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A First World Market in a Third World Country

Information technology in Pakistan is a rapidly growing industry that has immediate and sizeable prospects for further progress and very promising change in the way life is lived in the country.

The IT industry today is regarded as one of the most successful sectors in Pakistan’s economy, and it continues to blossom amid financial crises that have crippled many other sectors. One reason for this astronomical growth and development of the IT industry is the ever-increasing interest of the Pakistani public in emerging technologies.

Since the arrival of dial-up internet in Pakistan decades ago, the internet service provision industry has grown slowly but steadily. That all changed in recent years as Pakistan’s potential as a massive but largely untapped market became apparent to investors within the country and without. The result was a rush of local and foreign service providers who battled each other for the largest chunk of a market hungry for more, in the process creating a thriving industry bursting with options for the end-user.

And it was from among these spoilt-for-choice end-users that a group began to emerge with ideas that had the potential to seriously change the landscape of Pakistan and bring it up to speed with the developed world. These entrepreneurs sensed early that with high-speed internet came a whole host of opportunities, and they set about building a Pakistan-focused online service industry that eventually developed into a multi-million dollar enterprise.

Suddenly, Pakistanis had their own version of nearly everything people in developed countries had had for years. Homegrown startups with highly innovative products flooded the online market, and where it made for a lot of happy users, it also resulted in the influx of foreign direct investment to fund their growth.

One such example is Pakistan’s leading property portal Zameen.com, which pioneered the shift from traditional real estate dealings to a viable online platform in 2006 and quickly become the darling of internet-savvy Pakistanis. Since then, it has drawn significant investment from real estate and venture capitalism heavyweights as far afield as France, Singapore and Malaysia.

The arrival in Pakistan of high-speed mobile internet technology such as 3G and 4G LTE, albeit fairly late, is another example. Pakistan, with a population of over 180 million, boasts over 130 million cellular subscribers and a host of operators such as Mobilink, Telenor, Zong, Ufone and Warid. That means a stunning three quarters (almost 75%) of Pakistan’s total population has and uses a cell phone. A chunk of these users use mobile internet, and these numbers are growing by the day.

Keeping in mind that Pakistan is often thought of as an impoverished, underdeveloped Third World country, these stats are all the more impressive. In the years 2003-2005 the country’s IT exports saw a rise of around 50 per cent, amounting to a total of nearly $48.5 million. In 2012, the World Economic Forum assessed the development of IT in Pakistan and ranked the country 102nd from among 144 countries in its Global Information Technology Report.

The Government of Pakistan has also attached great importance to information technology as part of its efforts to develop an ‘information age’ in the country, and an elaborate national IT policy has been formulated to that end.

The IT industry has taken many forms of progression, and the field is no longer limited only to the study of computers but has branched out to penetrate the mainstream of the Pakistani economy. Today the Government of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, prides itself in the establishment of the Arfa Karim Technology Park, and the Federal Government oversees an entire sector that regulates and monitors the ongoing progress of technology and its incorporation in the Pakistani economy and lifestyle.

On the public front, the government’s National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) has, over the last decade, developed a massive network of registration centres and a database the size of Pluto on the back of computerised registration systems used to issue essential identification documents to Pakistani citizens. What was formerly a highly onerous manual process prone to corruption and human error is now well-oiled, high-tech machinery that has made life easier for Pakistanis.

With the ubiquity of computers and increasing use of internet in the country, the market is expanding exponentially and making room for newer entrants with decidedly valuable skills and products. Recognizing this in 2011, Google donated $250,000 USD in seed funding to establish the P@sha Fund for Social Innovation for entrepreneurs, social activists or non-profits in Pakistan aiming to use technology to meet social needs in education, culture, medicine or any other community problem. Similarly, many other organizations both foreign and domestic are buying into this promise. For example, the UK’s i-genius and Economic Policy Group have pulled together a Commission on Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation as well as reports on Pakistan’s potential in this field.

These trends point towards a brighter future for the ordinary Pakistani and a happening IT industry in a country ironically thought of by many as a struggling, backward state.

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