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Hilal English

National Seminar on Information Technology 2023

August 2023

National IT Seminar in Islamabad witnessed the launch of the Special Investment Facilitation Council, aiming to attract foreign investment and boost the IT sector. With thriving NICs supporting 1300 startups and initiatives, Pakistan's IT industry is set for exponential growth under the government's investor-friendly approach.

The National Information Technology Seminar held in Islamabad on Thursday, July 20, 2023, saw the esteemed presence of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif, as the Chief Guest. The event also hosted Chief of the Army Staff (COAS), General Syed Asim Munir, as the Guest of Honor. The gathering included Federal Ministers, Senior Government and Defense Sector officials, diplomats from Gulf countries, China, the UAE, delegates, CEOs, and representatives from various national and international IT companies. The primary objective of the seminar was to foster collaboration among all stakeholders to promote IT exports collectively. Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif actively participated in the event and utilized the opportunity to inaugurate several IT projects. Among the seminar's highlights were presentations on Destination Pakistan, Tech Lift Bootcamp, the First Knowledge Park for Women in Azad Kashmir, Agri-Tech Incubator Faisalabad, and the Centre of Excellence in Gaming and Animation.

Overview of Pakistan's Startup Ecosystem
Pakistan's startup ecosystem has experienced remarkable growth over the past few years, supported by a network of National Incubation Centers (NICs), Business Incubation Centers (BICs), and other incubators and accelerators. These entities provide critical infrastructure, support, resources, mentorship, and networking to startups, nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship in the country. The ecosystem has attracted local and international investors, increasing funding opportunities for startups. Over the last two and a half years, Pakistani startups have raised more than USD 760 million in funding, most of which is foreign investment against an average equity of 25 percent. That gives a valuation of more than USD 3 billion to Pakistani startups. More than 20 global VCs, including Kleiner Perkins, Tiger Global, Draper Associates, Orbit SOSV, and many others, have invested in Pakistani startups over the last couple of years. This reflects the confidence these investors have in the future potential of Pakistani startups.  
National Incubation Centers 
So far, Ignite has established National Incubation Centers (NICs) in 8 different cities of Pakistan, including Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, Faisalabad, Hyderabad, and Rawalpindi, with expansion to more cities being planned in the future. These NICs have played a pivotal role in nurturing the startup ecosystem. They serve as key hubs for innovation and entrepreneurship.
These centers provide startups with essential support, including infrastructure, mentorship, training, and access to funding and investment opportunities. The number of NICs reflects the government's commitment to building a robust startup ecosystem in Pakistan. These centers have successfully nurtured over 1300 startups, attracting and supporting entrepreneurial talent in Pakistan. The startups incubated in NICs cover various sectors, including technology, e-commerce, health, education, and more. NICs provide the following benefits to incubated startups: 
Creation of a Supportive Startup Ecosystem. The NIC program has played a crucial role in creating a supportive ecosystem for startups in Pakistan. With over 1300 startups already inducted into the program, it brings together entrepreneurs, mentors, investors, and industry experts, fostering collaboration and knowledge sharing. The program helps startups connect with potential investors, partners, and customers, facilitating their growth and success.
Access to Funding and Investment Opportunities. The NIC program has facilitated startups to raise a significant amount of investment, with a total of 22.1 billion PKR raised by NIC startups. Startups can pitch their ideas to VCs to secure venture funding. This access to funding plays a vital role in fueling the growth of startups and driving innovation in Pakistan's tech sector. In the future, the government will launch a startup fund and an endowment fund for giving seed grants to promising startups. 
Impact on Job Creation and Revenue Generation. The NIC program has substantially impacted job creation, directly and indirectly, with over 126,000 jobs created by incubated startups. Startups nurtured by the program have contributed to Pakistan's economy, generating revenue of PKR 13.85 billion so far.

