Sunday, March 16, 2008

Buoyant Bangladesh: An Emerging Investment Destination

Dr. Muhammad Yunus: The Poster boy of Brand Bangladesh
A bare utterance is being transformed into a reality. The famous saying of Dr. Muhammad Yunus (Nobel Prize-winning founder of Bangladesh’s Grameen Bank) that “We will create a poverty museum by 2030…We will start with Bangladesh” finally goes global with his pioneering micro-credit scheme to poor people with no bank account or credit history. A bank from a “third world country” is making inroads into the world’s richest country: the United States. Grameen America which launched in January 2008, has already lent a modest $145,000 to immigrant women in New York City.

That’s the Bangladesh of Dr. Muhammad Yunus, the man who has converted millions of ordinary Bangla women into “Bangla heroines” with his unique application of micro-credit techniques.
Dr. Muhammad Yunus is now the symbol of a new brand Bangladesh which is attracting tremendous investment interest.

Grameen's joint venture with Danone, one of the leading producers of nutritious food in the world, is one such example. The basic aim of the joint venture was to “improve the diet of rural Bangladeshis — especially the children” at a “low price” in order to make a “real difference in the lives of millions of people”. The joint venture is one of the finest targeted-examples of the ‘Fortune at the bottom of pyramid’ theory. (This theory is derived from the work of renowned researcher and change leader Professor C. K. Prahalad’s book ‘Fortune at the Bottom of Pyramid.’ It means that there is a vast, untapped purchasing power and demand at the lowest income levels of society and there is a fortune to be made if products are designed creatively at low cost and sold at low prices.)

The 'Bangladesh Paradox' and Emerging Investment Opportunities
Bangladesh, designated a Least Developed Nation by the United Nations in 2003 (2006 est GNP per capita at $440), has surprised investors all around the world. With a 150 million strong population and extreme poverty at the helm, it has put to rest all speculation that it was bound to fail in terms of socio-economic indicators. In spite of a troubled political history and a caretaker government in power, global banks and financial institutions paint an optimistic picture of Bangladesh.

The World Bank calls it the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’. Top-notch banks like Citi, Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan and Merrill Lynch have identified Bangladesh as a ‘key investment opportunity’. Its buoyancy can be gauged from its “bullish” image: The Dhaka Stock Exchange Index is at a 10-year high, 66 per cent up this year thus making Bangladesh Asia’s top-performer after China, leaving even a ‘resurgent’ India behind. With consistent GDP (Gross Domestic Product) growth of 7%, it is set to march ahead and become an ‘Asian Tiger’ soon.

The impressive growth overall is taking place in ‘a climate of political restructuring’ – thanks to the government’s interest in privatizing many state-owned enterprises.

Bangladesh is finally shattering its cocooned perception all across the globe. As the author-editor M.J. Akbar told DinarStandard, “If Bangladesh is slowly emerging out of the basket into which Henry Kissinger once dumped it (he called the country a “basket case”) it is because women have become the prime movers of economic development.”

Bangladesh has moved from the “basket case” towards the “bullish” case.

There are plenty of corporate houses in Bangladesh who embody the “Bullish Bangladesh” image. Rahimafrooz Group and Asian Tiger Capital Partners (popularly known as AT Capital) are two such companies who have the potential to transform Bangladesh into an ‘economic powerhouse’ and ‘Asian Tiger’ respectively.

Rahimafrooz’s Innovative Solar Energy Solutions
Rahimafrooz Group is a 50 year old modern day family conglomerate that showcases the 'Bangladesh Paradox.' In 2006, the Company had a turnover of $72.5 million and has 1700 employees and mainly deals in three areas: Automotive Aftermarket, Energy Services (including Renewable) and Retail. Its vision is to become one of the top two storage power companies in South Asia by the year 2010 and aspires to be “the most admired and trusted organization” by following “ethical business practices” and “adding value to stakeholders”.

