Pakistan's Startup Cup Brings Hope to the Weakest

The fervour around startup hubs in the Silicon Valley is spreading across the world, finding its way to new destinations little known for their technology contributions. Startup founders are keenly pursuing development of the next big social media platform or enterprise IT solutions to drive innovation essential to their business success during trying economic times. But contrary to the popular startup culture, entrepreneurship and commercial success is not necessarily a symbiotic match for Pakistani startup geeks. For now, aspiring young entrepreneurs appear keener to address pressing social needs such as employment for the unskilled, access to clean drinking water in remote areas, peace and security.

This impression was apparent among contestants of the recent Pakistan Startup Cup, a four-month long competition organized by the US Embassy and the Islamabad chapter of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a group of executives and entrepreneurs, named after Pakistan’s famous, almost 3,000km river of that name. Over 400 contestants competed and received professional coaching from seasoned mentors on transforming ideas into commercial reality.

“Unlike famous technology entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley, participants are not necessarily focusing on disruptive innovation to make their brands successful,” said a media reporter covering the competition finale at the Marriot Hotel, Islamabad.

“The spirit of this competition is to help establish tech companies with a strong vision to develop meaningful solutions for average citizens. High money valuations are clearly not the primary goal for these startup founders as ideas from the finalists are all about using technology to serve social needs. But in the near future we hope to see young aspiring entrepreneurs building tech clusters and driving the Pakistan national economy like tech power houses in Silicon Valley.”

However, entrepreneurship in developing countries like Pakistan is significantly distinct from that practised in the Silicon Valley. Lack of ICT infrastructure, low investor confidence and market inefficiencies keep venture capitalists from supporting ideas that need high investment and IT deployments on a large scale.

But the government, private sector and foreign organisations are working together to bring forward ideas capable of transforming the lifestyles of citizens by introducing innovative technology solutions.

The second-place finisher, Idea Centricity, which develops an app for booking rickshaws, and the promising venture Kamata Pakistan, a site for hiring service staff, are prime examples of entrepreneurs leveraging ICT technologies and the prevalent e-sourcing culture to provide employment opportunities to low-skilled and blue-collar workers.

In Pakistan, thousands of job seekers have already signed up to connect with potential employers over websites but the idea is far from filling the huge communication gap between the two parties. Language barriers, illiteracy, lack of internet access and insufficient awareness about these solutions are keeping entrepreneurs from reaching the vast target audience.

“Waiting for literacy rates and internet access to rise is not a viable strategy for these young startups operating on minimal financial backing,” said an economics expert, speaking on condition of anonymity. “These platforms will only facilitate a handful of labour-class workers fortunate to have someone helping them register on these [e-sourcing] sites. There needs to be an offline advertising model and a registration system that automatically creates and updates employee profiles online. The population is not yet prepared to enter the digital era all by itself so the startup geeks should first focus on integrating ICT-based solutions [to fit low-wage workers’] traditional lifestyles.”

These startups look promising but are yet to evolve fully in a society that has not quite embraced the digital revolution. In the meantime, a number of social entrepreneurial ventures are ready to make an immediate and real impact on the society. Startup Cup winner Go-Fig Solutions provides simulations and modelling of suicide bombings to help in risk mitigation and planning, tallies drone strikes and other violent acts and provides tools to forecast such events. Boond (meaning ‘drop’ in Sanskrit) provides affordable clean energy for rural India and other parts of the world, helping to provide pest control and purified water.  

Despite the many problems facing the growth of such efforts, it’s to be hoped that it’s only a matter of time before more startups sprawl across Pakistan addressing concerns of average citizens and expanding their models to serve the global population address pressing social problems.


Ali Raza is a Pakistani business and technology consultant who covers consumer and enterprise technology issues for US and international publications. As a racing driver and a stunt master, only cars eclipse his love for technology.


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Ali Raza

Ali Raza is a business and technology consultant who covers consumer and enterprise technology issues for US and international publications. As a racing driver and a stunt master, only cars eclipse his love for technology.

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