Transformative Impacts of SIFC: Revolutionizing Foreign Investments
Chairman Pakistan Software Houses Association (P@SHA), Muhammad Zohaib Khan, has termed the formation of a game-changer vis-a-vis foreign direct investment (FDI) and transformational for the economy of Pakistan.
SIFC will comprise top leadership of both the government and the armed forces, and will have apex, executive, and implementation committees. This is a brilliant, timely move, and, he added, we hail both the civilian and the state institutions for their clarity of thought and coming together for the country's prosperity. 
SIFC's formation in crisis-stricken Pakistan is a breath of fresh air. It is a significant step towards economic prosperity indeed. This demonstrates the government's farsightedness, understanding, and realization of the gravity of the situation. SIFC forum is mandated to address the crisis of policymaking and pave the way for reforms. These are the foundations that, in the longer run, will turn the economic situation around, regain investor confidence, and attract foreign investment into the country. 
SIFC is tasked to increase the FDI to USD 5 billion; imagine the stir in the overall economic activity after this investment is injected into our system. IT Industry stands tall with all the stakeholders in spearheading efforts for an investor-friendly environment in Pakistan. Information Technology is among the core identified areas with the potential for exponential growth. SIFC forum will address the pertinent procedural issues that will give way to policy reforms and develop a culture that prioritizes and facilitates investor concerns. 
Pakistan is a land of opportunities; our innovation potential is huge; we have high hopes that SIFC will introduce necessary policy reforms critical for growth. The IT sector has been fortunate enough to attract foreign investment, but the bottlenecks, lengthy processes, and a non-cooperative environment in public departments have been a concern for investor, hence they are exploring markets outside Pakistan. With SIFC in the picture, we hope it will address all the bottlenecks and reduce the processing time and associated costs. This will address the cost of doing business in Pakistan and make it convenient for foreign investors to set up companies in Pakistan. “I have a strong belief that we are on the right path and it is just a matter of time that our economy will prosper, and Pakistan will be a heaven for investors," he remarked.
Zohaib Khan continued that investors, entrepreneurs, and business groups are uncomfortable due to red tape, dealing with numerous licensing and regulatory authorities and inconsistency in economic and investment policies. They are accustomed to investment facilitation and incentivization through one-window operations, which are precisely the issues SIFC must address.
It is pertinent to note that SIFC will focus on different industries, including IT, with a target of USD 100 billion in FDI within three years. The penultimate goal is to reach USD 1 trillion in nominal GDP by FY35. State apparatus will provide full-fledged technical and strategic support to SIFC to pave the way for the seamless functioning of the council. Khan explained that licensing for new industries or businesses might involve as many as 20 NOCs, up to 18 months, and countless visits to various authorities; this unfortunate state of affairs requires one window under one roof to bring any substantial investment into the country. 
P@SHA's Chairman highlighted the fact that information technology has been made a focus area of SIFC, and Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Shehbaz Sharif and the state institutions have made it their resolve to promote information technology in the country to create employment, generate revenues, and rapidly increase exports. Zohaib Khan extended his full support–in the broader national interest–from the apex IT industry platform of P@SHA to facilitate the consultative process between all the stakeholders to capitalize on the IT industry's enormous, untapped potential and assist SIFC.

