Dr. Ananya Raihan is a very passionate professional in social entrepreneurship, teaching and research. He is the founder and CEO of Dnet which is a social enterprise. Some of its projects reached global scales are ‘Aponjon’ and ‘Infolady’. Dr. Raihan has had a very interesting youth and has always wanted to do something to change the society
After completing matriculation Dr. Raihan wanted to get admitted into Residential Model School. He sat for the admission test and stood among the top 10. But, his father didn’t let him fulfil his wish. His father had leftist political views and led a very simple life. When Dr. Raihan wanted to get admitted in Residential Model School, his father rejected the idea with the question, – “Want to become a bourgeois”?
In his SSC, he scored 792, and couldn’t be in the top 20 just for a few marks’ gap. In HSC it was 835, and again he missed the top charts for being a few marks behind. He says, “I don’t know why, I did bad in my favorite subject, Mathematics. I scored about 69 in Maths in my HSC”, that was quite unusual. After all the ups and downs in SSC and HSC, under parent’s pressure and choice, young Ananya Raihan sat for the BUET Admission Test and got selected in both Architecture and Mechanical department. However, he didn’t want to study in BUET. It was young age. He dreamt of changing the society and bringing revolution in the country. And to reduce social disparity, economic disparity has to be lessened. If someone wants to eliminate inequality, he or she must understand Economics. His family followed the leftist ideology to some extent and that had some effect on him. So, Dr. Raihan decided to study Economics. He sat for admission test in Jahangirnagar University for Economics and became first in the Admission test. When he went for the viva, there was Professor Akhlakur Rahman on the board, who knew Dr. Raihan personally, as he was his father’s friend. In the interview room he said to young Dr. Raihan, “You’ve already got chance in BUET, why have you come here!” And that was it for Ananya Raihan. He didn’t get his name in the final list and had to get admitted into BUET. It frustrated him so much that he diced to go out of home and work. He started staying in Ahsanullah Hall of BUET, with his senior fellow Swapan Biswas. There he joined a monthly science magazine ‘Anu’ as a sub editor. That was before BUET class started. Staying in the hall, engaging himself in Anti-Ershad movement it was quite a different time in Bangladesh’s history of democracy. “That was a whole different me”, says Dr. Ananya Raihan as he tells his story. One day, his father calls him and tells him that Soviet Union has opened some scholarship and if he wishes to study Economics, he can try for it. It was a super happy moment for him. And that was it, he applied for the scholarship, got all the papers ready, received the scholarship and went on to fulfill his dream to change to society. His class in BUET was supposed to start on September 11, 1984. That very day, he joined his class in Soviet Union. He had to do a one year language course first.
Since very beginning, his idealistic imagination about Soviet society started shatter, although many things he really like a society can offer to its citizens. It was a good society but not the ideal one. He found the way Soviet economy was run, it would doom to fail soonest. Dr. Raihan explains, “Suppose 100 shoes are produced in a factory. Now due to economic growth you need to produce 200 shoes. What would capitalists do? They would change the machines with more productive ones and employ some more people to operate those. But in Soviet Union the state mandated that no one can stay unemployed. This is a very good thing. But the downside was that, they would make another factory with similar old machinery to make the additional 100 shoes. As a result there was no economies of scale. And it was a wasteful and corrupt economy in itself.”
What also struck him that the principle of socialism was not applied in practice. The main principle of socialism is that you work as per your ability and only take as much as you need. This is a very high moral value proposition. Not everyone could inculcate it in themselves. Dr. Raihan used to work in the summer vacations to earn money for expenses and travel. What he saw was, when it came to consumption it was someone’s own choice and needs and when it came to taking care of things, it was state’s responsibility. That was how most people behaved. In his second year of study, he realized that studying pure Political Economic Theory or Planning Economics would be waste of time for him. He decided to switch to Mathematical Economics. As he loved Mathematics, he started enjoying it. Since, he already had a year’s study on political economy, he was finding it very interesting. His study time in Soviet Union was a turning point for him. His desire to become a politician got buried there. Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and he was doing his PhD at that time. He started teaching in his University in 1993. After completion of his PhD in 1994, he returned to Bangladesh and decided to serve as a professional rather than a politician. Dr. Raihan says, “At that time I was not as matured as I am today, it was all romantic that time. Che Guevara’s posters, Fidel Castro, China, Lenin all these were dreams that time. This was an important turning point of my life.”
