Kamal Quadir is the founder of bKash, a financial services company, and Bangladesh’s first and only unicorn, most recently valued at $2 billion in 2021.

Founded in 2011, bKash is now nearly ubiquitous in Bangladesh, often used as a verb: “bKash me,” you’d say, if you wanted someone to send you money digitally. In its decade-long journey, bKash has evolved from offering utility payments and remittance services to lending. A subsidiary of the Brac Bank, bKash is the first Bangladeshi firm to be backed by Ant Group, SoftBank, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The company has raised a total of nearly $400 million in venture capital till date.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

What are some reasons for the rise of mobile money services in Bangladesh? How did bKash identify and cash in on this opportunity?

Twelve years back, it was difficult for banks to cater to the financial needs of customers having small ticket sizes in Bangladesh. A large population remained unbanked. This created a need for alternative financial services that were more accessible and affordable to the masses. Meanwhile, the government also emphasized on digitalization. Mobile financial services (MFS) leveraged these opportunities and brought solutions, so people have access to universal financial services.

Utilizing Bangladesh’s ubiquitous mobile network coverage, bKash started providing transformative services accessible with the most basic mobile phones. We also built a unique nationwide agent network to ensure services at the customers’ doorsteps. The seamless flow of money between urban working population and rural communities ultimately brought dynamism to the economy. Today, more than 67 million verified users trust bKash as their friend in need.

How does money movement through bKash impact Bangladesh?

Factory workers get their salaries digitally, utility bills get settled efficiently, millions of person-to-person (P2P) transfers reduce traffic congestion, and government’s benefits reach transparently.

The creation of agent points where people could come in and top up their accounts was crucial for the success of MFS in Bangladesh. Over the years, bKash built a robust network of 330,000 agents across the country who serve as human ATMs. We kept this network non-exclusive, so others, including our competitors, can engage the network. These human ATMs played a pivotal role in promoting financial inclusion by enabling people to access formal banking services at an affordable cost within walking distance from every household.

A two-year-long study by the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies shows bKash contributed to increasing family earnings and reducing gender gap. Earlier, a group of American economists determined that among other factors, families that have bKash accounts have higher nutrition intakes because they now receive funds from bread-earners more frequently. BKash changed the way business is done by common people in Bangladesh.

Could you talk about your expansion from a wallet to a lender? 

In partnership with a commercial bank, bKash offered the country’s first collateral-free, instant “Digital Nano Loan,” after successful completion of a year-long pilot project under the central bank’s supervision. Eligible bKash users can apply for a loan from the bank — ranging from 500 taka ($4.34) to 20,000 taka ($174) — through bKash app, receive the disbursement into their bKash account instantly, and then repay it from their bKash account in three equal monthly installments. Through this, Bangladesh truly entered the era of digital lending, enabling customers to avail loan through digital credit assessment and avoid the bottleneck of lengthy paperwork. Within a few months, more than a hundred thousand Digital Nano Loans have been availed by bKash users with significantly [fewer] non-performing loans than the market trend. 

How successful has Bangladesh been in digitizing payments? What are some of the key bottlenecks in the wider adoption of digital payments?

Bangladesh has made significant progress in digitizing payments in recent years, primarily driven by the widespread adoption of mobile financial services like bKash. However, there are some tailbacks that are hindering wider adoption of digital payments, such as lack of digital literacy, inadequacy of affordable internet and smartphones, and awareness gap, to name a few. Despite these challenges, the benefits of digitizing payments in Bangladesh are significant. The government and relevant stakeholders are actively working to address these challenges and promote digital payments.