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Pakistan’s Thriving Technology Sector is Full of Potential

With a large youth population, innovation and entrepreneurship have emerged as viable means of dealing with the problems that Pakistan faces. 

Innovation is fundamentally characterized by what can be called “newness,” but a field does not have to be completely novel itself for innovation to take place. By that same token, an idea can be born and take root anywhere and at any time.

In the politically unstable Pakistan of today, few things appear to be going right. Upon closer inspection, however, there emerges a thriving technology sector full of potential and strength, which has grown by leaps and bounds since the turn of the century, and it is innovation that is fueling this growth.

For the most part, innovation is not the creation of new commodities, but the addition of value to existing goods and services through novel means, which leads them to become more useful for consumers.

Innovation by Pakistani inventors and entrepreneurs is mostly focused around this idea of adding value to existing products. These products have significantly influenced lives, not just in Pakistan, but around the globe.

Young Entrepreneurs

Pakistani entrepreneurs and innovators have risen from a situation that looks fairly bleak. According to statistics from UNICEF, the country has one of the world’s major youth bulges, with 35% of the total population aged 15 years or under. In the coming decades, Pakistan is expected to be one of the few countries where the working population will exceed the number of retirees. But still, the country is struggling with a major problem: It has one of the world’s largest populations of young men and women who are not aware of opportunities to invest their potential.

Here’s something interesting: This seemingly struggling nation has one of the highest rates of cell phone usage and penetration in South Asia. Close to 140 million people have a cell phone connection in Pakistan, and they enjoy some of the cheapest service rates in the world.

Each day, a large number of Pakistani youth are told by Western media that they can only harbor negative potential, and that positivity from Pakistan is more of a surprise than expectation. In such an atmosphere, the pressure is even greater for them to try and prove their worth in a highly globalized market. Poverty and lack of a modern educational curriculum are also two of the many underlying factors that contribute to this sense of despair.

But regardless of all these odds stacked heavily against them, young Pakistanis have proven themselves to be far more successful, productive and innovative than many of their Asian and Western counterparts.

Star student Ali Moeen Nawazish, from Rawalpindi, set the world record for the highest scores in GCE Advanced Levels — the British and Commonwealth equivalent of a high school diploma — with 22 As. He went on to graduate from Trinity Hall, University of Cambridge.

Since graduating, Nawazish has taken it upon himself to help the youth of Pakistan, founding companies that help provide opportunities for success to young people back home, in many different sectors such as media, IT, education and social services.

The Pakistani government is also coming around to the idea of entrepreneurship, and this has resulted in the launch of various programs that aid young entrepreneurs and innovators in establishing a firm foothold. The government of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, has also launched a highly successful start-up incubator for up-and-coming firms called Plan9.

And these steps seem to be working. Today, Eyedeus Labs, one of the start-ups Plan9 helped off the ground, is the proud creator of several excellent technologies that have gained recognition around the world. Their debut app, Groopic, has become a smartphone photographer favorite and has been downloaded up to 500,000 times on the Android platform, according to Google Play.

This potential has been recognized beyond Pakistan’s borders as well. In 2011, Google donated $250,000 to aid the setup of the P@sha Fund for Social Innovation, which helps people using technology to help society at large.

This is not just limited to young Pakistanis either. One excellent example is Naweed Syed, a researcher and scientist who works at the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute in Canada. Syed and his team have done ground-breaking work in connecting human brain cells to specifically designed silicon chips – work that provides new insight into the “conversation” between an electronic device and living tissue. The applications of this biotechnology in the medical field are vast and invaluable.

From Bad to Really Good

Aside from the above problems, Pakistan is often seen as an embattled state rife with terrorism and instability. But it is a testament to the spirit of this nation that good has arisen in spite of such ugly circumstances. As a response to the fact that fertilizer was being used to make improvised explosive devices by terrorists, a Pakistan-based fertilizer company is working on a new formula that cannot be adapted into materials used for bomb-making.

All fertilizer firms use ammonium nitrate as a key ingredient, which can also be used to make explosives. With some help from the US, Fatima Fertilizer, one of Pakistan’s major fertilizer manufacturers, is working on developing a non-lethal alternative to ammonium nitrate.

This has the potential to revolutionize the world of agriculture. The economies of most developing countries such as Pakistan, Nigeria and India depend heavily on agriculture, and a safe, non-lethal fertilizer would considerably reduce the security issues that require careful regulation, in turn making the lives of farmers’ in these areas much easier.

