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Interview with TechJuice – Sardar Mohammad Abubakr

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The digital ecosystem in Pakistan has seen immense changes and developments over the past decade. The crux of this development lays with increased connectivity and opportunities for that come with it. Sardar Mohammad Abubakr, as many would already know, is heading the Digital & Strategy domain at Telenor Pakistan. We had the chance to interview him regarding the pace of digitization in the country and opportunities going forth.

Q1: The world is changing fast with digitization taking it by storm. Where, in your expert view, does Pakistan stand?

SA: One thing is for sure that Pakistan is not lagging behind when it comes to digitization. In fact, in some cases, the country has shown the world how technology can be leveraged to elevate lifestyles and transform industries. With Pakistan being an emerging market in Asia, there are scores of opportunities to explore and pursue. The digital transformation across life’s diverse spheres that Pakistan is witnessing today is largely owing to the efforts of some forward-thinking ICT players such as Telenor Pakistan. The country’s national agenda, prioritizing digital and financial inclusion of the underserved masses and pursuing a knowledge-based economy, is helping visionary companies like ours to achieve goals in a faster and more effective manner. With measures that promote education, around Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), and encourage technology incubators, Pakistan can reach its digitization and inclusion ambitions easily and fight its socioeconomic challenges better.

Q2: With an increase in uptake of mobile phones and data, customers’ needs and demands are continuously evolving with regards to what they want and expect from their cellular service provider. How has Telenor Pakistan kept up with the evolving customer needs and how is it expected to evolve in the future?

SA: With the digital ecosystem evolving, our customers` needs are also changing – their data usage pattern and expectations from a network are certainly not the same as they were ten years ago; neither are media and content consumption patterns. Today, information and content are just a few taps away on the mobile screen and the trend from consuming traditional media platforms has decreased. The world of content is ever-increasing, and Telenor Pakistan has developed multiple solutions that help users get direct access to best of content, local and global. They can listen to their favorite regional music on Koyal, watch live matches on Goonj TV app, stream blockbuster movies on Netflix and Starzplay and finally also play Disney title games – all directly on their mobile phones. These apps and partnerships are addressing the unique content and entertainment requirements of our customers across the country.

Of late, one of Telenor Pakistan’s focus areas and growth levers in the digital products domain has been gaming. To develop the gaming ecosystem in the country further, Telenor’s startups accelerator program ‘Velocity’ recently partnered with Google to launch its first gaming cohort through which Telenor and Google are targeting Pakistan’s aspiring developers with an aim to revolutionize gaming as a career and eventually place Pakistan on the international game developers map. Our very own gaming app, Gamebox, provides a comprehensive gaming experience for users, especially the youth.

How Telenor Pakistan caters to users’ entertainment needs goes beyond these digital products to collaborations & partnerships with entertainment giants. Telenor Pakistan’s partnership with Netflix, for one, offers an exclusive 15% discount on Netflix monthly subscription on payments made via Direct Carrier Billing (DCB) i.e. Telenor Pakistan subscribers’ mobile balance. Similarly, Telenor Pakistan’s recent partnership with STARZ PLAY by Cinepax is allowing its subscribers to enjoy free trial of the service on daily, weekly and monthly price points.

Telenor Pakistan has always been on the forefront when it comes to innovating with the digital services, and through DCB service, users can now buy content the easier way i.e. by simply connecting Google Play to Telenor number to purchase content without any hassle. DCB also has the potential to nurture the local app developer economy, incentivizing developers to build for the local market. Telenor is proud to have played a part in bridging financial inclusion and pushing forward our mission of digitizing the future.

Q3: What is the state of digital ecosystem in Pakistan and how has Telenor contributed to it?

SA: The digital ecosystem in Pakistan is developing and has immense opportunities for growth. We are proud of how Telenor Pakistan’s continued contributions have helped the digital ecosystem take root and grow strong. The key to a robust digital economy in today’s world is data proliferation and innovation around products and services, that are enabled by the uptake of internet. In addition to increasing our network outreach and deliver best in class NGMS services, Telenor Pakistan also has a portfolio of affordable 3G/4G handsets and internet devices to enable access to the endless benefits that cellular and digital services bring.

