Published in Jan-Feb 2018
In Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), Pakistan’s newest province, 73% of the population is under the age of 29. However, due to security issues, KP has suffered extensively, particularly with respect to people and businesses either moving out of Pakistan or to more peaceful cities. This has had a huge impact on KP’s economy; there are fewer opportunities and increasing unemployment. However, the situation has also acted as a catalyst for innovation, with young people in the province taking it upon themselves to create the opportunities they need. Their weapon of choice to fight back? Technology!
Unlike Punjab, which has an active Punjab Information Technology Board in Lahore or Karachi, where P@SHA (Pakistan Software Houses Association for IT & ITES) is based, KP only had a handful of IT companies, and although KP’s IT Board was established in May 2011, it only started to work towards promoting IT, technology-enabled services and education in the province in 2015.
A lack of opportunity meant citizens had to create opportunities for themselves. Software engineering graduates from the University of Engineering & Technology (UET) campuses in Peshawar and Mardan, and the Ghulam Ishaq Khan (GIK) Institute of Technology in Swabi, had just two options if they wanted to stay in KP; find work online or develop a product and market it globally.
Waqas Khan, a GIK graduate who is currently working as an iOS engineer at Chess.com had this to say about how he eventually was able to find a job at one of the most frequently visited chess websites.
"We have launched a range of projects under the umbrella of Digital KP; they focus on expanding internet access, reducing the industry-academia skills-set gap, promoting the digital economy and improving digital governance."
“I started off as a freelancer on oDesk (now Upwork), a marketplace for digital skills. I bootstrapped by selling my services in app development, while building games for the US market. Somewhere along the line, I crossed paths with my current employer. My interest in games and solid software engineering background was the perfect fit for Chess.com.”
Asad Iqbal, the founder of Hiwaas (an IT services and product company) has a similar story. After working for a few software houses in Islamabad, he decided to move back to his hometown Mardan and co-founded Hiwaas with a couple of friends. Hiwaas creates apps for the Android Play Store and the Apple Store. One of their great successes was in India with an app that converted roman Urdu (or any other language) into native type; as Iqbal says “on the internet, there are no borders; you can create products for the world from the comfort of your home.”
Faisal Khan spent his childhood in Riyadh and then went to Oxford for his PhD in Biotechnology. Next, he moved to Peshawar to spearhead a grassroots movement, which would later be called Peshawar 2.0, a community organisation that laid the foundation for a technology and entrepreneurship ecosystem in KP. Khan’s roadmap was to create awareness about technology and entrepreneurship; skill up the workforce and kick-start the ecosystem by incubating the most promising start-ups.
What happened next was that thanks to an improving security situation, the World Bank (WB) reached out to the IT Board to offer technical support. As a part of this initiative, the IT Board, WB and Peshawar 2.0, organised the first Digital Youth Summit (DYS) in 2014 – a three-day conference, packed with training, panel discussions, talks and competitions. With the assistance of the WB and government support, KP was able to invite international speakers to the event, including successful expat Pakistani entrepreneurs based in Silicon Valley and other global tech hubs. DYS 2015 was an even bigger success, garnering over 100 speakers and 3,000 attendees.
Events like DYS have not only brought the community closer, they have also increased the interest among expats to invest in KP. DYS 2015 helped lay the foundation for KP’s first angel investors’ panel which included over 20 high-net investors.
According to Anna O’Donnel, Senior Social Development Specialist, WB (she is also leading the work with the KP Government), “KP’s digital landscape has undergone a significant transformation since 2013, when we began supporting digital initiatives with the provincial government. An area where you see growth is among the multitude of grassroot players and it is one of the things our international speakers comment on the most – it is this energy and excitement that makes the digital community in KP such a special place.”
In 2016, the KP IT Board hired Dr Shahbaz Khan as MD. He has a doctorate in computer systems engineering from the UK and almost a decade of experience working in academia and industry-funded research; he has also keenly observed the evolution of KP’s digital landscape. In his new role as the IT Board’s MD, he had a clear vision.
Recently, the Federal Government’s Ignite (previously called the ICT R&D Fund) has commissioned a National Incubation Centre in Peshawar aimed at incubating ICT start-ups in KP.
Asked about the future, Dr Khan says he has high expectations from the young in the province. “We have all the ingredients to become a regionally-significant technology hub – a talented workforce, comparatively lower capital and labour costs, and a young, digitally engaged population.”
I also asked him about what he was currently focused on and his plans for the year ahead.
“My focus has been on strengthening the institutions and regulations required to enable a digital transformation that will benefit all citizens. We have launched a range of projects under the umbrella of Digital KP; they focus on expanding internet access, reducing the industry-academia skills-set gap, promoting the digital economy and improving digital governance. We are engaging with a range of stakeholders around a common vision of a Digital KP.”
Recently, the Federal Government’s Ignite (previously called the ICT R&D Fund) has commissioned a National Incubation Centre in Peshawar aimed at incubating ICT start-ups in KP. There is also an increasing interest from other development sector organisations, such as USAID and UNDP. It therefore seems likely that 2018 will see a lot more activities from the development sector.
The KP government is also showing an interest in digital advertising, probably because of PTI’s success on social media. Almost every government department has a digital or social media manager who is a part of a larger PR strategy.
The lack of a significant number of corporate companies based in Peshawar has meant that mainstream advertising agencies do not have a presence there either; as a result, small and medium-sized companies have mostly relied on print and OOH advertising for their communications requirements.
After gaining some experience as a founding team member at a digital agency in the UK, I moved to Peshawar and set up Blimp, a digital marketing and PR agency. The timing was just right. With easier access to the internet, thanks to 3G and 4G, and the falling prices of smartphones, KP was experiencing a significant increase in internet users. Over the last three years, we have worked with over 120 clients, with more and more of them ditching traditional media in favour of digital. By focusing on content made for digital, we have been able engage more customers per rupee spent compared to print and OOH advertising.
The KP government is also showing an interest in digital advertising, probably because of PTI’s success on social media. Almost every government department has a digital or social media manager who is a part of a larger PR strategy. However, the provincial government’s procurement rules for advertising currently do not recognise digital as an advertising medium, something which agencies like mine are hoping to change by inviting representatives from Facebook, Google and Twitter to KP (something that was just not possible a few years ago).
Muhammad Uzair leads Blimp, a digital marketing & PR agency based in Peshawar.