Pakistan Climbs up IT Ladder, Catches Global Attention
By the Citizen Bureau New Delhi
In the West, India is synonymous with the IT industry, and deservedly so given its $100 billion worth of software exports per year. In comparison, neighbor Pakistan is virtually a non-entity, with its share of global IT sales only $2.8 billion, of which $1.6 billion represents tech and IT services and software exported abroad. That’s barely a drop in an IT ocean estimated at $3.2 trillion globally in 2015. Yet, Pakistan’s tiny IT sector is carving out a niche for itself -- so much so that it has been the subject of several stories in international publications such as the New York Times, the Global Post, Al Jazeera, to name a few. Perhaps the interest is because of the obvious potential of the industry: There are now 1,500 registered IT companies in Pakistan while 10,000 IT grads enter the market every year.
Perhaps even more significantly, the democratization of demand as facilitated by the internet-era, has enabled Pakistan to climb up market ranks to become the No 3 country for supplying freelance programmers, behind only the United States and India, and up from No 5 just two years ago. This is because programmers in Pakistan can easily sign up to platforms such as Upwork or Fiverr, where the person hiring them is less interested in their location and more concerned with their skill. Because the programmer in Pakistan is using a third party platform, logistical, bureaucratic and other constraints that are typically associated with Pakistan, including corruption, do not apply. As reported by The New York Times, Pakistan ranks in the upper 10 to 25 percent on Upwork’s listing of growth rates for top-earning countries, alongside India, Canada and Ukraine. Pakistan’s freelance programmers already account for $850 million of the country’s software exports; that number could go up to $1 billion in the next several months, says Umar Saif, who heads the Punjab IT Board and previously taught and did research work at MIT.
As reported by the Global Post, Pakistan’s software export industry employs some 24,000 people, according to government figures. Most companies in Pakistan’s IT sector — including mobile game studios — are growing at more than 30 percent a year, says Pakistan’s software industry trade body, P@SHA. With success come challenges, and Pakistan’s nascent IT industry faced its first such challenge last May, when news broke that Axact, one of Pakistan’s largest IT companies, was operating as a fake degree mill. Authorities acted fast, arrested Axact’s chief within days, though the controversy did lead many to comment on whether the country’s IT industry stood a chance in the long-term. That question was answered almost immediately, when just three days after the Axact controversy, Naseeb Networks International, a Lahorebased company that runs the online job marketplace Rozee.pk, announced that it had won a third round of investments worth $6.5 million, from the European investment firms Vostok Nafta and Piton Capital. The latest round of funding brought the company’s total venture capital funding to $8.5 million. Or take the example of Caramel Tech Studios, a Pakistan-based mobile game startup that created the sensation “Fruit Ninja” for an Australian developer. Another such startup in Pakistan is Mindstorm Studios, maker of “Whacksy Taxi,” a racing game that topped Apple’s App Store in more than 25 countries.
And while constraints such as bureaucracy, shortage of land/space for offices, power shortages, et cetera remain a challenge, they are offset by positives, most importantly cost. “If we have a million dollars in the bank ... in the US we might only be able to make one and a half games, whereas here we might be able to make 10 games,” Saad Zaeem of Caramel Tech Studios told The Global Post, adding that graduates here are as qualified as Western ones and cost a lot less to employ, giving software startups a competitive advantage over high-wage Western countries. Further, the rise of the mobile software market has been a huge gamechanger. “Prior to the iPhone … it was a very closed-door system,” said Babar Ahmed, Mindstorm’s co-founder and CEO. “So you had to apply for a developer’s license to Nintendo or Microsoft or Sony. And they’d vet your studio out, they’d look at your resumes. They’d only give their [software development kit] to, like, very select studios. That’s not the case anymore” (as quoted in The Global Post). Overall, entrepreneurs in Pakistan as well as the world watching them are optimistic, and rightfully so.