Ahad Mohammad Bhai and Navidul Huq’s shared love of film began when they were teenagers. The pair first learned to edit video at the American International School in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where they filmed school trips and made their own short documentaries. Both went to North America to study — Bhai, film, and Huq, at the insistence of his father, business. After graduating, they found themselves back in Dhaka. Huq went to work for his family’s garment-manufacturing-to-IT conglomerate, the Mohammadi Group; Bhai started a company offering web development and digital marketing. But neither was fully satisfied. Bhai, in particular, was fascinated by the business of film — he would often visit the film data site Box Office Mojo, which he used to dissect the financial performance of movies.

In the U.S., the rise of Netflix was driving cord cutting — consumers’ dumping of expensive cable TV subscriptions because they just weren’t watching them — and they figured it was a matter of time before the trend arrived in the subcontinent. 

In 2013, they struck out alone, aiming to build a streaming platform for Bangla content, aimed at the Bangladeshi diaspora. It soon became clear how hard that would be.

“We just didn’t realize how much work we’d have to do to get to that point,” says Huq. “There was no infrastructure.”

What they built isn’t Netflix. Global streaming services have arrived in Bangladesh, competing with Indian platforms such as Zee5 and Hoichoi as well as several local players. All of them have vied for the attention of a small number of middle-class consumers: those with disposable income, credit cards, and stable internet access. Bhai and Huq’s platform, Bongo, has gone for mass appeal, aiming to reach the low-income earners who make up the bulk of Bangladesh’s consumer economy, where the average per capita income is less than $2,500 a year.

Focusing on reaching these consumers has allowed them to carve out a unique space in a region that is already saturated with video platforms. To do so, they have had to rethink how content gets made, recruiting YouTube influencers, buying up back catalogues of movies, and producing crowd-pleasing dramas for subscribers who pay less than $1 per month. Media industry critics have dismissed this content as lowbrow, but audiences have flocked to the platform. In April, in the lead-up to the Muslim festival of Eid, and when the country was in a lockdown to rein in the spread of the novel coronavirus, Bongo says it surpassed a billion views across all its platforms, including the YouTube channels it manages. According to its figures, that number now hovers around 990 million per month. Plus, Bongo is profitable, the company says.

Huq and Bhai have had to solve huge problems of connectivity and access, at times working with telecoms companies to build the infrastructure for streaming from scratch. In doing so, they seeded the development of a new kind of film and TV business in Bangladesh.

“The industry had to be developed,” says Solaiman Alam, chief digital and strategy officer at Grameenphone, the country’s biggest telecom operator and Bongo’s first client. “They’re pioneers.”

Bongo has aimied to reach the daily wage-earners that make up the bulk of Bangladesh’s consumer economy.
Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty Images

Bangladesh’s film industry has been shrinking over the past two decades. Hundreds of cinemas have shut down, as wealthier citizens preferred multiplexes screening a mix of international and local films, over independent theaters. Lower-income consumers are growing supporters of the Bangla movie business, as their spending power has increased in step with the country’s economic growth.

When Bhai and Huq started to approach studios, few of them had even considered digital streaming. The standard response they got was “We’ve already sold the DVD rights.” Because few studios knew how to value their digital rights, Huq and Bhai were able to acquire a vast library without much outlay. That library came to include some prized properties — including the 2009 blockbuster “Monpura,” a multiple-award-winning romantic tragedy. 

The company had to spend hours painstakingly digitizing the content from video cassettes and DVDs as well as organizing the metadata so that the library was searchable by actor, director, or producer. The effort still pays off, as this back catalogue remains a major draw for viewers.

Sourcing the content was the easy part. To get off the ground, they had bought an off-the-shelf streaming system from a U.S. technology company — but it was designed for high-end smartphones running on fast internet, not for Bangladesh’s creaky 2G networks. In 2013, only around 35,000 people were active internet subscribers, mostly through their mobile phones, according to data from the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission; 3G networks were rolled out in 2013, but services and compatible handsets were costly and adoption was slow.

