The Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of high-energy and passion coupled with progress to be made in infrastructure, education, and poverty.
There have been great strides in the Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosytem in sectors such as edtech, healthtech, and especially fintech in Pakistan.
All of this and more was on display at the Momentum Tech Conference in Karachi from February 19-20. Momentum is not just a conference, but a platform that connects the entire Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem and global players.
Founded by brothers Amir Jafri and Asif Jafri who spared no expense in flying me to Pakistan and showing me the utmost in hospitality, Momentum is a global startup community designed to educate, inspire and connect Pakistani entrepreneurs who work on innovative and disruptive technologies to create the knowledge economy to drive Pakistan’s growth over the coming decade.
Abrar Ahmed Mir, Chief Innovation and Financial Inclusion Officer at Habib Bank Limited (HBL), said at Momentum 2018, “What we have seen in Pakistan over the last couple of years since HBL has been involved in this space is growth in a few areas. We have seen growth in the fintech space […] We have seen growth in the edtech space. We’ve seen growth in healthtech. And one of the upcoming areas for more growth in Pakistan seems to be in agtech.”
“We have startups here who are looking for a problem to solve. Those are the areas where they can solve a lot of problems in Pakistan,” he added.
Before the Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem can truly take off exponentially, the country’s infrastructure needs to be able to support its demands. This includes more accessibility not just to better and more affordable education, but to some of the more basic human needs such as clean drinking water and economic housing.
This is where groups like the Social Innovation Lab (SIL) are making strides. To date, SIL has incubated 77 startups, generated $400K in funding, and touched the lives of nearly four million people.
Today, basic needs are being addressed from within, starting with Pakistan’s entrepreneurs. Among the top five startups on display at the Momentum stage were companies who had successfully built portable water filters claiming to purify dirty water up to 99%, that had developed a way to convert Pakistan’s three million tons of organic waste into rich compost, and that had launched quick and durable housing projects that are tested to last at least 30 years.
This is happening now. However, for future generations to have opportunities to succeed in the Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem, they must have access to quality education, and that includes connectivity.
Startups and enterprises are working with the government and educational institutions to make the Pakistani entrepreneurial scene a modern, worldwide success.
Ignite, for example, is the National Technology Fund of the Ministry of Information Technology & Telecom, and it launched DigiSkills, a hybrid online training program for startups.
Yusuf Hussain, CEO at Ignite, said at Momentum, “At our universities we need to align the curriculum with market needs.”
“At Ignite we are not just looking at startups, but we are looking at the value chain of innovation, and that value chain starts at school,” he added.
Looking towards the future, Muhammad Zubair, governor of the Sindh province where Karachi is located, said in an impromptu address on the Momentum stage, “This [Momentum] is a great endeavor obviously and Pakistan is poised for very, very good economic growth in the next five to 10 years. Everyone predicts that the law and order situation is significantly improving.”
“So, thank you Momentum for helping us in this space and so people who come here can see for themselves that Karachi is not so bad as it is made out to be.”
And there are many companies and government organizations working on providing entrepreneurs with access to capital, mentorships, and networking.
Of these organizations I spoke with Naeem Zamindar, Chairman at the Prime Minister’s Office Board of Investment (BOI); Syed Hussain, Advisor at the Entrepreneurship Development Fund; M. Gulsher Khan, CEO at InvestIn.pk; and Khurram Mujtaba, CEO at JumpStart Pakistan who all share a common vision.
I met Mujtaba before the Momentum conference while hundreds of startups pitched for a spot in the exposition, and he invited me to speak before the startups about my mission to learn about the Pakistani entrepreneurial ecosystem.
On the first day of the conference Aamir Ibrahim, CEO at Jazz xlr8, spoke about how business models that have succeeded in the West will be adopted in Karachi and other major cities in Pakistan, and it is only a question of when.
Jazz partnered with VEON in Pakistan’s first successful private and public partnership to launch OTT communication services in the country.
“There will be an Amazon in Paksitan. There will be a PayPal. Those spaces are still to be occupied. The question is who gets there first,” said Ibrahim.
Pakistan can and has already benefited from adopting solutions that have proven themselves in other parts of the world.
This is evidenced by the enormous success of Careem, the Middle East’s answer to Uber. Careem got its start in Dubai in 2012 where there was a very difficult market. Once Careem proved successful in Dubai, it was a no-brainer to bring it to Pakistan where the market and demand was similar. Now the company is valued at $1 billion.
Asha Jadeja, Managing Partner at Dot Edu Ventures, was asked on the Momentum stage whether or not it is a good idea to copy or “clone” foreign business models or if that would be counter-productive to real innovation.
“We should do it. We should be cloning everything!” was her response. She went on to explain that each problem a country faces is unique, so in the case of cloning businesses, she says that if it helps solve a specific problem that is unique to the region, then that is a form of innovation.
Whatever the case, Pakistan’s startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem has gained the attention of the biggest names in tech, as evidenced by the presence of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, IBM, and Facebook at Momentum.
IBM was there to look for startups to join the IBM Global Entrepreneur Program, where companies receive up to $120K IBM Cloud credits for PaaS, IaaS, and services such as Watson, the IoT, and mobile.
Microsoft was looking to partner with and recruit startups for its Cloud Society as well, where it supports companies in becoming world-class experts in the space of cloud computing.
Facebook as well was ever present. Ladies-first online marketplace Sheops Founder and CEO Nadia Patel attributed her company’s 100 thousand monthly website visitors and 2,700 new registered sellers across 780 active shops largely to Facebook’s platform where they have 59 thousand community members.
“Facebook was the perfect platform to validate our idea of creating an online marketplace for women, and curating the community to actively engage in buying and selling – all before launching the website,” said Patel.
“We identified issues that women encountered on other platforms and that enabled us to build a bespoke platform, designed especially for women entrepreneurs and women-oriented businesses,” she added.
I spoke with Sadaffe Abid, CEO at CIRCLE, who was also a panelist talking about the role of women in the Pakistani startup ecosystem. She told me that only 2% of CEOs in Pakistan were women, and that it is time that they stepped into a more leadership role.
Fintech in Pakistan is becoming well-established. It is also making progress in edtech through gamification and online tutoring with fresh, young entrepreneurs thinking outside the box such as early-stage startup Edx Link, which provides practice testing for lower-income students, and there is also progress being made in medtech like startups like Mobile Doctor headed by Farhan Ali, and there are visions of developing more agtech solutions as well.
The transformations taking place in cities like Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore have spearheaded a new ecosystem that is united in a common goal for the benefit of Pakistan.
As a journalist who has lived in Medellin, Colombia for the past four years, I can see many parallels between the two countries. Both are recovering from war. Both still have stark contrasts between rich and poor, and both are tirelessly working to change outside perspectives brought on by the media.
I have seen how the Colombian entrepreneurial ecosystem has been rising first-hand, and from what I have seen in my short stay in Karachi, the Pakistani startup scene is much bigger in its sheer size and population, and there is a passion and sense of togetherness in its DNA.
Most founders I spoke with are looking to partner, all are looking to grow, looking to bring their products to market, and more importantly, they are all looking to see Pakistan a global powerhouse.