January 2020

Tania Aidrus has been made in charge of ‘Digital Pakistan’ - Prime Minister Imran Khan’s new initiative to herald a technologically driven environment for the youth. Here she talks to SouthAsia in an exclusive interview.

How would you explain the concept of Digital Pakistan?
Digital Pakistan is an overarching vision that aims to unlock the potential of Pakistan by architecting the foundations of its digital future - a future built on universal and equitable access with transparency and accountability, where technology touches and enriches the life of every citizen, thereby driving higher productivity and grants every Pakistani greater control, whilst unleashing their entrepreneurial potential, to propel Pakistan forward and secure its economic future.

What are your thoughts on the start-up environment in Pakistan?
I strongly believe that Pakistan’s startup ecosystem is at an inflection point. Our middle class is growing, which is driving growth in consumer spending. We have over 70M broadband internet users and, most importantly, we have a young, dynamic population and incredible talent. The diamonds are there, they now need to be mined, polished and packaged. It’s only a matter of time, a few big successes out of Pakistan will suddenly bring regional and then global attention to the massive opportunity that exists in the country.

Are you confident that Pakistan is moving in the right direction?
I’ll be completely honest, there has been no direction or vision set to date but things have continued to move forward due to the sheer persistence and resilience of our youth and the ecosystem. We should be much further ahead because we have ALL the building blocks and necessary ingredients. Can we collectively help move Pakistan in the right direction - YES! It’s very doable with the right plan, the right people and a can-do and inclusive approach.

How can this be a more structured, coherent and measurable pathway?
Like with most ambitious transformations we need a clear, comprehensive and articulate strategy and be able to see where we want to get to in the long term. Then we need to assign clear owners who can be held accountable for each milestone so we see rapid progress in the short-term. We just don’t have the time left to work in silos or be incremental in our approach anymore.

Will this also make a contribution to the IT job market in the country?
Absolutely - look at any comparable emerging market - the next billion dollar companies will come from tech - hundreds of thousands of new jobs will get created - and these will not just be jobs in technology but across all functions - once this ecosystem gets ignited. My favourite example is from Indonesia. It is about a homegrown unicorn called GoJek (think of Uber and Careem for motorcycles) - they recently released research that showed that they have added almost $4b to the Indonesian economy. There is no reason this cannot happen in Pakistan.

If this happens, will the need for more jobs be addressed?
Yes, as mentioned before, the contribution to jobs will be across multiple sectors and functions; this is the single biggest opportunity we have as a country to help bridge the unemployment gap.

What has hampered entrepreneurial evolution in the IT sector in Pakistan so far?
It is difficult to pin it down to one factor alone - there is definitely a Pakistan “tax” when startups try to raise money from investors abroad but, domestically, we also need to make it far easier for tech startups to operate easily in the country. Some examples include registration of companies, opening corporate bank accounts, access to funding, repatriation of funds - all of these if made simpler and less cumbersome will help. Also, its important to note that in almost every successful country’s example we see to date the Diaspora from those countries has played a massive role in helping the domestic landscape evolve - with funding, mentorship and also moving back and starting companies. This is now starting to happen much more in Pakistan.

'We need a clear, comprehensive and articulate strategy.'

What kind of solutions does the Pakistan government need to provide?
I don’t believe that the government should be getting into funding or incubating companies - the private sector is very capable of doing that. Also, over-regulating anything has never sparked innovation and has mostly killed it! The government’s biggest contribution should be in enabling an environment that makes it easy for Pakistanis to start, run and scale companies.

Could the country’s universities trigger such development in a more efficient manner?
Education is the most powerful weapon in any country’s arsenal - and there is no doubt that our educational institutions have a huge role to play. However, we have a lot of work to do on updating our curriculum across all levels and this is not an overnight fix. There are also other creative solutions that can enable future and emerging tech skills to be imparted to the youth.

About Tania Aidrus
Tania Aidrus, an ex-Google executive, has been put in charge of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s new initiative that is expected to herald a technologically-driven environment for the tech savvy youth of Pakistan. Before this, Tania was a leader in the Global Business Organization at Google in the US and then in Singapore where she was the Country Manager for South Asia Frontier Markets (Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka).
Prior to Google, Tania co-founded a mobile health diagnosis company called ClickDiagnostics, focused on connecting rural patients in emerging markets to doctors globally. She also spent a portion of her career consulting for Fortune 500 companies at Booz Allen Hamilton.
Aidrus has been living outside Pakistan for the last 20 years. She holds an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a BSc from Brandeis University.
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It is a gigantic and innovative initiative taken by Prime Minister Imran Khan to upgrade the country’s digital infrastructure and easing the environment for expansion of digital services. This is one way to empower women and transform underprivileged communities. There is also a need for IT boot camps in partnership with the education sector. Problem discovery workshops and consultations need to be organized with relevant stakeholders to set the Digital Pakistan Initiative in the correct direction.