An early photo of Ahad Mohammad Bhai (left) and Navidul HuqRakuten (right) visiting the offices of American video streaming website Viki for inspiration.
Courtesy of Mohammadi Group

“We faced a challenge almost immediately and knew we’d soon run out of money,” says Huq. It was an important lesson — both not to rely on pre-built systems and to build in-house to make sure it fit the reality on the ground. “Early on, we figured out we couldn’t depend on other vendors because of how Bangladeshi internet was, the low-end phones, the poor internet,” Huq says.

The company had to tear up its plans and start developing its own platform. Huq and Bhai were sitting on a growing catalogue of content with no way to monetize it. Their answer was simply to upload a portion of it to YouTube. 

It began as an experiment, but soon they were approached by influencers, content creators, and production companies who had their own YouTube channels but were struggling to get traction. Bongo assembled its own team, trained by YouTube and specializing in search engine optimization, design, and copyright protection, which it offered to “channel partners” under a revenue-sharing agreement.

Bongo was able to resolve a critical problem for its partners: payments. Bangladesh has foreign-exchange restrictions that make it tedious for individuals to receive payments from businesses overseas. Since Bongo Holdings, the website’s parent company, is registered in Singapore, it offered to serve as the payment gateway for its YouTube partners. If Google in Singapore had to pay a YouTuber in Dhaka, it could do so through Bongo.

“It has worked out very well for us and for them,” says Bhai. 

Today, Bongo manages more than 450 YouTube channels. Among them is a channel run by Tawhid Afridi, one of the top social media influencers in the country, with more than 3.5 million subscribers. Skinny, with perfectly coiffed hair, the sides razored thin — a style sported by most of the top cricketers in the country — Afridi was filming a web series for Bongo on a recent August afternoon in his ancestral village near Barishal, approximately 180 kilometers from Dhaka, when he spoke with Rest of World.

Afridi, whose father owns a Bangla-language TV station in the country, grew up wealthy in Dhaka and started making vlogs for YouTube five years ago, when he was 17. “Bangladesh didn’t have any vlogs at that time, and people were like, What is he doing?” he recalls. He became one of the most popular YouTubers in the country but wasn’t earning any money, partly because of copyright claims on his work. About four years ago, he approached Bongo, which offered to help him with the business side of his channel. Since then, he has been making a minimum of $3,000 per month. Bongo pockets at least 10% of his YouTube revenue on projects they work on together. He also makes content exclusively for Bongo’s own streaming service.

“Bongo showed me how to earn, and that’s the best thing that has happened to me,” he says. “People always said, He’s living on his father’s money, but I haven’t taken any money from him since I started earning,” he says, the excitement audible in his voice.

While their business on YouTube took off, Huq and Bhai kept working on improving the infrastructure needed for consumers to watch videos on their phones. They used a satellite downlink to get the feeds, as well as their own servers. They had developed their own software to stream content at variable internet speeds and on a range of devices. They also partnered with more than 1,100 internet-service providers in a process known as “peering,” where ISPs connect and exchange traffic directly so that a video can travel quickly and clearly to the viewer.

In 2015, they caught another break. Grameenphone asked them to build it a streaming app, Bioscope. The telecommunication provider wanted to see if adding content to its packages would increase revenue per user, a key metric for the industry, Grameenphone’s Solaiman Alam says. Bioscope officially launched in 2017.

In 2019, Bioscope’s systems were tested to the limit after Grameenphone won the right to livestream the Cricket World Cup, a 46-day event that attracts huge audiences across the subcontinent. 

Bongo and Grameenphone worried that the sheer volume of users simultaneously logging in might overload the system, or that the ISPs’ lines might get clogged. To prevent that from happening, the telecom operator bought streaming-grade routers, even though they were of no use for its day-to-day operations. After a week of minor technical issues, World Cup livestream went off without a hitch — “a huge technological feat,” Alam says.

