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Freelance bookkeepers yet to get bigger piece of global pie

Shamim Ahmed
15 Sep 2022 00:00:00 | Update: 15 Sep 2022 00:50:14
Freelance bookkeepers yet to get bigger piece of global pie

Although there is a huge potential to earn foreign currency through freelance bookkeeping or accountancy under Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), Bangladesh is yet to properly participate and eke out a significant portion of the global outsourcing market.

Currently, the country has around 6.5 lakh information technology (IT) service exporters or freelancers working in the domestic and global markets providing web-based services and roughly 1,600 team-based freelancing organisations, according to the Information and Communication Technology Division.

The market size of the local IT-enabled services (ITES) is now around Tk 1,000 crore and the country is currently earning $1.4 billion annually by exporting ITES and software, according to the Bangladesh Association of Software and Information Services (BASIS).

Bangladesh, according to a recent study by the Oxford Internet Institute, is also the world’s second-largest supplier of online labour with a 16 per cent share after India, which has the highest 24 per cent share.

Academic background is not mandatory for freelancers to provide the services under BPO in most cases. Freelancers are providing them mostly after acquiring their skillset from the training offered by various private and public ventures — online or offline.

However, Bangladesh is missing the chance to earn a sizable amount of foreign currency from the online bookkeeping market as a huge number of unemployed business and accounting graduates are still inadvertently clueless about the opportunity. A freelancer from such educational background with the necessary skills is highly coveted in this sector.

The accounting market includes payroll services, tax preparation services, bookkeeping, financial auditing, and other accounting services.

And freelance bookkeeping works include maintaining transaction records, daybooks, petty cash books and ledgers, producing financial reports, performing reconciliations, cloud accounting, keeping journals, chasing debt and credit control, calculating VAT returns, etc.

Many business owners, especially the small ones, both inside and outside the country have started relying on freelance bookkeeping more and more because hiring freelancers near the end of a quarter or annually, instead of having a full-time staff, saves them money.

Doing outsourced finance and accounting works also pays better than most similar jobs that freelancers and companies here are doing now. It also creates opportunities for business and accounting graduates to have high-paying offshore jobs while staying home.

But the country’s graduates and freelancers are unable to compete and triumph in the global market due to a lack of awareness and other necessary skills, including English proficiency, basics of IT and marketing strategy.

Lagging behind

Industry insiders say the country is lagging far behind other South Asian countries in earning foreign currency from this sector in the global market.

According to the Accounting Services Global Market Report 2022, the accountancy market is expected to grow from $1,175.88 billion in 2021 to $1,324.77 billion in 2022, at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.7 per cent.

The market is expected to reach $2,019.02 billion in 2026 at a CAGR of 11.1 per cent.

Wahid Sharif, president of the Bangladesh Association of Contact Center and Outsourcing (BACCO), said there are around 250 freelancing companies doing software and IT-related jobs in both domestic and global markets.

At least 25 of them provide bookkeeping or accounting services while hundreds of individuals also provide the services on their own.

He said the global BPO market’s size is over $500 billion, of which India has the lion’s share of $150 billion, the Philippines $30 billion and Sri Lanka has a share of $8-10 billion.

“Bangladesh currently earns only $400-500 million, out of the $1.4 billion IT sector earnings, from BPO annually. We are yet to eke out even just 1 per cent of the global market,” he stressed.

Wahid said, “The banks, financial institutions and insurance companies here are not ordering much IT and accounting services from the local freelancers.

“If they did, that would brand Bangladesh’s freelancing market in the global market and the freelancers will get more and more offshore jobs by putting these local works as solid references.”

So far, the government has endorsed 55 international online marketplaces for the country’s freelancers, making their earnings from these platforms eligible for a 4 per cent cash incentive against exports of ITES, software and hardware.

Currently, the industry’s size has grown to $600 million and is expected to reach $1 billion by 2025.

The academic prospect

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, one-fourth — around 4.59 crore — of the country’s total population are youths. Most of them are jobless.

