Upon finishing his doctorate in design in Italy and traveling the world for work and research, Pakistani technologist Musstanser Tinauli came back to his homeland and began looking for a business idea that would bring…
Upon finishing his doctorate in design in Italy and traveling the world for work and research, Pakistani technologist Musstanser Tinauli came back to his homeland and began looking for a business idea that would bring about positive economic change in a region where about a quarter of people live below the poverty line.
With Pakistan’s literacy rate low and internet access scarce, Tinauli noticed that low-skilled workers such as drivers and plumbers relied on small hourly jobs that they were getting through word-of-mouth referrals or waiting in public squares for potential employers to stop by and ask for their service. The process was random and uncoordinated, he says.
“People got eight to 10 jobs a month (at most),” Tinauli says.
It was then that he began envisioning a better system, using a platform that would bring offline workers to the World Wide Web, connect them to employers and make their skills visible to anyone who needs their expertise.
Launched in January 2014, Fori Mazdoori is now a social network similar to LinkedIn or Angie’s List, built around the same basic concept of connecting skill with demand — yet not requiring both parties to have internet access.Because internet access and internet literacy in Pakistan are low, offline workers can enroll by visiting local telecom shops or by using USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data), a global mobile service that users access by dialing a code usually beginning with * or #. Workers then get a series of auto messages about their contact information and skills, and the data are then transferred to the web platform, where anyone seeking services can access it.
“Basically, anyone with just a phone just dials a code and signs up,” Tinauli says.
The product went through several iterations and strategies before Tinauli partnered with two local telecommunication companies in order to scale faster. In the beginning, Fori Mazdoori relied on volunteers who would go to pubic squares where workers were gathering and persuade those workers to enroll and manually fill out their profiles for the database. The practice was time-consuming and inefficient.
“We signed up like 2,000 people, but about two years ago there were a lot of strikes and political instability and we realized we were not scalable , so we needed a different channel of signing people up,” TInauli says.
Partnering with telecommunications companies allowed Fori Mazdoori to access a bigger pool of potential users, Tinauli says, through advertising in telecom shops where people went to pay their phone bills and leveraging the reach and trust the industry has in Pakistan, where more than 70 percent of people have a phone. In 2018, the company also partnered with the United Nations Development Program, allowing workers trained through the U.N. program to join the platform. Fori Mazdoori also looks at what skills the market in Pakistan needs and advises third parties on what type of training Pakistanis should engage in.
Fori Mazdoori has around 50,000 users, with workers coming from various industries. Those numbers may seem small in a country of about 200 million people, but it’s a meaningful contribution in a land where, by the World Bank’s most recent estimates, the average annual salary is just under $1,600.
Yet building a company outside developed markets is not easy, Tinauli says. Oftentimes , innovation in developing or emerging economies is not seen as attractive for Western investors who don’t rush to pour money into markets they don’t fully understand. In addition, most innovation in developing and emerging nations involves adapting technology to local markets, or ensuring the widespread adoption of existing technologies in all sectors of the economy, experts say.
Innovation is “important for developing economies in large part because they are lagging behind , and that creates much more ‘low-hanging fruit’ of innovation opportunities, particularly regarding digital technologies,” says Rob Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, or ITIF, a Washington-based think tank that focuses on science and technology policy.
Innovation in emerging and developing markets also tends to involve a social or humanitarian cause. Yet if this type of innovation is created in developed markets and transplanted into a less-developed economy, intended progress may stall. For example, “expensive equipment donated to hospitals in developing countries is often useless because a stable electricity supply and replacement parts are unavailable,” according to a 2018 ITIF report on health innovation.
Native innovation takes place in less-developed markets as well, but usually not in the form of high-tech inventions that people are used to seeing in the West, experts say.
“It also fits into multiple categories and there is also smaller innovation (taking place), especially if you move away from the tech sector,” says Ann Mei Chang, a nonresident fellow in the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington. “There is a lot of innovation that is happening every day in villages and communities where people, through necessity, are coming up with better solutions to their problems.”
“A second challenge is that many of the international development organizations, including the World Bank, give short shrift to digital innovation, and to the extent they focus on it, they tend to think of it as just infrastructure (e.g., wires for broadband internet access), rather than a transformative technology that can improve all sectors,” Atkinson adds.
By 2025, emerging markets will see growth rates that will be 75 percent faster than in the developed world, say analysts, who add that innovation in those economies, regardless of its shape and scope, should be encouraged.
“We should not discount the local innovation that takes place in communities, (even though) those are much harder to count anywhere,” Mei Chang says. “And innovation in these (developing and emerging) markets is definitely increasing , especially if you start counting in countries such as China and India. ”
Tinauli says Fori Mazdoori is one of the many services that can be developed to tap into the offline market. Through partnerships with more telecom companies around the world, the service could reach many disconnected areas in developing continents, such as Asia and Africa. It also could serve as a tool for refugees in the developed world to rapidly gain economic power and integrate into the local job market.
“Today half the world is still offline and the data that we have , (neither) LinkedIn, (nor) Facebook ( nor) Google have,” Tinauli says. “We are a tool for that world to access the internet even before adopting it.”