Revenue from users has increased, but “it still has to take leaps,” says Alam. For now, the telecommunication provider has decided to continue operating Bioscope.

https://www.youtube.com/user/bongobd

Having proven its concept with Bioscope — which has between 2.5 and 3 million monthly active users, according to Alam — Bongo has since built streaming apps and platforms for Grameenphone competitor Robi Axiata, a joint venture between Malaysia’s Axiata Group Berhad and a subsidiary of India’s Bharti Airtel. In the past year, it has also started promoting its own streaming app and website BongoBD, where it offers original content from popular YouTubers as well as web series, movies, and natoks, dramas typically produced within a week and on a tight budget of less than $3,000.

Some of these have been wildly successful. “Gojodontini,” a drama released in February 2020, has had more than 6 million views on YouTube, not counting those on Bongo’s own app. The show has since been licensed to Singapore’s national broadcaster, Mediacorp.

Today, 80% of Bongo’s users watch its content for free, though there are ads. For those willing to pay its yearly subscription fee of $4.72, or for packages ranging from a monthly subscription fee of $0.78 (66 taka) to a weekly one of about $0.30, Bongo not only removes the ads but also offers premium content.

Ahad Mohammad Bhai holding a gold play button from Youtube, given to channels with 1,000,000 subscribers.

“We use the sachet model,” says M. Fayaz Taher, Bongo’s chief operating officer, referring to the shampoos and detergents that are sold across the country in small sachets for a couple of cents each, making it affordable for the millions who cannot pay for full-size bottles.

The approach seems to be working. Last year, the company took in $9.5 million in revenue. The duo had started out with investments from their families (“Any money that Ahad and I have is our families’,” says Huq candidly.) Huq’s late father invested in Bongo on the condition that, if it was successful, Huq would pass those shares to him. Along the way, it has raised $6.1 million, including $4.1 million from London-based venture capital firm Razor Capital. Bhai is also a shareholder of Razor Capital, but he was not involved in Razor’s fundraising for Bongo. The rest came from high-net-worth investors. 

The company wished to raise another round of funding earlier this year, but talks were derailed by the Covid-19 pandemic. It has recently restarted its conversations with investors. Even though it is in profit, a capital injection may be necessary to achieve the sort of growth its founders are hoping for.

“Hosting content is expensive. Managing streaming for a million concurrent users is superexpensive,” warns Rean Rahman, who ran the Bangladesh operation of rival streaming platform iflix from September 2019 until it went bust in the country in June of this year. 

“iflix failed because they just couldn’t cope with the technological advances and the surging costs associated with it,” says Rahman. “Bongo is in the same category. If they need a tech platform to continue, the investment part could be challenging.”

Huq says that Bongo plans to invest more in supplying technology to other streaming services and continuing to expand into Sri Lanka and Nepal, where the market conditions are similar to Bangladesh. Larger players often overlook the potential of niche languages, he says.

“Our vision is that, in the markets we operate in, if anyone is streaming a video, we want to be a part of it — be it with our content or our influencers that they’re watching or our tech solutions,” says Huq. He adds, “We are a tech company, yes, but we’re also a content company.”

Even though Bongo has injected new life into Bangladesh’s movie and TV industry, its unashamedly mass-market content has not met with universal approval.

“YouTube is the poor man’s [streaming platform], and Bongo is the leader in the market,” says Sarder Saniat Hossain, who runs the production house Good Company Ltd., which makes content for local and foreign streaming platforms, including Zee5 and Hoichoi. “They’re very bottom-line driven. It’s been a good strategy for them so far.” But, he warns, what got them here won’t necessarily work in creating the “next generation of Bangla content.”

Ezaz Uddin Ahmed, executive producer at Alpha-i, a content maker for streaming platforms, likens the content that Bongo offers to junk food. “[Bongo] is not feeding the audience good things, only what it wants,” he says. “There has to be some responsibility on platforms to change taste. They’re not doing that. … As a business, they’re doing it right, but they’re not improving the standard of the industry.”

Bongo has recently made its first foray into higher-end content, investing in acclaimed director Mostofa Sarwar Farooki’s film “No Land’s Man.” But the company has no intention of abandoning its roots.

“At the end of the day, real consumption happens at a mass level … and that’s what we want to cater to,” Huq says. “The people who are making these judgments aren’t really our target market. … We want to target the 1% also, yes, but the 99% will be funding that.”