Innovation in Pakistan: Success and Future Opportunities

With a significant portion of the population under the age of 35, Pakistan is currently enjoying a youth bulge in its demographics. The effect of this on innovation and entrepreneurship in the country are palpable and the progress in these fields has emerged as a viable means of dealing with the socioeconomic problems that Pakistan faces. Political instability aside, there has emerged a technology sector full of potential and strength, which has grown immensely during the last decade. Innovation in Pakistan has largely centered on adding value to existing products rather than starting from scratch.

Key Innovation in Pakistan

The key drivers to innovation in Pakistan include a favorable demographics, private and public initiative. As ascribed to earlier, the demographics have played a significant role in fuelling this innovation. However, education and political instability are impediments to the growth of the technology sector.

But regardless of all these odds stacked heavily against them, young Pakistanis have proven themselves to be successful at innovating and implementing their ideas. Eyedeus Labs, one of the many start-ups of the last decade is the creator of several excellent technologies that have gained recognition around the world. Their debut app, Groopic, became a casual photographer favorite and has been downloaded up to 500,000 times on the Android platform, according to Google Play.

Another, iTrak,  is working on a hands-free, human computer interaction product to make computing accessible and useful for the over 20 million people in the world who have either lost their hands or are unable to control a computer mouse.

The young engineers from one of Pakistan’s leading science and technology universities have developed a low-cost way to interact with a computer using only eye movements, which are read by a camera mounted on tailor-made head gear, sort of like Google Glass. Here is a video of a field trial as well as one of the engineers using the product to tweet, watch a video, and play games on a Windows computer

The innovation isn’t all high-tech. A lack of proper sanitation still plagues developing countries and a Pakistani professor found a potential solution to the massive problem. Professor Sohail Khan headed a team at Loughborough University that designed a lavatory system that converts human waste into biological charcoal, which can be used as fuel while also producing clean water.

As a response to the fact that fertilizer was being used to make improvised explosive devices by terrorists, a Pakistan-based fertilizer company is working on a new formula that cannot be adapted into materials used for bomb-making. All fertilizer firms use ammonium nitrate as a key ingredient, which can also be used to make explosives. With some help from the US, Fatima Fertilizer, one of Pakistan’s major fertilizer manufacturers, is working on developing a non-lethal alternative to ammonium nitrate

Public-Private Partnership

The Pakistani government has faced uphill battles in governance over the past few years. However, it has become more open to the idea of fuelling entrepreneurship, and this has resulted in the launch of various programs that aid young entrepreneurs and innovators. The government of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, has also launched a highly successful start-up incubator for up-and-coming firms called Plan9.

The Pakistan Innovation Foundation (PIF), started by a World Economic Forum awardee Athar Osama, is a private-sector entity that promotes science, innovation and entrepreneurship in Pakistan. They have provided seed capital, mentorship and other entrepreneurial resources to several start-ups in recent years.

The public research university COMSATS Institute of Information Technology confers the Best IT Innovation Awards (BITA), with the aim of recognizing and encouraging innovation in IT. The Pakistani government’s Planning Commission has also been working since 2011 to reverse a policy environment that has been identified as not conducive to entrepreneurship and innovation, outlining its plans in a detailed document published three years ago.

The Road Ahead

The demographics aside, the IT infrastructure in the country is improving significantly as well. A Chinese telecom company recently paid over $500 million to purchase the bandwidth spectrums for 3G and 4G data. Over 140 million Pakistanis have access to mobile phones (amongst the highest mobile phone penetration in the world) at extremely affordable rates. Online commerce is starting to become more commonplace with the ‘cash-on-delivery’ model, since payment gateways are not utilized widely. This remains another viable growth opportunity in Pakistan.

This presents an interesting road ahead for aspiring Pakistani entrepreneurs as well as the Pakistani diaspora around the world, provided that the government and socio-economic conditions improve to lay the groundwork.

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