Rahimafrooz’s innovative solar energy solution is today touching the lives of thousands of poor people in the country. It is a pilot project with the Bangladesh Atomic Energy Commission to provide solar-electricity to the remote villages of Bangladesh. As of now, more than 30,000 thousand families are supplied with solar power with the help of NGOs and International Organizations.

It was because of Rahimafrooz’s Solar Home System (SHS) that Mr. Bakaddas Mia’s family overcame the “darkness of night”. It also helped him to educate his children. Mr. Mia’s story is not unique; there are many heart-warming stories of instant transformation.

Speaking on solar energy, Munawar Misbah Moin, Group Director, Rahimafrooz told DinarStandard, “We, at Rahimafrooz, have designed solar batteries for use in small home lighting systems. In addition, we have set standards for charge controllers, inverter circuits and lamps and helped develop local production of all components other than the solar module”.
Elaborating on the variety of solar energy, he said, “Our experience ranges from Solar Home System (SHS), centralized system, vaccination refrigeration, water pumping, drip irrigation, telecom back up system, etc”.

Scope for Solar Energy
Mr. Munawar said that the scope for solar energy in Bangladesh is bright. “The rural home lighting market”, he said, “is growing robustly at the rate of 100% and the market for other customized solution is also developing”.

“We have been focusing on rural market in Bangladesh with potential of 1 Million households and so far all players have supplied SHS to 200,000 households”, he told DS.

OIC’s Potential Role for the Promotion of Solar Energy
He also talked about the prospects of Solar Energy in developing Muslim countries where there is an acute shortage of energy.“The solar proposition is feasible and sustainable in an area in any country where installation of main electrical grids is far off (15 to 20 year time)”, he said.
Mr. Munawar also suggested that institutions like the OIC (Organization of Islamic Conference), IDB (Islamic Development Bank), and Kuwait Fund could promote the use of renewable energy by providing soft loans and replicating the SHS program like Bangladesh.

“A platform like the OIC could effectively increase trade and investment between Muslim countries and together we could make platforms like ‘World Islamic Economic Forum’ more effective”, he told DS.

Currently, Rahimafrooz Solar intends to tap the local market. “But in the future we will explore the possibility of expanding into SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) and Africa as well”, he told DinarStandard.

When asked why Bangladesh is being considered an emerging investment destination, he said, “Bangladesh has immense strategic and geographical value because of possible easy access to some of the most lucrative and emerging economies, particularly India and China of the BRIC, India having the fastest emerging middle class, and China having over 1 billion people and being the fastest growing economy in the world”.

“Thus investing in Bangladesh can give access to both local and international markets”, he emphasized.

“With 95% primary enrollment and women’s empowerment on the rise, Bangladesh will never be the same”, he told DS.

Key Sectors for Investment
Mr. Munawar listed the key sectors for investment as: power, infrastructure, agriculture, textile, vocational training center, skilled manpower sourcing, sea food, light engineering for local and export markets, manufacture and export garments, and footwear related consumer products.

AT Capital brings Wall Street to Bangladesh
Asian Tiger Capital Partners – otherwise known as AT Capital – one of the first financial institutions in Bangladesh to focus on private equity and venture capital – believes that the Bangladesh has the “potential to be one if the next Asian Tigers” as the company name itself suggests.

AT Capital invests in leading companies and works with management to grow and improve them to create shareholder value.

With Ifty Islam as its founder and managing partner, AT Capital can rightly boast of “years of international professional experience with unparalleled local expertise to deliver tangible improvements” to potential investors.

A graduate of Queen’s College at Oxford, Ifty Islam has an 18-year ‘Wall Street career’ beginning with BZW Securities and serving as Managing Director at Citigroup, London from 2004-2007 where he was Head of Macro Strategy/Hedge Fund Research. From 1997-2004, he spent 8 years at Deutsche Bank Securities in London and New York, latterly as Managing Director and Chief US Strategist.

Mr. Ifty’s primary objective is “to leverage his long-term relationships with many of the world’s largest investors developed over an 18 year Wall Street career to attract substantial overseas funds to the country”.

