By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
With a geographic distance of more than 14,500 kilometers separating his country from Mexico, a diplomatic staff of just one, and a suffering export economy that is struggling to diversify its garment- and leather goods-heavy portfolio (representing roughly 80 percent of all overseas sales) in a global market that is rapidly being devoured by China, Bangladeshi Ambassador to Mexico Supradip Chakma – whose primary mission here is to spur bilateral commercial and economic relations – definitely has his work cut out for him.
The fact that his country has a dubious and prolonged history of political instability, endemic corruption and deficient infrastructure – not to mention that it is now dealing with having to accommodate nearly 700,000 Rohingya refugees who fled to the South Asian republic from Myanmar in 2017 to escape religious persecution – complicates matters even further.
But as determined as the “Little Engine That Could” to accomplish his mission, in his four years in Mexico, Chakma has plowed ahead with his efforts to expand two-way trade and encourage Mexican businessmen to invest in Bangladesh.
Between trimestral group lunches with Mexican officials, entrepreneurs and trade representatives and an ongoing campaign to convince journalists to showcase his country as a new Asian tiger (in the last three years, Bangladesh’s GDP growth has averaged an impressive 7 percent per annum, and the Sheikh Hasina Wajed government is hoping to reach a double-digit surge by the years 2021. But the Sheikh Hasina government is facing growing opposition to her increasingly draconian policies to quiet media and opposition views, a fact that could very well lead to the prime minister’s political demise at the polls in January 2019), Chakma is doing his level best to persuade the Mexican business community that Bangladesh is a good financial bet.
And despite all the seemingly unsurmountable obstacles to attracting Mexican investors and traders to Bangladesh, Chakma has made significant progress in meeting his goal.
Since his arrival in Mexico in 2014, combined two-way trade has nearly doubled in value to about $300 million annually, and while Chakma admits that the figure is still far below what he would and his government would like, he is determined to increase that total even further in the years ahead.
“We are not looking to sign a free-trade agreement with Mexico at this time,” he said during one of his promotional lunches at Mexico City’s downtown Club de Banqueros on Thursday, Oct. 4.
“Our economy is not ready yet for free-trade accords, but we do want to find new niches of binational commercial and economic cooperation.”
One such area of potential interchange, Chakma said, is the sale of Bangladeshi medical equipment, a blossoming new industry in the country that is beginning to develop high-quality and affordable digital ultrasounds and ECG machines that can compete on a global scale.
Chakma also mentioned the possibility of increased cooperation in commercial fisheries and computer software.
As far as the possibility of Mexican-Bangladeshi joint-venture investment projects, the ambassador candidly admitted that “we are still a long way from that.”
The Mexican cement giant Cementos Mexicanos (Cemex) did have a factory in Bangladesh dating back to 1988, but in 2016, it sold its operations there to the Siam Cement Group out of Thailand.
“One of the biggest problems, besides geographic distance, that is keeping bilateral relations from expanding further is a lack of mutual awareness,” noted Sergio Ley, chairman for Asia-Pacific Division of the Mexican Business Council for Foreign Trade (COMCE) and head of the Asia-Pacific Council of Monterrey Tech (ITESM), who also attended the luncheon.
“It would help a lot if Bangladeshi businessmen would come to Mexico and promote their products here.”
A small delegation of Bangladeshi entrepreneurs did come to Mexico in 2011 to explore new areas of potential trade and investment, but little came out of that visit.
Two years later, Mexico and Bangladesh signed an agreement on mutual customs facilitation to help curb smuggling, but, again, this led to no big change in trade or investment ventures.
Still, Chakma is optimistic that, in time, Mexican companies will begin to take note of the growing potential market in Bangladesh, where, he pointed out, nearly 38 percent of the nation’s 160 million people fall into the category of middle or upper class.
He also said that, according to an independent international private sector study, by the year 2030, Bangladesh is expected to rank as the 26th-largest economy worldwide, compared to its current ranking at the 42nd position.
And while the World Bank has projected a 7 percent growth for Bangladesh for the fiscal 2018-2019 year, Dhaka has a more enthusiastic goal of a 7.8 percent growth for that period.
Chakma said that, driven by industry and services on the supply side and private consumption and investment on the demand side, Bangladesh’s economy is very likely to meet that government target.
Innovative programs such as female empowerment through low-interest government loans, efforts to encourage a nationwide use of solar panel energy and the promotion of new value-added industries such as high-tech computer programming and software development will also help to keep Bangladesh on track for consistent and sustainable growth, Chakma said.
“We are no longer a country with its hand out, asking for financial support or foreign loans,” he said.
“We still have problems to solve, such as further reducing poverty and providing jobs for our ever-burgeoning labor force, but we have investment incentive packages, full repatriation of investment capital and plenty of ready and able workers, plus access to other markets in the region, so we are an attractive alternative for international investors and businessmen.”
Last year, direct foreign capital investments in Bangladesh total $2.15 billion, an impressive number for a country with a total Gross Domestic Product of just $407 billion annually.
Will Mexican entrepreneurs perk up and take note of this distant potential trade and investment partner as a result of Chakma’s nonstop efforts to peddle Bangladesh’s fiscal and economic attractions?
Not likely, at least not for the short term, given Mexico’s dyed-in-the-wool obsession with limiting business almost exclusively to its next-door neighbor, the United States and its fear of wading into untested waters.
But with the fate of the revamped and relabeled North American Free Trade Accord (NAFTA, now known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, or USMCA) still up in the air, awaiting a trilateral parliamentary go-ahead from each of the respective member states, the option to explore new markets and investment partners may not be all that unappealing in the months ahead.
For most Mexicans, the mere mention of Bangladesh still conjures up images of starving children and a fundraising rock concert organized by former Beatle George Harrison back in 1971.
But then again, it wasn’t that long ago that most Mexicans held similar mistaken perceptions about China and India, both of which they now recognize as booming global economies.
One thing is certain: Bangladesh is no longer the poster child for world hunger.
The world’s eighth-most-populous country is now completely self-sufficient in terms of food production, having tripled its rice harvests over the last few decades to nearly 35 million tons a year, making it the fourth-largest producer of the grain worldwide.
Additionally, Bangladesh has reduced its poverty rate from 41 percent to 21 percent in the scope of just 10 years, and both access to and the quality of public education and health services have significantly improved.
The World Bank has tagged Bangladesh as the second-fastest growing economy in the developing world, and despite its political and social problems, there is no indication that this newly awoken Asian tiger is going to slow down anytime soon.
Maybe Mexican businessmen should put aside outdated stereotypes and concerns about geographic distances and listen to what Chakma has to say.
They might just discover that reconsidering their apprehensions about doing business with Bangladesh could land them on the ground floor for access to the rapidly growing Asian market.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.