It was very tough time after returning home, when he wanted to settle with professional engagement. The acceptability of ‘Soviet Degree’ was no that high and it was always about ‘proving yourself’. After return he wanted to join Jahangirnagar University. His father was a professor at Jahangirnagar University. When he sat for the interview, one of the interview board members, a senior professor of University of Dhaka asked him mockingly, “You have studied in Soviet Union? Do you know anything? Okay tell me what is money?” So, Dr. Raihan kept his calm and answered the question. During that interview, Dr. Kazi Shahab Uddin from BIDS invited him to meet at BIDS. It was clear indication that he is ‘not qualified’ for his crime of studying in Soviet Union and it does not matter whether he has any expertise or not. Dr. Raihan could not become a teacher due to groupings. And he says that it was a blessing for him back then. “If I had become a teacher there, I might have stayed just a teacher tied in the complexities of teacher politics and partisan culture”, says Dr. Ananya Raihan.
It was hard time for Dr. Raihan also from a language perspective. His whole tertiary education and PhD was in Russian and he also taught in Russian. After coming back to Bangladesh, getting into English was a very tough task. “I had to study Economics in English and watching movies with headphone for 6 months at a stretch to get back on track”, says Dr. Raihan.
In 2001, he joined CPD (center for policy dialogue) as a Research Fellow. He was invited to various expert committees of Ministry of Commerce, as WTO and trade cooperation was a hot topic at that time. The fate brought Dr. Raihan and that Professor of University of Dhaka again there, and this time it was Dr. Raihan was selected for a role to advise the Ministry beating that Professor.
During his professional journey as a research or teacher in Bangladesh, he always looked for opportunity on how to bring technology, specially Information and Communication Technology (ICT) into the development of the country. As a part of his endeavor, he mobilized seminars, exhibitions, publications and most importantly worked closely with the banking communities to introduce Electronic Banking. It was 1997. And many of ICT innovations in banking sector was facilitated by his works. The opportune moment came in 2001, when a non-resident Bangladeshi group ‘TechBangla’ contacted him to lead a research on ‘e-Readiness’ of Bangladesh. During the research, he met many Bangladeshi and North American young Bangladeshi professionals. The idea of formation of a specialized institution which will work at the intersection of ‘Technology and Development’ emerged and Dnet was incorporated in 2001. For a few years he worked for Dnet as a volunteer and in 2005 he joined it quitting his CPD job.
‘Dnet’ started as a development agency or NGO in simpler terms. However, it has transformed into a social enterprise today. Dnet launched a mobile health service called ‘Aponjon’ through which it connects pregnant mothers and their families to a specialized care over a period of 89 weeks starting form pregnancy up to one years of baby’s age. Till date 2 million families have used this service. This service works for changing behavior of pregnant mother herself and families both improving household practice and health-seeking behavior which eventually playa role in reducing material and child mortality. The design of this service is as such here some users pay for the service and some don’t. Those who don’t have the ability to pay for it will just get the service for free.
In 2008 Dnet incorporated a for-profit venture named ‘Multimedia Content and Communication’ (MCC). When it started working, at that time except for newspapers there was not any content in Bangla on the Internet. There are so many agriculture related research institutes in Bangladesh. They already had soft copies of their research materials. They could just upload them in websites. But it wasn’t something they were willing or felt like doing back then. So the team of MCC started collecting the contents themselves. In this way they collected contents on 9 areas like Agriculture, Healthcare, etc and started digitalizing them. They had funding at that time to do that.
Dnet also created a website branded as “abolombon”, where people can get information about legal issues and legal aid in Bangla language. There was problem centric information according to the law. Like divorce, women harassment, dowry, etc. In present days, those information are taken under the national ‘ই তথ্যকোষ’ . It can be found at http://www.infokosh.gov.bd/ . While working on all these projects, Dr. Raihan and his team realized that there is demand for such services and that they can design project themselves if they get the funding. This is how they formed MCC.
Over the years, significant volume of intellectual properties have been created by Dnet. Dnet is currently working on a few cutting edge area, like Big Data and augmented reality and Artificial Intelligence to be applied in healthcare or education or mental wellbeing. Use of Real-time monitoring system has made a paradigm shift in traditional impact assement and decision making process. The so-called base-line and end line are out of context in many instances.
