Grey’s Bitop Das Gupta explains how 2020 WARC Prize for Asian Strategy Grand Prix winner Project AgroBanking helps build a sustainable future for Bangladesh.

Project AgroBanking started with an ambition to bring positive change to the lives of underprivileged farmers in Bangladesh and to find a way for them to improve their situation.

As of today, the platform is operational in 102 locations, and a total of TK.401.86m (US$4.73m) worth of fresh produce has been collected through it. To put that in perspective, the average daily earnings of an underprivileged farmer in Bangladesh is US$4.7.

Expansion into new locations has been halted due to COVID-19. Once that situation improves, the expansion will resume to empower even more farmers to join the financial system.

Beyond basic banking

Our ambition extends beyond expanding AgroBanking’s footprint, as we also plan to provide basic financial advice to farmers. Until now, they haven’t managed to save that much in their new bank accounts. We want to encourage farmers to start saving because, with more savings, they’ll generate the financial history required to be eligible for credit to invest more into their yearly produce.

AgroBanking has also inspired two innovative ideas that will be launched once COVID-19 is under control: one aims to bring the underprivileged farmers out of a vicious cycle of debt by introducing peer-to-peer investments from consumers to farmers, while another seeks to use the AgroBanking idea to bring financial inclusion to another group that has been ignored and unbanked, the urban poor.

A new style of innovation

While AgroBanking delivers on the client’s mission to serve the previously unbanked and start solving their financial challenges, it also connects with a larger growth narrative that has got traction internationally. Innovation used to happen within wealthy clusters where all the components of a thriving ecosystem were already in place.

The pandemic has created a desire for a fairer, more resilient and evenly distributed economy. The practice of democratising innovation will play a vital role in ‘building back better’ from the current crisis. The AgroBanking platform shows the bold and disruptive promise of this practice for Bangladesh and other agri-based economies.

Participation for progress

Tomorrow’s Bangladesh is already here. Signs of progress, from manufacturing and innovation excellence to cricket, are visible everywhere and open up new prospects for our country.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, in its global economic development report ‘World in 2050’, estimates that Bangladesh could become the world’s 28th largest economy by 2030, surpassing countries like Australia, Spain, South Africa and Malaysia.

To make these forecasts a reality, the 36 million unbanked rural farmers have to be given the means to participate. The moment they formally enter the financial market leads to expansion and economic growth, allowing Bangladesh to live up to its true potential.

Poverty is the root cause for people in rural communities to venture away from home to try their luck in crowded urban professions. But the pandemic forced migrant workers to go back to their villages as the situation in cities became unsustainable. Innovations like AgroBanking unshackle marginal producers from the vicious cycle of poverty and could convince urban migrants that the farming communities they came from are ready to offer better opportunities and make them consider moving back to their villages. Such a development could begin to untangle some of the deep-seated problems that have held back progress in Bangladesh for decades.

Lessons for future strategies

Business has to be more transparent than ever. People around the world have woken up to the perils of bad business practices and a ruthless focus on profit disregarding the consequences for people and our planet. The marketing of ‘doing good’ needs to be backed up by real actions that matter.

The partnership between UCB and Shwapno shows that business strategy needs to change in tandem with the brand or marketing strategy, which raises the bar for what is feasible within ever shorter deadlines and shrinking marketing budgets.

This is an opportunity for agencies to be true strategic advisors to brands and to work out how to implement bold creative ideas that go beyond advertising and can achieve sustainable change at scale. There’s no shortcut around the complexity involved in creating an entirely new approach to rural banking and to implement it in more than 100 villages, but there’s satisfaction to be had from proving that old dogs can learn new tricks.

An abridged version of this article appears in WARC’s 2020 Asian Strategy Report.