Exclusive Interview With Mr. Arfan

Exclusive interview with Md. Arfan Ali-The InCAP

Md. Arfan Ali
President & Managing Director
Bank Asia Limited

Mr. Md. Arfan Ali is currently the President & Managing Director of Bank Asia Limited. He joined Bank Asia as an AVP on September 13, 1999, three months before the commercial opening of the bank. During the initial years at the Bank, Mr. Arfan was in charge of the Treasury Department. Subsequent to that, he was the Head of two of the major Bank Asia branches, namely: Principal Office Branch and MCB Banani Branch.

Mr. Arfan started his career as a Probationary Officer in Arab Bangladesh Bank Limited on May 02, 1991. Prior to joining Bank Asia, he worked for Hanil Bank (now Woori Bank) of South Korea from 1996 to 1999.

Apart from working for the Bank, Mr. Arfan worked as a Part-Time Lecturer for IBA, Jahangir Nagar University for six years. He is one of the resource persons for the Bangladesh Institute of Bank Management (BIBM), Dhaka. He obtained his MBA from the Institute of Business Administration (IBA), University of Dhaka. Actively involved in the enhancement of formal and informal education for rural people, Arfan enjoys reading, recitation, fishing, and farming.

Mr. Arfan is one of the prominent leaders in the corporate world of Bangladesh, which is marked with his exceptional achievements. He knows the banking systems and policies like the back of his hand. He is the pioneer of Agent Banking in Bangladesh. The languages and even the logic would not be enough for what Mr. Arfan is gradually doing for the institution that he works for; the nationalistic endeavor in everything done by him makes him one of the most regarded banking professionals in the history of Bangladesh.

The InCAP team indeed had an interesting tête-à-tête with him regarding his life journey, career experiences, and dream projects.

Let’s explore; let’s learn. Happy Reading!

On the cover of the June 2021 issue

Cogitation of Work

The InCAP: The pandemic is suspected to plunge most countries into recession in 2021, with per capita income contracting in the most significant fraction of countries globally since 1870. No doubt, it’s a historic contraction of per capita income. Advanced economies are projected to shrink 7 percent. In this situation, what is your observation regarding the economy of Bangladesh?

Md. Arfan Ali: Thank you for your observations. You can see from the international data that many economies are narrowing, the reasons being lockdown and inactivity in the industry. But in Bangladesh, we have done pretty well in terms of  controlling the situation. Government guidelines and assistance, and the resilience of the people helped us keep going. We know that Bangladesh is growing by more than 4 percent, and this rate is expected to reach 8 percent in the next year.

The backbone of the economy is the agricultural sector, which was not harmed amidst the pandemic. Industries and production houses were open by maintaining social distance. These eased the economy to maintain stability. The resilience of entrepreneurs  showing their courage and doing their best to cope with the situation is another factor helping the economy under such distressing conditions. 

We believe that Bangladesh will emerge as a more resilient and economically sound country. Preventing Covid-19 cases will play a vital role in building confidence. The good news is that export orders are returning. This first quarter is a good indicator that both exports and imports are increasing compared to last quarter. This means that the country’s economy is intact and will be doing good.

Small and medium enterprises are facing bleak conditions, which is subject to great uncertainty and significant downside risk. Does the banking sector have any initiative to solve their crisis? Is there any special effort from Bank Asia?

The SME segment needs special attention and nurturing. They are spread out all across the country, and this geographical dispersion  makes it difficult to serve them. Since most bankers are unwilling to take on the challenge, bank branches cannot be established in remote areas. Moreover, SMEs are vulnerable to small economic changes and the risk aversion of the bankers makes the condition worse.

Current legacy structures of banking – driven by brick & mortar branches and human intervention – result in higher operating costs, poor credit decisions, and higher lending interest rates. The legacy banking system has failed to improve customer experience and attract a new generation of the middle class to the bank branch. Digital banking builds the whole service experience from the ground up, keeping customer experience at the core.

Bank Asia looks forward to extending its innovation and financial inclusion programs through Digital Banking. Bank Asia’s Digital Banking will ensure complete banking for the unreached people at the last mile without traditional physical branches. This Digital Banking platform will run entirely online, similar to many other digital banks run in different countries across the world. We have applied to the Central Bank for a Digital Banking Subsidiary, which will make our economy more vibrant by extending digital credit to the cottage and micro-small enterprises (CMSEs) more efficiently.

During this pandemic, bank employees risked their own lives to provide banking services effectively. We have deep respect for them, but it is not desirable to take such risks. Experts think that this time demands changes in the infrastructure of banking services. Mr. Arfan, what kind of changes do you think should be brought? 

For any service industry, change is always constant. The pandemic exposed  us to challenges and opportunities at the same time. Coronavirus is fueling the movement towards digital banking. Banks are focusing more on strengthening capacity to handle an influx of digital banking demands. Process reengineering, service automation, artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, web-based banking portal, mobile applications, chatbots, etc. are some of the technologies that banks have been opting for. It is high time to acquaint the customer with self-serviced banking facilities.