To financially include millions of unbanked Pakistanis, Telenor Pakistan introduced the country’s first mobile banking service, Easypaisa, which showed a whole new way to address the financial service gap and enable underserved masses through financial inclusion. Telenor Pakistan has also digitally enabled key sectors of the country like agriculture with which millions of lives and households are associated in Pakistan. Our social inclusion initiative in collaboration with UNICEF, called Digital Birth Registration, has shown the world how a phone in a hand can give children their right to identity and access to basic amenities of life.

Telenor Pakistan has also been the first mover into the IoT (Internet of Things) stream in Pakistan with products like ‘Companion Watch’ and car performance tracking device ‘Auxo’. We had the country’s first and largest IoT expos to create awareness about this stream and develop interest of entrepreneurs towards creating IoT based solutions.

Telenor Pakistan has also stayed focused on fostering innovation within and outside the organization believing that it is the creative use of available technology that can work true wonders. With an accelerator program like Velocity, we are promoting ‘technopreneurship’ across Pakistan as well as within our ranks. Furthermore, we have also been reaching out to school kids across Pakistan educating them on using internet productively and safely through ‘iChamp’ and School Outreach programs.

Telenor Pakistan’s digital products, services and partnerships are effectively addressing the changing digital services needs of today’s cellular subscribers. From lifestyle to entertainment, our digital division is making sure that from urban centers to remote suburbs, all users are served and transferred the benefits of advancing technology.

Q4: You mentioned how Telenor Pakistan has made digital intervention in the agri sector. What are the challenges and opportunities that this sector holds?

SA: Agriculture constitutes the largest sector of Pakistan’s economy with majority of the population being directly or indirectly dependent on this sector. In addition to being the largest source of foreign exchange earnings in the country, the sector also contributes over 25 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and accounts for nearly half of Pakistan’s employed labor force. Despite its significance to growth, exports, income, and food security, the Agriculture sector has been suffering from volatility in growth. Due to lack of critical investments and innovation in Agri-Tech and techniques, productivity remains low, with yield gaps rising.

Keeping the aforementioned farmers’ challenges in mind and knowing that mobile technology offers immense potential to make a huge difference, Telenor Pakistan launched the country’s first mAgri IVR service, Khushaal Zamindar, that vowed to improve the local agri practices by providing the smallholder farmers with real-time weather forecasts complementing contextual and timely agronomic advisory straight on their mobile phones. Building on the success of Khushaal Zamindaar, we also launched Khushaal Aangan – a dedicated IVR service female farmers. Khushaal Sehat – an online health helpline for rural communities, and Khushaal Maweshi – an online veterinary service for rural communities.

Q4: In the fast paced telecom sector where agility in innovation is required to develop the digital ecosystem, what is being done by Telenor Pakistan to empower and enable entrepreneurs with unique ideas?

SA: Velocity is one of the key enablers of the digital ecosystem that Telenor Pakistan has established to uplift and boost the start-ups in the country. It is the first of its kind Digital Startup Accelerator, focusing on helping entrepreneurs scale their ideas and ventures by accessing Telenor Pakistan’s insights, expertise and analytics.

This year, we introduced thematic cohorts in Velocity to support and scale focused solutions in Agri and Gaming industries.

So far, we have had two thematic cohorts for Velocity with the first ever Agri-tech cohort provided agri startups an opportunity to partner with Pakistan’s biggest Agri digital audio platform and scale their business by leveraging Telenor Pakistan’s technology and innovation in the agri space. The Game Launcher cohort, on the other hand, partnered with Google for coaching passionate game developers of Pakistan to build, scale, and monetize best-in-class gaming apps. Selected Velocity participants go through a seven-month long coaching program, where they compete to transform their creative ideas into successful and sustainable app businesses. In the near future, Telenor Velocity will be launching a Content Cohort with an aim to disrupt innovation through focus on the most promising area of Pakistan’s ecosystem.

Q5: What is Telenor’s ambition for Pakistan and how do the prospects seem with regards to development in the digital ecosystem of the country?

SA: At Telenor Pakistan, we remain passionate about transforming the society and elevating lifestyles. With each passing year, this commitment grows stronger enabling us to create products and solutions that matter and show the industry a new direction to move in. It pleases us that we share our goals with the Pakistani government in terms of digital, financial, and social inclusion and with Pakistan’s new vision of a knowledge economy, we work as a happy partner striving to achieve mutual goals. Telenor Pakistan has had the privilege of being the first mover of mobile banking, IoT (Internet of Things), mobile agriculture, digitization of birth registrations, and many other social empowerment initiatives and will continue to innovate to uplift the society and create a better Pakistan for generations to come.

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