Bangladesh’s echo: leading the global voice technology revolution

October 17, 2023

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As the scorching sun blazes down on Rakib, he tries his best to maintain the focus necessary to take care of the long line of customers standing in line outside his shop. The fan is broken, the bulb above his register is flickering, and Rakib is losing his patience. One of his regular customers steps up in line and insists she deserves to get more credit this month. Rakib scrambles around for his ‘hal-khatha’ only to find, in the heat, the ink is completely smudged. The red line is now crossed. He raises his voice and tells the customer there’s nothing he can do, and she storms off. Rakib has lost a loyal customer, his patience is gone, and the fan still isn’t working. While these small annoyances may seem to be just that – annoyances – they’re tangibly detrimental for a small business owner like Rakib.

The reason behind this is while these problems may seem disconnected, in reality, they’re part of a larger systematic issue. The fan is off because Rakib doesn’t have the time to go to the bKash counter and cash out to pay the repairman, and he’s incapable of sending cash through the app. The ‘hal-khatha’ is smudged because Rakib doesn’t have any time on his hands to service customers and keep his accounts at the same time. It is a lack of localised, appropriate technological solutions that are now the bane of Rakib’s professional existence. And like Rakib, millions of others in Bangladesh are in desperate need of a change.

In the midst of the startup boom in Bangladesh, somewhere along the line, we’ve lost track of what creates real value. In the blinding light of awards, news coverage and fame, we began importing ideas to solve problems that are specific to our localities. You can build the next ride-sharing app, you can build the newest OTT, and you can build the latest MFS. But where is the utility if no one knows how to use it, and no one can use it? Bangladesh has an assisted digital literacy rate of 23%, and a full digital literacy rate of just above 6%, indicating that no matter how nice the newest UI of an app may be, its usefulness to the everyday Bangali will always be nil.

Zubair Ahmed, a venture capitalist sitting in Japan, recognised this in 2014. Instead of choosing to continue his comfortable life abroad, Zubair took the difficult call so many Bangladeshis abroad refuse to take – he dropped everything and came back to Bangladesh to solve the problem. By intuition and through exposure to technology solutions as a venture capitalist, he knew there was only one way forward to solve the Gordian knot of digital illiteracy – conversational voice technology powered by telephony networks in Bangla. While Google, Amazon, and Apple raced to come up with a solution, Zubair through his hat into the race. And in that moment, Hishab was born. Audacious? Yes. Impossible? No.

Nine years later, in 2023, the breakthrough came. While the world marvelled at ChatGPT and AI, Zubair was drawn to the underlying technology – large language models, or LLMs. As a result of this technology, Zubair and his team at Hishab knew the answer lay in front of their eyes. Imagine Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa available to the everyday person via their feature phone. Hishab has made this a reality. Hishab’s crowning achievement is its patented conversational AI technology powered over telephony networks, meaning at the reach of a phone call, anyone using any phone has access to a personal intelligent assistant – PIA for short. And, it’s fully in Bangla.

The question is, what is PIA capable of doing? In brief, anything your phone can do, but via your voice. Hishab’s principal products currently are HiPay and HiPOS, its payment and POS solutions. By calling or receiving a call from a dedicated number, any individual can transfer money and check and make changes to their accounts by interacting with a virtual voice assistant. Regarding POS, by calling a dedicated line, shop owners like Rakib are able to digitise their ‘hal-khathas’ by recording transactions conversationally, ensuring a reliable experience for their backend accounting and their customers. While already paradigm-shifting, Hishab has not stopped there. They are working on launching HiProd, Customer Engagement solutions, and HiSurvey amongst others to build a robust line of conversational AI-driven voice technology products to better the lives of the average Bangladeshi citizen.

Ironically, while Bangladeshi companies are just starting to adopt this domestically built technology, Hishab has spurred ahead in India and Japan. In 2022, Hishab launched a pilot program for HiPay and HiPOS with the State Bank of India, the largest financial institution in the country. After launching the products with 27 shops in West Bengal, in 3 weeks, Hishab was adopted by 20,000 shops. That’s a nearly 10,000% jump without any marketing. In Japan, Hishab launched its Customer Engagement solution with Tokyo Electric Power Company or TEPCO, one of the largest electric utility companies in Japan and globally. Launching its conversational AI technology in the Japanese language, Hishab now services 22 million Japanese customers.

This is a point of pride for Bangladesh. Bangladeshi-built technology is leading the forefront in 4th Industrial Revolution technologies in the leading markets across the world. Hishab has patented its technology in 27 countries and regions globally, including India, Indonesia, the African Union, Nigeria, Japan, and of course, Bangladesh. The current library of 54 patents ranges across voice banking, automated call centres, voice commerce, and conversational AI powered by telephony networks. Hishab’s team continuously conducts research and development to further patent innovations in voice technology and adjacent fields. The company has won multiple awards, including Toyota City’s Aichi Award in 2021, 1st place in the Japanese technology competition ‘Get In The Ring’ in 2021, the Nikkei Asia Prize in 2023, and the Bangladesh Fintech Award for Payments in 2023.

Undoubtedly, Hishab has set the standard for what a Bangladeshi technology company can dream of becoming. A globally recognised, burgeoning technology giant, Hishab has paved the way forward for future technologies coming from Bangladesh. The company has demonstrated the capability of Bangladeshi engineers in building world-leading technology that is used by millions across the globe. Hishab is the first to accomplish such a feat, how many others will follow?

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