Agent Banking has already adopted the contactless validation alternative for payments to social safety net customers. E-KYC and online credit approval processes are inevitable to make the operation faster and convenient. Commercial banks must think of adopting alternative credit scoring methods for providing loans to the mass population living in rural areas. The distributed existence of banking services eliminates the need for intermediaries to authorize financial transactions between consumers. Interoperability of the financial service operators is now mandatory to offer customers more flexibility for conducting financial transactions.      

Bank Asia has been providing Agent Banking services since 2014, and this service has reached the union level of Bangladesh. We would like to know about this outstanding project.

A number of banks have emerged with several technology-driven innovative banking solutions to accelerate the national financial inclusion drive under prudent directives and support from our Central Bank. Bank Asia pioneered Agent Banking in 2014 for rural financial inclusion under the auspices of Bangladesh Bank. The bank is extending a full range of banking services to unbanked citizens across the country. With a vast network of more than 4500 agent outlets, Bank Asia’s Agent Banking is reaching almost 4.5 million customers across all 64 districts of Bangladesh.

Bank Asia adopted its pioneering ‘micro-branch’ model in agent banking. Recently it introduced an innovative business model of ‘rural micro-merchant’ towards building a complete digital banking ecosystem for the rural economy. Agent banking, in contrast to other branchless banking, is largely driven by an exclusive specialized agent model. An outlet in agent banking is exclusive for Bank Asia and distinctly branded by various permanent marketing collaterals and point-of-sale materials (POSM), giving the outlet the look and feel of a branch. This model focuses on the three stakeholders: the bank itself, banking agents, and customers.

Bank Asia has 3 categories of agent outlets 1. Individual 2. Union Digital Centre (UDC) 3. E-Post centers by Bangladesh Post Office (BPO). Individual outlets are run by individual entrepreneurs, whereas UDCs and e-Post Centers are run by the designated entrepreneurs assigned by the Local Government Division (LGD) and Bangladesh Post Office.

With the government’s Union Digital Center (UDC) support, Bank Asia is poised for the rapid expansion of its banking service to the grassroots. Following the trends, we jumped into another strategic alliance with the Bangladesh Post Office for the implementation of post office agent banking under the banner of “Digital Daakghar” by BPO. I believe that the union digital center and the e-Post Centers will become the center of all development activities in rural Bangladesh. We have already disbursed a major chunk of social safety net payments through UDCs. This is, in fact, the vision of the government, making these digital centers the hub of major economic activities.

In this edition, we’ve presented detailed coverage of the Post Office Banking project of Bank Asia. Consequently, people will be quite well aware of this initiative. But we want to know the backstory of this project from you.

Previously some of the post office e-centers used to provide basic financial services of CICO (cash-in and cash-out) through collaboration with a few MFS providers. Considering the need for under-served segments across the country and to give a boost to the local economy and help post-office entrepreneurs earn more, Bank Asia has already developed a strategic relationship with the Bangladesh Post Office through public-private partnership (PPP). Under the arrangement, people are getting banking services from Digital Post e-Centres across the country. We have connected these booths with the national payment switch of Bangladesh Bank, making it convenient for rural people to get mainstream banking services. We’ve already activated nearly 750 agent banking outlets at the Digital Post e-Centres, aiming to bring more unbanked people into the digital banking ecosystem to accelerate the ongoing financial inclusion intervention across the country. We’re now working relentlessly with the vision that “every adult in our country will have a bank account; every village in our country will have a financial kiosk”.

We all know you are one of the prominent scholars in the banking sector. We want to know what the biggest considered threats and problems throughout the world in this sector are today. What should be the way of passage? 

The biggest threat, in my opinion, is the concentration risk. It may be in the geographic area, industrial area, or even in the housing sector. Generally, bankers take decisions on a historical basis based on the experience of looking at other competitors. One observation is that when an economy prospers, the citizens are empowered and they take decisions based on the upward adjustment of asset prices. It is seen in the USA, Japan, Korea, and Hong Kong. People of Bangladesh are now very interested in purchasing houses and maximizing their wealth even during this pandemic. However, the return on this investment does not commensurate with the amount invested. Moreover, the investment will not be profitable when the interest rate rises.

Other factors are also disrupting the sector. The distribution of credit is not particularly aligned with our growth prospects. In Bangladesh, SME holds a big expectancy in growth. But bankers tend to invest in corporations. Thus, they are missing this great opportunity of providing credit to SMEs and diversifying their portfolio.

We need to finance small and medium enterprises that are spreading across the country. One of the main functions of a bank is the efficient distribution of credit. When it fails to do so, the growth potential of the sector is diminished. SMEs are the highest employment creator of any economy. Therefore, they need to be focused on. Things might change if banks can remodel their way of operating, like improvements in policies, using third parties for the collection, building relations with SMEs, data collection from the market, assessing the clients based on transaction data, etc.