Provision of Infrastructure and Resources. NICs offer state-of-the-art infrastructure, including free office space, high-speed internet, meeting rooms, and other necessary facilities. Startups benefit from access to modern technologies, software tools, and equipment, enabling them to develop innovative solutions. The availability of resources within the NICs reduces the initial financial burden on startups and encourages them to focus on business planning and product development.
Mentorship and Business Development Support. NICs provide startups access to experienced mentors and industry experts who guide them in business planning and execution. Mentors offer valuable insights, help refine business strategies, and assist startups in navigating challenges and seizing opportunities. This mentorship-driven approach enhances the chances of startup success and reduces the learning curve for entrepreneurs.
Training and Capacity Building. The NIC program offers training and capacity-building programs to equip entrepreneurs with essential skills and knowledge. Startups receive specialized training in product development, marketing, finance, and pitching to investors. These training programs help startups enhance their capabilities, improve their business models, and increase their chances of scaling up.
Specialized/Vertical Incubators. Last year, Ignite launched a specialized/vertical incubator in agri-tech in Faisalabad, and this year, Ignite has launched its second vertical incubator in aerospace technologies in Rawalpindi. In the future, Ignite plans on launching vertical incubators in health tech, AI, energy, and space. These vertical incubators have research labs where startups can develop and test their products. 
Success Stories and Impact. The NIC program has produced several success stories, with numerous startups achieving significant milestones and raising investments. Some successful startups that NICs have incubated include Bykea (logistics), Pakvitae (cleantech), MyTM (fintech), Integry (middleware), Digikhata (fintech), Farmdar (agritech), Ezbike (cleantech), and Okayker (services). These success stories inspire aspiring entrepreneurs, attracting more talent and investment in the ecosystem. 
By leveraging the resources, mentorship, training, and funding opportunities provided by the NIC program, Pakistani startups have been able to thrive and contribute to the country's digital transformation and economic growth. If annual investments in Pakistani startups grow by 25 percent or more for the next five years, Pakistan is expected to have its first homegrown unicorn (billion-dollar startup) by 2028 or earlier.  
Digiskills.pk Training Program for Freelancers     
Digiskills is Pakistan's most extensive online training program, which has received over 3.5 million enrollments in 15 different freelancing courses over the last five years. The total trainees comprise 73 percent males and 27 percent females. The number of overseas Pakistanis trained in the program is more than 35,000. According to an earnings study conducted this year, freelancers trained through Digiskills have contributed USD 645 million to IT exports over the last four years. Because of no 3G/4G coverage in Southern Balochistan, Ignite launched a lab-based Digiskills training program in Gwadar, Turbat, and Khuzdar in February 2022 in collaboration with Virtual University. More than 10,000 enrollments have been completed by students and freelancers in these three cities so far.   
Digital Pakistan Cybersecurity Hackathon 2021-2022      
Over the past two years, Ignite has held two nationwide Digital Pakistan Cybersecurity Hackathons in Islamabad, Karachi, Lahore, Peshawar, and Quetta in 2021 and 2022 to enhance awareness amongst the cybersecurity workforce to understand strengths and weaknesses in knowledge, skills, and abilities. 2079 teams registered for both hackathons from all across the country. In 2022 cybersecurity hands-on workshops were also conducted, which were attended by 1562 participants. Cash awards worth Rs. 6 million were given to the top three teams each year. 
In conclusion, the National Information Technology Seminar marked a significant event.The seminar aimed to unite all stakeholders to promote IT exports and foster collaboration among government officials, diplomats, CEOs, and representatives from national and international IT companies. During the event, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif inaugurated several IT projects, emphasizing the importance of the IT sector in Pakistan's economic growth.

Ignite Spearheading Tech Entrepreneurship in Pakistan
Asim Shahryar Husain, CEO of Ignite, believes that startups are the building blocks of successful companies of the future. All the big companies, whether Apple, Microsoft, or Google, were once startups. It has taken them decades to grow from startups to giant corporations. Pakistan is gifted with talented individuals who have created creative tech solutions for local problems in agriculture, health, education, energy, and the environment. Asim Shahryar emphasized that Pakistan has a vast IT and other graduates pool. Moreover, about 60 percent of the population of Pakistan is under the age of 30. These factors contribute to the flourishing of Pakistan's vibrant tech startup ecosystem.
The Government of Pakistan envisions building a business-friendly environment to attract foreign investments and promote entrepreneurship in Pakistan. The recent setting up of SIFC is an excellent step by the Government of Pakistan for facilitating foreign investors and customers in Pakistan's ICT sector. The purpose is to remove any hurdles foreign investors and customers face to make it very easy for them to invest and get a good return on their investments in Pakistan because of lower infrastructure and labor costs compared to many other countries. 

One of the major highlights of the seminar was the introduction of SIFC, which is envisioned as a game-changer for Pakistan's economy. This visionary initiative from the Government seeks to remove obstacles faced by foreign investors and customers, making it easier for them to invest in Pakistan's ICT sector. With SIFC's focus on various industries, including IT, the aim is to attract significant foreign direct investment and transform the country's economic landscape. Establishing SIFC signifies the government's commitment to fostering an investor-friendly culture in Pakistan and supporting startups and entrepreneurs in the tech sector.
The growth of Pakistan's startup ecosystem has been remarkable, with National Incubation Centers (NICs) playing a pivotal role in nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship. The NIC program has supported over 1300 startups across various sectors and provided them with essential resources, mentorship, and training. These startups have created jobs and contributed significantly to Pakistan's economy through increased revenue and funding opportunities.

