Silicon Nooks and Crannies
By Caroline Jaine
My last piece promoting Pakistan as a good place for foreign investment has prompted a number of readers to get in contact with me – people who had no idea that Pakistan held such business potential. Some, including an orthodox Jewish businessman, asked if I could broker deals with Pakistani contacts. If ever I needed proof that writing makes a difference, I find it here.
In the wake of Steve Jobs passing and the week that India and Bangladesh both announce uber cheap laptops, I wondered about the potential for the tech business in Pakistan.
Domestic consumption of technology in Pakistan has focused on an explosion in mobile phone use in recent years, with over 110 million subscribers. Amer Sial writes a convincing piece on the development of mobile banking and describes Pakistan as a “virtual laboratory for innovation” with a genuine hope for an end to Pakistan’s financial exclusion. However, Amer also explained to me some of the reasons for low innovation in other areas of technology. The government, says Amer, “has no focus on introducing technology in different sectors, as primarily the economy is driven by the agriculture sector”. With government technology initiatives sorely under-developed, if ever there was an exciting space for the billions of dollars of aid it is perhaps here.
The lack of government investment is not the only reason Pakistan lags behind. Amer was one of many I spoke to who pointed at the decision for larger corporate sector players in Pakistan to opt for internationally acceptable solutions because of cost, whilst smaller Pakistani businesses develop locally-sold products. This reduces the need for innovative solutions – by operating in a local bubble, there is little competition in the market. Because big industry has no need for Pakistani solutions there is no push for local companies to develop them. Sadly, the ones who really benefit from this environment are the international giants of the technology industry.
As many have pointed out to me last week, there is nothing wrong with technology education in Pakistan – it is home to institutions like the National University of Science & Technology, the National University of Computer and Emerging Sciences, and places like Lahore University of Management Sciences offering a four-year Computer Science degree. Some Pakistani friends even bragged that the world’s first ever computer virus came from Pakistan. Perhaps the reason it now lags behind the rest of the world is that once qualified, so many experts are lured to the US, Europe and the Gulf to use their skills.
But Amer delivers hope in his article on mobile-phone innovation and, as broadband improves and technology begins to change people’s lives in Pakistan, the government and private sectors may have no choice but to fully embrace indigenous Pakistani tech solutions to a wealth of social and economic issues facing the country. As I have written before: the young, growing population and affordable labor in Pakistan, provide core ingredients for success.
With thanks to my Pakistani friends who are tech users on micro/blogs and other social networks, especially to Zahid Amin of Impassion Media and the poetic @ammaradurrani who wrote on Twitter: “Pak has many silicon gallies, nooks n crannies. Waiting now for Google, Apple, MS & Intel to come n set up a Valley here ”
( Caroline Jaine is a UK-based writer, artist and film-maker with a background in media strategy, training and diplomacy. Her book A Better Basra, about her time in Iraq was published in August 2011. - Dawn)