IT: Investing in Bangladesh, exporting to the world

Field Buzz is a smartphone-based software system that replaces companies' pen-and-paper processes in the “last mile” in emerging markets. It is designed for agribusinesses, consumer goods companies and microfinance organizations to track their daily interactions with smallholder farmers, very small shops or micro-borrowers. Co-founded in 2015 by a German and a Bangladeshi, the software is used by large and small organizations in many countries across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

When I first moved from Frankfurt to Dhaka in 2013 for personal reasons, I did not know that it would be the first step in building a deep, long-term connection with Bangladesh. Seven years later, the company that I co-founded with my Bangladeshi business partner and 100,000 euros of my personal savings is a fast-growing team of about 40 software engineers and implementation consultants, mostly based in our Bangladesh office, rolling out smartphone-based software solutions around the world for companies with “field workers”.

Country with favorable conditions

I did not know at the time that the Bangladesh government wanted Dhaka to be the next Bangalore and has created tax incentives for companies exporting IT services. Nor did I know that each year thousands of very smart, hard-working software engineers graduate from Bangladeshi universities with salary expectations between a fifth and a tenth of those that prevail in Germany. And I did not predict that Bangladesh would turn out to be one of the fastest-growing economies worldwide, soaring into middle-income status. But I did have a strong hunch that smartphones and mobile internet were going to revolutionize the lives of poor people in rural areas in emerging markets and could help to open up many new opportunities for them. It seemed a good idea to hire employees who themselves had family “in the village” and who understood intimately the challenges of working in low-resource areas: they would know better how to design software that could work well in this kind of tricky environment with deficient infrastructure. During the first year, around 2014, we tried several prototype smartphone apps for micro-entrepreneurs, smallholder farmers and low-income households. It turned out to be a total failure! Even if they owned a smartphone (which was not yet very common at the time), they didn’t want to spend their data connection credits on our app: they wanted to use Facebook for socializing and YouTube for entertainment.

Shift to companies as main customers

The major “pivot” in our startup’s business model, and the key to our successful growth from then onwards, was to realize that our customers should be companies and other organizations that were interacting with our target groups on a daily, weekly or monthly basis: agribusinesses for smallholder farmers, consumer-goods distributors for small shops, and microfinance organizations and other institutions already delivering various services to low-income households. These companies already had extensive networks of employees and agents dispersed across the country. But they were still using pen and paper to record all their daily work with farmers, shopkeepers and borrowers. With our smartphone apps we wanted to encourage the “field workers” for the large and small companies that were interacting with them, to switch to our digital system instead of using inefficient pen and paper.

Software improves data control of Danone in Bangladesh

One of our first customers was Danone in Bangladesh. The well-known dairy company was finding it difficult to manage its network of distributors to small shops – which was an important problem, because there are very few supermarkets in Bangladesh and the vast majority of consumers buy from local small shops. The company didn’t know the shops stocking and selling its products; there were many gaps on the map where their product was not available; the factory found it very hard to plan production levels; and a lot of yoghurts were being returned from shops after their expiry date. Only a few seconds, but the data allows Danone’s managers and its warehouse distributors to follow all product movements, in real time. The software also works offline; in those cases, the data synchronizes back to head office as soon as an internet connection becomes available again. Today, we provide a similar software backbone for many other companies with field operations, not just in Bangladesh, and not just in the consumer-goods distribution sector. Another client of ours is the Neumann Kaffee Gruppe, a coffee-trading company that uses Field Buzz software to register its smallholder coffee farmers, and track all the interactions that they have with each one: coffee deliveries, payments, services such as agronomist trainings and seedlings, farm inspections, loans. The idea is to build a sustainable, win-win relationship with the farmers: because the company now has a digital “track record” of its work with each farmer and that farmer’s performance over time, it knows which farmers have been delivering coffee regularly, and thus which ones can be trusted to receive, invest and reimburse a loan, for example.

Business expansion with core software and lower prices

As our startup matures, we are looking for ways to achieve greater scale and create a larger positive impact. We have been working hard on standardizing the core software product. Now, despite serving various sectors (agriculture, distribution, microfinance), it is one single platform, with many different transaction modules that can be switched on or off, and that can be configured for each company’s specific operational needs. This allows us to offer a lower-priced “software-as-a-service” option for smaller companies that would not be able to afford their own customized version of the software. A partnership with Grameenphone, Bangladesh’s largest mobile-network operator (76 million phone connections), allows us to sell our software to their business customers. We are looking to develop similar agreements with other partners in various emerging markets. We also think that the extremely accurate and detailed transaction data that is generated through our system can be very valuable for offering added-value services to the farmers, small shops, micro-entrepreneurs and others. Many of them need financing and insurance, but financial services providers and insurance companies don’t know how to reach them. Through our software, these people can be made “visible” thanks to their unique profile and detailed transaction history. With the help of partners, we are currently piloting several initiatives in this direction and we aim to develop further in this field.

Alexis Rawlinson

Alexis Rawlinson is co-founder and managing director of Field Information Solutions GmbH, the company which designs and markets the “Field Buzz” software (