With over 25 years of experience in the I.T. industry, Naseer Akhtar has been at the forefront of Pakistan’s technological development for decades. His company, InfoTech, has offices across Pakistan and he currently serves as the chairman of trade body P@SHA, or the Pakistan Software Houses Association. He recently sat down with Newsweek Pakistan to discuss the unfulfilled potential of Pakistan’s I.T. sector and how it can help improve the quality of life across the country. Excerpts:
Do you think that Pakistan has achieved its potential in the I.T. sector?
Absolutely not. We have very few technical universities producing quality engineering graduates; we need to fortify this pipeline and guide it so that we achieve our potential. That is when we shall be able to compete and outgrow our peer countries. We will reach our potential when our startups thrive by harnessing disruptive technologies with access to capital, fluidity of labor and high quality products and services built with usability at their core and become large companies. We will achieve our potential when we have at least a dozen technology companies employing from 10-20,000 employees each. We will have reached our potential when our top business groups and governments are hyper efficient and competitive because of the edge our technologies give them.
What are the challenges that have kept us from achieving this potential?
If you look at China with its technology and Internet giants, or DARPA in the U.S. and their approach to net neutrality, government support in one form or another is critical. If this support does not exist or it’s not strategic you cannot achieve your potential. Both on policy and strategic access and support, the government can and needs to do more. Secondly, the private sector needs to invest in organizational capability to scale. This means investing in culture management, automating sales management, using design thinking for innovative products and then taking it beyond borders. One of the things that worry me is a rapidly developing gap between people needed by I.T. companies to grow and people available. We have a small pool of available graduates from top institutions and too many of them are getting sucked into the startup frenzy leaving none to power growth of established I.T. companies. We have a decent success rate on our startups converting into SMEs [small and medium enterprises], at a very slow pace though, but we must discover and fix the reasons for our SMEs failing to graduate into “Enterprises.” We need to manage the entire ecosystem of available resources smartly so maximum success is created for both startups and enterprises.
Do you think organizations such as P@SHA—working together with the government—can help bridge this gap?
The resources available to the government are a weapon. P@SHA can help with aiming the weapon for maximum value creation. We need to compete globally via a razor sharp focus and that tactical play must be dictated by an informed policy-led strategy. This year we have a clear focus in P@SHA to start achieving that: market sizing. You cannot improve what you cannot measure. So we need to figure out our domestic market size per sector, its growth rates and the drivers of growth. How many people relevant to the industry are we graduating? How many are being included in the industry? We need an industry scorecard so we know where we stand.
We will be increasing capacity to make P@SHA more effective so we can address the I.T. sector’s entire lifecycle from strategy to execution and play a more effective role in making the ecosystem efficient. We will also get far more involved in understanding the structuring of the I.T. export market, analyzing it and its governance. We’re all operating in a facts and figures vacuum which is helping no one.
What are the key areas you think Pakistani I.T. companies should focus on in the future?
We keep talking in government and private sectors about technologies that are literally boats we have missed. Let’s get over what could have been and focus on what can be. A few disruptive technologies and trends clearly leap out. Blockchain, predictive & prescriptive analytics and Internet of Things are clearly a few of them. These are massive areas for innovation and for value creation. Focusing on these will allow us to create an emerging market and in some case global leadership. On the whole there are many areas in the SMAC [Social Mobility Analytics and Cloud] stack where Pakistani companies can focus for lasting value creation.
How do you see the recent expansion of e-commerce in Pakistan?
The recent expansion of e-commerce has simply been a replication of what has happened elsewhere in the world. And this is fine. It’s a once-in-a-generation virtual land grab as companies seek to secure a share of the buying public moving to the web. This has been dramatically accelerated by 3G and 4G so there’s juice left for expansion yet as 3G/4G penetration increases. We’re probably in the very initial stages of Pakistan’s e-commerce cycle. These cycles are dependent on connectivity and regulation. Based on what we have in place we are on track. You can expect the e-commerce sector to grow dramatically fast.
How can I.T. help improve the lives of the common Pakistani?
I passionately believe I.T. has part or all of the answer to every big problem Pakistan faces, for example energy. You can use smart grid technologies to efficiently utilize produced electricity, eradicating billions in losses caused by theft and line losses while dramatically reducing outages. You create energy arbitrage combined with sustainable technologies so that power generated can be given back to the grid over two-way meters. You enable consumers to know their consumption in real time so they manage their energy better.
I also expect e-commerce to become a key driver of domestic consumption. That consumption results in GDP growth and benefits all economic strata. Its not just fueling an economic elite and that is important. It also creates transparency so artificial profits get taken out of the equation and savings get passed on to lower and middle classes.
Over 80 million people in Pakistan work in the agriculture sector. Using sensors and data combined with some advanced farming techniques we can save water used for farming, in some cases by up to 70% or more. With access to real time information powered by a connected and automated agriculture value chain, the ability to create pockets of prosperity in millions of households exists as farmers understand how to farm better and cut out the middle man.
There are over 40 million youth hitting Intermediate studies in the next decade, the biggest net demographic spike in our history. Who is going to educate them? Technology partnered with innovation can. We can scale education using a combination of devices, platforms and digitization. From tasking one teacher for thousands of students, we can use video-on-demand to enable studying when electricity and time allows. Technology will revolutionize how we get educated and up our literacy rate in the process too.
It used to take up to 50 years for countries to become developed in Asia. Smart use of technology will allow us to take decades out of that.
From our Feb. 11-18, 2018, issue.