Dnet started with 18 founding members during its inception, where each member contributed BDT 10,000 for start its operation. Thus, with a fund of 180,00, Dnet started its journey in 2001. The first staff of Dnet joined in 2002. Dr. Raihan used to work as a consultant in the night shift and he used to invest those earnings in Dnet. The first funding they received was from a Bangladeshi institution named ‘Research Initiative Bangladesh’. Its founder was Dr. Shamsul Bari. He was fascinated by the idea of ‘Pallitathya’ and funded the research to design the model. The result of that initiative was tranforemd into a country-wide Union Digital Center network, launched by the government. Dnet also won a global competition competing with 500 nominations, launched by Global Knowledge Partnership (GKP) created by the World Bank and SDC. The financial reward 12,000 US Dollars was used to launch Pallitathya Helpline. The 999 or National HelpDesk of the government is being inspired by that intervention back in 2004. The other organization Manusher Jonno Foundation contributed consistently towards building today’s ‘Infolady’ model along with IDRC. Since then, Dnet did not have to look back.
Dr. Raihan says, “In my personal and professional life I have met with many people who after listening to my ideas have helped me selflessly with finance and intellectual support.” One such person is Professor Rehman Sobhan, chairperson of CPD. His initiative facilitated Dnet getting funding from IDRC. It was such a time when Dr. Ananya Raihan says, “I didn’t know how to write a proposal for funding, how to make a budget and all. I was in the research profession and I was not accustomed to this type of formal way of communicating. And all of them helped us learn them.”
In 2010 A mission of USAID came to Bangladesh and they were looking for an organization through which they can launch a mobile health service. Dnet was chosen for the project even though there were very well reputed organizations like BRAC, SMC, and Smiling Sun. The prime reason for selecting was the social entrepreneurship approach, which ensure sustainability and USIAD was looking for such leadership to make it happen.
There is a tradeoff between innovation and cutting human resource. In response to the question how he manages to balance between two, his response is, you don’t necessarily need to invent anything anew to bring innovation. Innovation is not bound to technology but it can be applied to business models too. Like for a service your customer can pay you Taka 2 but your cost is Taka 4. You are managing the other two taka from other sources. This type of business models were not followed before. Services are being given for free to the customers but profit can be made from elsewhere. Social enterprises need to become efficient like corporate and humane like NGO. It is a combination of the two but taking the best practices from them.
Dr. Raihan is very active in his personal life. He likes photography and travelling. He has visited more than 80 countries. He loves reading books and watching movies. He writes poems and stories in his free time. He likes spending time with kids. He runs a personal charity for kids. He also likes to collect mugs, coins and paintings when possible.
In academic line Dr. Raihan considers Amartya Sen his guru. He has read all his books. He says, “My bible is ‘Development as Freedom’. In this book it has been said that development does not mean to increase income, it means you create opportunities and educate them to make informed choice. This is what we try to do here in Dnet.”
In the list of his favorite books and authors he has Maxim Gorky for Fictions and Sergey Esenin for Poems. These are in terms of Russian literature. In Bangla literature, he loves Rabindanath Tagore’s work, specially his book ‘Alokbortika’. Then there comes ‘Kakababu’ Series of Sunil Gangopadhyay. He likes both ‘Professor Shonku’ and ‘Feluda’ series of Satyajit Roy, but he says, “I like Shonku a bit more.”Among Western writers, he has read books of Czech-French writer Milan Kundela – ‘Ignorance’ & ‘The book of laughter and Forgetting’. He likes the short stories of Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and the science fictions of Issac Asimov. He has read all the books by Earnest Hemingway. Whenever he travels, he either reads a book or watches movies.
Lastly, if anyone has to receive three advice from Mr. Ananya Raihan, these are his words:
“Firstly be honest to yourself. Do not pretend what you are not. You will get its return in due time.
Secondly- If you do not know something, that’s all right. But try to learn new things by observation of others.
Finally- It is okay to make a mistake. You can always learn from mistakes.”
“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?”
[Utmost dedication has been given to transcribe and write the interviews as flawlessly as possible . However, the information and events shared in this book might not be cent percent perfect and there can always be human error in collection and dissemination of information. It is thus requested to forgive any mistake, if found, in this book. At the same time, I request all readers and visitors not to copy the content of this book without the written consent of the author of this book, as these interviews are the author’s original work that has required a lot of hard work and patience. The full book can be purchased here.]