There were 899,749 students in the business-related faculties and departments at all public and private universities and institutes around the country in 2020, says University Grants Commission (UGC) data.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants of Bangladesh (ICAB) says that currently there are around 2,200 enlisted charted accountants (CA) in the country, around 32,000 have passed different levels of CA, and 8,000 are yet to sit for the exams.

Also, since 2019, some 8,724 students (4,187 under the old syllabus and 4,537 under the new) are registered to sit for the examinations at the Institute of Cost Management Accountants of Bangladesh (ICMAB).

Although business backgrounds help to shine in freelance bookkeeping and accounting, industry insiders say, youths from all types of educational backgrounds still have the opportunity to enter the sector.

Straight from the horse’s mouth

Sharing her experiences, Jannatul Ferdous Jharna, co-mentor at Fintech BPO, told The Business Post, “I have worked at a garment company for 14 years. I was responsible for dealing with the accounts and banking issues of the factory even though I was not from an accounting background. I decided to quit because I needed to take care of my child.

“But I still needed an earning source and freelancing gave me that. After leaving my job, I started doing freelance accountancy.”

“So far, I have worked on 155 projects in Upwork and Fiverr. I’ve worked with two CPA firms in the US and Canada. My team is currently working on 14 projects,” she added.

Jannatul said when someone is starting in freelance bookkeeping, a business or accounting background is sometimes required to attract foreign clients because they judge whether the freelancer is efficient enough to complete the task.

“But anyone can learn from hands-on work and you do not need to be from a pure accounting background. What you need is knowing how to sell your skills in marketplaces, achieve necessary technological knowledge and learn the proper skills to communicate with clients,” she stressed.

Freelancing firm Think Tank’s Ohiur Rahman is a Dhaka University student who coordinates a team of 12 members who all are from finance and accounting backgrounds.

“We write academic content and provide consultancy for Bangladeshi students studying abroad. We have around 400 ongoing projects, 150 of which are finance and accounting related. We get Tk 0.40-0.50 per word for writing articles but the rate also depends on the topic and complexity. We make good money from our jobs,” he said.

“We prefer to hire students and experts who are academically sound and have a clear concept of accountancy and finance,” said Ohiur, adding that there are several organisations that are providing the same services through team members from different universities.

Ariful Islam Abro, who started freelance bookkeeping after clearing the foundation level at ICMAB, said, “If anyone wants to become an independent accounting professional, this type of work gives them the flexibility and opportunity to provide services to different types of clients.”

“I started with a simple order of producing financial reports for small e-commerce companies in Mexico around two and a half years ago. They gave me a five-star rating after I finished the project in 25 days and earned $800. Since then, I haven’t looked back,” he reminisced.

Ariful said he is now working on three projects that will bring in around $2,500.

“The hardest part of the job is to know the clients’ demands and adapt with the necessary software and apps, such as Quickbook which I use along with two other apps for my work depending on the client’s preferences,” he said.

Huge prospect

Talking to The Business Post, Datafort Co-founder and CEO Mahmudul Hasan Khusru said that freelance bookkeeping and accountancy has a huge prospect in Bangladesh but the country is yet to bring in the business as expected.

Companies in developed countries hire freelancers because they want to spend less money on bookkeeping or accountancy. They currently hire more from Bangladesh’s neighbours and other countries, leaving the freelancers here lagging behind those from India, Sri Lanka and even the Philippines, he said.

This is happening because Bangladesh is yet to build its image and make a sizable dent in the global bookkeeping sector for freelancers despite having much potential, Mahmudul added.

In most cases, foreign companies outsource basic accounting works which do not require a strong accountancy background. If one can train themselves up on work patterns the clients expect, that is enough, he said.

“For example, if anyone is trained on Universal Pension System to input the data in the client’s system, that will help get a good rating and the freelancer’s profile will become enriched. It’s the same in bookkeeping,” said Mahmudul, who is also a chartered accountant.

Clients will generally check the profile of an individual or a company and their resources to see if the service providers are business or accounting graduates. But if the individual or company can show experience in completing projects similar to what the clients want with good reviews and ratings, it will help them land more work orders, he stressed.

Any freelancer can start with bookkeeping because it’s easier while professional accountancy covers broader perspectives, he added.