Special Investment Facilitation Council: The Game Changer for IT Sector
Ali Raza, CEO of Pakistan Software Export Board (PSEB), remarked that the formation of Special Investment Facilitation Council (SIFC) is indeed a visionary initiative from the government amid an economic crisis. Reminds of a quote from the great Buddhist monk, Geshe Kelsang Gyatso, "When we learn to accept difficult circumstances patiently, the real problem disappears." The realization and remedial measures are a testament that we are finally moving in the right direction, that too with a unified approach. As the premier said, "SIFC is formed with a mandate to frame economic policies that ensure policy predictability, continuity and effective implementation to revive the economy." All the relevant stakeholders consolidating efforts and striving to foster an investor-friendly culture in Pakistan is unprecedented. The prioritized and identified core areas indeed have the potential to uplift and contribute toward economic stability. SIFC's mandate to channel foreign investment into agriculture, energy, IT, minerals, and defense production will address the pertinent procedural issues that will give way to policy reforms and develop a system that supports and facilitates investors. Being from the information technology sector, I know that Pakistan is a land of opportunities owing to our strengths and various competitive advantages. The IT sector has been fortunate enough to attract foreign investment. Still, various bottlenecks in the system, lengthy processes, and a non-cooperative environment in public departments have been significant reasons behind investors exiting Pakistan and exploring other markets despite government schemes and initiatives. With SIFC in the picture and revamp of processes underway that will address all the bottlenecks, reduce the time and associated costs. This will significantly address the cost and ease of doing business in Pakistan. As the premier said, difficult days are over; I foresee Pakistan's IT sector outperforming the regional growth in the IT sector in days to come.
PSEB organized different events at the domestic and international levels to spearhead the IT sector of Pakistan. Gulf Information Technology Exhibition (GITEX) Global took place from October 16-20, 2022, in Dubai, an international exhibition in which PSEB facilitated 29 Pakistani companies offering a financial subsidy of 30 percent on stall cost. PSEB also sponsored the Connexion Lounge, offered excellent brand exposure, and valuable business leads for Pakistani IT companies at the world's most sought-after tech event where key industry leaders and companies come together. 
PSEB also offered a 50 percent subsidy on stall cost to 22 local IT companies at the 22nd edition of Information Technology Commerce Network (ITCN) Asia during the domestic event organized in February 2023 at Islamabad. This was an inaugural ITCN event in the capital. PSEB's facilitation of local industry is pivotal in providing this opportunity for small-scale companies to exhibit at domestic events, network with other companies, and form synergies to upscale their businesses.
PSEB, in collaboration with Pakistan’s Embassy in Denmark, arranged an outgoing ICT delegation of 30 companies to Copenhagen and Stockholm to explore the Nordic Market in March 2023. The delegation was given a guided tour to incubation innovation centers and also held B2B networking sessions and meetings with the Fintech association, etc.
PSEB-sponsored boot camp aimed to bridge the supply gap and provide industry-ready, quality HR with hands-on experience with the latest technologies. A consortium of 22 companies was formed that benefited 4,000 fresh IT graduates who received training on trending industry-required technologies through the TechLift boot camp organized in Karachi in March 2023.
PSEB set up Pakistan Pavilion at the 'GITEX Africa,' which took place from May 31-June 2, 2023. Ten Pakistani IT companies participated in the inaugural edition of GITEX Africa in May 2023, marking the initial steps towards entering the African market. PSEB also offered selected companies a 30 percent subsidy on stall costs and visa facilitation.
PSEB set up the Pakistan Pavilion at the 10th edition of London Tech Week, held from June 12-16, 2023, accommodating 12 companies and a dedicated meeting space. This participation ensured Pakistani IT companies further penetration into the UK's tech market. PSEB facilitated the IT industry with a 50 percent subsidy on stall costs and visa facilitation.

Furthermore, initiatives like Digiskills.pk training program for freelancers and the Digital Pakistan Cybersecurity Hackathons have further fueled the growth of Pakistan's IT sector and enhanced awareness and skills in the cybersecurity workforce.
With the formation of SIFC and the continued efforts to foster an enabling environment for startups and entrepreneurs, Pakistan's IT sector is poised for exponential growth. The government's focus on policy reforms and support for foreign investment can potentially lead to a thriving tech ecosystem and transform Pakistan into an attractive destination for IT investments. The continued collaboration between government institutions, industry stakeholders, and entrepreneurs will be vital to realizing the full potential of the IT sector and driving economic prosperity in the country.