Useful Solutions

Another Pakistani mind was behind the potential solution to a massive problem that plagues developing countries: lack of public toilets. Professor Sohail Khan headed a team at Loughborough University that designed a lavatory system that converts human waste into biological charcoal, which can be used as fuel. This lavatory also produces clean water.

This invention has the potential to address what is a serious health and hygiene issue in countries like India, and to a lesser extent Pakistani itself, where water and sanitation infrastructures are sub par.

Getting Connected

Here’s something interesting: This seemingly struggling nation has one of the highest rates of cell phone usage and penetration in South Asia. Close to 140 million people have a cell phone connection in Pakistan, and they enjoy some of the cheapest service rates in the world.

Mobile Internet is also widely used in Pakistan, which has led to operators introducing 3G and 4G services in the country. One of these operators, China Mobile’s Zong – the world’s largest mobile network operator – invested $516 million in acquiring 3G and 4G licenses and is currently the only operator providing the latter.

This represents a significant investment in Pakistan, and seeing as it is such a large sum of money, it is unlikely to have been invested in Pakistan if the company in question perceived the country to be a place where risks outweighed the benefits of investment.

Entrepreneurship Abounds

One more example of Pakistan’s entrepreneurial spirit is a pair of brothers from Lahore, Pakistan’s second-largest city and technology hub, who almost single-handedly created the country’s first true real estate portal.

Zeeshan Ali Khan and Imran Ali Khan started Zameen.com in 2006 from a single room. Over the course of the next eight years, they successfully led this portal to become a widely-known, trusted, established and award-winning enterprise.

The implementation and adaptation of new ideas inventions is slowly lifting the misleading fog over the country’s international profile, but a lot still needs to be done before Pakistan’s true potential is realized.

Today, well-established foreign companies with near-unlimited capital struggle to break into the Pakistani online real estate industry because of the popularity and excellence of this homegrown brand.

“For the entrepreneur, no situation is impossible, and Pakistan’s certainly is not either. We are living proof that all you need is dedication, hard work and skill. Everything else tends to fall in place if you’re true to what you’re doing,” Zeeshan Ali Khan, the CEO of Zameen.com, tells this author.

Catcha Group and Frontier Digital Ventures, two of the most successful venture capitalism firms in the Asia Pacific, invested significant amounts in Zameen.com in 2014.

Encouraging Innovation

The public and private sectors of Pakistan’s economy have been quick to realize that innovation needs to be rewarded in order for it to be encouraged, and many organizations have taken the lead in making sure this happens.

The Pakistan Innovation Foundation (PIF), headed by WEF Young Global Leader Athar Osama, is a private-sector entity that has taken it upon itself to promote science, innovation and entrepreneurship in Pakistan. It works to raise awareness about the benefits of innovation and entrepreneurship, undertakes research and analysis on ways to spur innovation and make it beneficial, and raises funds to help innovators.

The public research university COMSATS Institute of Information Technology confers the Best IT Innovation Awards (BITA), with the aim of recognizing and encouraging innovation in IT. The Pakistani government’s Planning Commission has also been working since 2011 to reverse a policy environment that has been identified as not conducive to entrepreneurship and innovation, outlining its plans in a detailed document published three years ago.

The Real Picture

Why are these international giants choosing to invest in Pakistan if, judging by everything we hear about the country, it is a risky proposition? The answer is obvious: The situation is nowhere near as bad as it is made out to be.

The real picture is relatively simple: Yes, there are some things in Pakistan that need to be worked on by the government and by the people. Yes, it has its share of troubles. But no country in the world can say it has no problems and Pakistan is simply one of them. The implementation and adaptation of new ideas inventions is slowly lifting the misleading fog over the country’s international profile, but a lot still needs to be done before Pakistan’s true potential is realized.

But innovation and entrepreneurship seem to have emerged as viable means of dealing with these problems. In a generally hostile environment, nothing is a better idea for the youth of the country than to become as self-sufficient and independent as possible, and successful entrepreneurship is as certain a way of doing that as any.

While it is commendable that the state infrastructure has made room for ambitious up-and-coming enterprises, the government needs to do much more before the fear of losing a steady pay check gives way to confidence in Pakistan’s youth to go all in on their own. Providing easy loans to entrepreneurs with solid plans, working on developing more start-up incubators with experts to guide them, and providing tax exemptions to nascent companies are a few of the steps the government could take.

There is no shortage of role models for Pakistan’s young population, because the spirit of entrepreneurship is alive and well. If the current trends persist, it will ultimately play its part in helping overcome the obstacles Pakistan needs to combat in order to leave behind all that has ailed it in its 67-year history.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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