AT Capital - "Bullish"
Although Brand Bangladesh has suffered from what Mr. Ifty calls a “perception problem”, his company intends to capitalize on the ‘Bangladesh Paradox’ where despite poverty, political turmoil and over-population, the country is making an economic splash.

Mr. Ifty considers Bangladesh’s dense population a boon rather than a bane. “With a young dynamic population, the appropriate investment and training can offer a substantial platform for outsourcing and off shoring”, he told DS.

“With export diversification from the current reliance on textiles, into a broader range of offshore manufacturing production, Bangladesh economy is growing sustainably at 8% rather than 5-6 per cent”, Mr. Ifty told DS.

AT Capital’s new Investment Funds

“We intend to invest in existing businesses with a strong domestic or export presence”, Mr. Ifty said confidently.

Elaborating further he said that the best risk-return opportunity is to establish new businesses potentially with foreign joint venture partners in sectors with substantial growth opportunities where Bangladesh has lagged behind many of its regional peers.

IT and pharmaceuticals are the two sectors which Mr. Ifty feels lag behind in comparison to other sectors like textiles where merchandise export constitutes 80% of Bangladesh’s total export.

Mr. Ifty said that in 2008, AT Capital will launch two funds aimed at overseas investors looking to gain exposure to the substantial return opportunities in Bangladesh. The AT Capital Bangladesh Strategic Opportunities Fund will invest in non-publicly listed companies and the AT Capital Market Opportunities Fund will invest in equities listed on the Dhaka and Chittagong Stock Exchanges.

In 2009, the company aims to launch two funds Viz. Bangladesh Infrastructure and Real Estate funds.In addition, dedicated mutual fund products will also be developed to allow Non-Resident Bangladeshi retail investors to gain exposure to private equity, the stock market, infrastructure, and real estate investments in Bangladesh.

The objective of the private equity fund will be to make $ 0.5 million - $ 10 million investments in non-listed companies where the fund will aim to establish a controlling stake either by itself or in syndicate with other private equity investors.As for the stock market, AT Capital will make investments in the Dhaka Stock Exchange. The market capitalization of the stock exchange currently stands at $11.3 billion, representing approximately 18% of 2006 GDP. The Bangladesh stock market is expected to increase in size in 2008 by over $5 billion with key Telecoms companies and State Owned companies expected to enter the market.

Mr. Ifty said that despite political instability, things were looking up. “Political instability”, he said, “is a concern but should lift after the next elections”.

“I think investors will be encouraged by the anti-corruption drive recently”, he emphasized.

“More fundamentally”, he elaborated, “there should be some greater clarity after December 2008 when global investors can focus on the fundamentals”.

“Political risk in EM (Equity Markets) is not a total surprise”.

Why Bangladesh?
Sharing his thoughts on why Bangladesh is an attractive investment destination, Mr. Islam listed six important reasons:

1. Demographics: A young and dynamic population of almost 150 million with extremely competitive labour costs across a broad range of sectors. Good standards of English literacy and a strong entrepreneurial ethic.
2. Global Competitiveness: Competition in textiles can be replicated in other industries with many untapped investment opportunities in new industries such as outsourcing and pharmaceuticals.
3. Investor-Friendly Regulation: An investor friendly regulatory environment and the potential for rapid development of local capital markets.
4. Natural Resources: Large natural resources in natural gas and coal and enormous investment demand for infrastructure projects across all sub-sectors.
5. Proximity: Adjacency to India and China in the heart of Asia.
6. Non-Resident Bangladeshi Community: Substantial opportunities to attract both financial and intellectual capital investment from a large non-resident Bangladeshi community.

Social reform is the first step in development of any country. The pace of social reform and empowerment of women in Bangladesh have been rightly termed as “outstanding modern miracles” of an emerging ‘Asian Tiger’.

As M.J. Akbar put it: Women are being empowered with jobs, with credit, with ownership through housing schemes; it is no longer the man who gets everything in the name of welfare. The NGOs are the vanguard of this vast churning that is slowly but surely lifting a nation once dismissed as a basket case towards a level of pride”.

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