has been in the metal handicrafts business for 27 years. It was 1983 when he came to Dhaka from Noakhali to try and make a living.

“I saw some people selling scrap products to the shops here and I got interested. I thought why not give it a shot,” says Shahjahan. He started doing the work of a broker in partnership with his friend who also owns a shop now in the Gulshan 2 DCC market.

Once upon a time, the scrap selling business was not that well known. Very few people were involved. “I used to sell products at shops in Gulshan and even to individuals. Then I started to run the business from this shop, Hossain Handicrafts. It was 1990.”

“One can’t climb a palm tree with a leap. You have to climb slowly, and I did,” Shahjahan says, explaining his success in business in the past. But those days are long gone now, he adds.

“Almost all the shops you see around here are incurring losses. There are no products, no customers. Some shops can’t even sell a single item in 5 to 7 days. Although, if new ships come in, sales picks up as lots of buyers come and get them,” he says.

“But that seldom happens. Look around my shop, I can show you products which are here unsold for 10 years or even 15 years.”

Replicas of deities are displayed at a shop in Dhaka.

According to Shahjahan, sales in a month can sometimes go up to Tk 300,000 while at other times, can drop to Tk 150,000. “Now a days, we sell for the sake of selling, with very little margin,” he says.

“Its tough to live by this trade and feed my family with the income from this business. But I have to keep on doing it because I am used to it. I have brothers who live abroad and send me some money. So I get by.”

Shahjahan blames a price hike of metals, and low demands due to customers’ unwillingness to buy metal products for the slump in sales and profit margins.

He wants more ships to come into the country so that the industry gets the fancy products, like watches, chests and compasses, and scrap metals.

“If ships come in, we will survive, the re-rolling mills will survive. If there are harmful substances, steps should be taken and technologies bought in, so that the ships can be broken safely. If the government provides opportunities, it is possible.”

He says many labourers are becoming unemployed as construction works are being hampered due to the increasing prices of rods, for a low supply of scraps. “If you go to the Notunbazar labour market, you’ll see thousands of labours unemployed even at 12 pm.”

“The re-rolling mills are shutting down and people are getting unemployed. If people don’t get food in their stomach they will do anything, so the crime rate will also go up.”

Shajahan pondered, “If someone is working, his mind is occupied but an idle brain is devil’s workshop. If I’m not addicted to work, I will be addicted to something else.”

Raw passion for heavy metal: Interview with Powersurge, the thrash metal militia of Bangladesh

Posted in Bangladesh, Heavy Metal, Interviews, Music, Thrash Metal by Sherpa Hossainy on November 1, 2010

Published in The Daily Independent’s “Dhaka Live” supplement on 23rd October 2010

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A skull rests at the entrance of the practice pad where Powersurge, Bangladesh’s most successful thrash metal band, are rehearsing, it seemed to whisper a warning, “Caution – explosives inside!”  Vocalist Jamshed appeared at the door sweating and panting heavily, followed by the long-haired lead guitarist Nahian and drummer Rafa. The heat is surely on. The heavy metal music scene has a relatively long history in Bangladesh but it is so under-documented that a Google search on the topic brings forth articles about arsenic pollution!

Powersurge performing in “Concert for Sundarbans”

In the early 80s, bands like Rockstrata and Warfaze rocked Dhaka but it was only in the 90s that the scenario burst into life with Cryptic Fate, Holocaust and Psycho Death playing regular gigs at venues such as the PG Auditorium and the Russian Cultural Center (RCC). Since then heavy metal music in Bangladesh has been resurrected by the likes of Artcell and Mechanix.

Powersurge formed in 2006 and despite various line-up changes, Jamshed and Nahian have stuck with it. In 2007 they became the ‘D-Rockstar’ winners, beating out competition from bands playing more popular genres such as alternative, punk and psychedelic rock. They were the first heavy metal band to perform on Bangladeshi television and the response was stupendous. Speaking about the positive reaction Nahian says, “We expressed our emotions with a raw aggressiveness. After the competition, a viewer told me that he had never heard heavy metal music before and started listening to Metallica after he heard us.”

Nahian in action: Concert at North South University Campus

The American Rock music writer Deena Weinstein stated heavy metal outlasted other genres in the West because its intense subculture of alienation holds a lasting appeal for many.  While heavy metal is the music for the lower and middle class in the West, in Bangladesh things are different, where it’s the upper-class youths, with exposure to Western trends who dominate the scene.  Fans and performers are often identified by their uniform of all black, long hair, piercings and tattoos, but that’s a stereotype best avoided, or is it? Clarifying whether heavy metal is more of a fashion rather than a passion, Nahian states, “For us, it’s a passion. But, yes, we see a lot of posers who think that metal is a cool new thing to do, just like hip-hop.”

“There are many posers lurking around the scene.” Jamshed adds for good measure. Nahian thinks that many of the bands lack authenticity, “They don’t even look like the way they should and the attitude is missing. Some bands switch genres whenever they want, create their own weird fusions, so they don’t belong in any category – they sound like parasites.”

The highly explicit lyrics and subversive nature of the music, with its focus on angst is unprecedented in other forms. Powersurge’s lyrics are about politics, war, social troubles and historical conflicts in Bengal.  Though metal lyrics often deploy a fiery use of slang and swearing, Jamshed disagrees, “It’s not true that slang must be used in metal music. Slang is used in every genre, even Britney does it. We use slang to give our music the aggression that is needed. It’s about what brings out the emotions best.”

Heavy metal has been denounced as a threat to traditional values in many Muslim countries such as Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon and Malaysia, with musicians and fans arrested and imprisoned. Rafa comments on this, “Islam does not allow music. But I don’t believe there should be a clash between religion and music.” Jamshed echoes the sentiment, “Music is only music, and it’s nothing that you preach.”

The band does not believe that Bengali culture hinders the growth of metal music any more than other cultures. Nahian points out, “Heavy metal is not appreciated in many countries. Even in India, Slayer [one of the most successful metal bands of all time] was not allowed to perform due to religious sentiments.”

After two decades of head banging, unfortunately the Bangladeshi metal scene hasn’t made a mark on the global music scene laments Nahian, “Bangladeshi bands haven’t even impacted the Asian scene. This is partly due to local record labels lacking the ability to produce proper merchandise. CDs in Bangladesh are cheaper and there’s no jewel case, no t-shirts, no leaflets, collectibles or other merchandising. And there are no specific gigs just for metal music. Many shows feature extreme metal bands performing with alternative rock bands so it gets all messed up.”

The explosive headbangers: Nahian (L) and Samir (R)

The band further mourns the absence of music promoters in Bangladesh specifically promoting metal bands. Nahian rued this fact, “Everyone wants to play the guitar or drums but nobody wants to promote metal – there are so few organizers.” They hope that the media will provide more support for heavy metal, Jamshed demands, “All we need is an hour long radio program each week. FM radio stations have segments for all genres except metal.”

Powersurge’s first album, “Auprostut Juddho,” was dubbed a “masterpiece of modern thrash metal.” Commenting on their devotion to heavy metal, Nahian said, “I want to play heavy metal as long as I can physically endure it.” While reflecting on the band’s popularity, he states, “We’ve made some achievements, but achievements have no limitations, right?”

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