Mr. Arfan, people respect you as their professional mentor and leader. Your advice is incredibly important for everyone. We’re expecting some guidelines from you.

As a banker, I’m always focused on the betterment of our clients. One’s career objective should be something like how much one can do for the people. If you focus on doing something new and try to think about the benefits to the masses, then there are a lot of scopes to work on. Do not look for the money. Don’t take monetary satisfaction as the primary concern.

Even when you are satisfied with your career, you can strive to do better. You must be ambitious, committed, and honest. Focus more on digitization in your career prospects as everything will move around that in the future.

Self-portrait

You are one of the most prominent figures in the Bangladesh corporate world. But we thought we’d start this section by talking about your childhood. How were you as a child?

In my early childhood, I used to be an introvert. I was the third-youngest among my siblings. I was under the guidance of my sisters, with certain limitations and strict regulations as they were pretty protective. I had problems expressing myself. That was one thing that made me struggle in my childhood.

I lost my father when I was in the 9th grade and my mother in the 11th grade. These incidents affected me very much in my early stage of education and my growth, and created hardships for me, financially and mentally.

I was born in Shahjahanpur, Dhaka. My early childhood was spent in the open fields of Shahjahanpur. In those days, Dhaka was less crowded and more green. My father was a Railway Officer. After his retirement, we had to move to our village in Munshiganj. That was a really hard time for us in terms of continuing our education, as well as keeping our morale up in this competitive world. But after my father’s death in 1982, we came to Dhaka again. I started living with my elder sister. She helped me a lot, assisting me with my education and also providing much of the mental support that I needed at that time.

You said in one of your speeches – the Almighty made you a banker as the result of an arrogant occurrence in your student life! People want to hear the story. And if you were not a banker, what profession would you choose?

I was nominated for a stipend when I was in Notre Dame College based on the result of my SSC. So one day, I was checking in a bank and I was in a queue to withdraw my stipend money. In those days, banks were not that efficient. I was holding a token for over half an hour. Then the cashier came, and as I was a young student, I was quite arrogant. So I flipped the token and asked for the money. The cashier saw it. He went back, and after some time, he came with the money.

I still regret that arrogance. Now, as a banker, I have learned that bankers might sometimes be late to provide us with services. We should not express our arrogance to the person who is providing us with the service. That’s why, I always say that God has made me a banker to make me feel that particular pain which that cashier felt because of me.

To answer the last part of the question, if I hadn’t become a banker I’d probably want to be a teacher. I enjoy reading and learning, and imparting my knowledge to others gives me immense pleasure.

Okay, now let’s ask you a typical question – was there a turning point in your life? There must have been some trigger for this consistency in success!

The turning point was the death of my mother in 1985. I was in college then. I had just gotten my results from Notre Dame College. A month afterward, my mother passed away. That was very tough for me as I received a lot of guidance from my mother.

From that very day, I became more responsible, committed, and disciplined. I tried to do my best to overcome the situation. My mother always wanted to see me succeed. And, the measure of being successful was having a good job. So, I became more sincere in my studies and tried to work harder so that I could fulfill her wishes.

What’s your plan for your motherland Bangladesh?

I want to establish some institutions that will be dedicated to the financial emancipation of the common people. My major objective is to eradicate financial differences. It will not flatten but reduce the economic disparity in the society. Mostly my ambition is to provide more support to people who are deprived.

Personally, I’m very involved in the development of education in my village. There is one school which was set up early with the help of fellow villagers. In 1994, we founded a high school. Now it is a college as well. 750 students are currently studying over there. 

What is your life philosophy?

I subscribe to the saying that life has no meaning. You give meaning to life, like I did to mine. You can do better if you plan a bright future and continue your services in the well-being of people and society. Whatever you do, do not let yourself think narrowly.

The InCAP: Thank you for your time and precious words.

Md. Arfan Ali: My pleasure. Thanks to the entire team of The InCAP. Wish you all the best.

Quick Chat with Mr. Arfan

The greatest achievement of your life as of now 

Pioneering Agent Banking in Bangladesh

How do you define patriotism?

It is the best one can do for his country

The greatest philosopher in your view 

Friedrich Nietzsche

Meaning of “success” to you 

When you feel satisfied after doing something

Name the most influential book(s) you have read 

Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Hamlet

What did you want to be when you were a child?

An Engineer

Which is the best gift you’ve ever received? 

My daughters

Your greatest fear 

Loneliness 

Favorite Poet and Litterateur

William Shakespeare and Rabindranath Tagore

What motivates you? 

The wellbeing of others

The most admirable personality from recent times in your opinion 

Abdullah Abu Sayeed

Your favorite color 

Blue

Disclose one of your prayers 

Good health for all

Describe yourself in three words

Committed, Truthful, Disciplined

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