Aamer Sarfaraz, the founder of Indus Basin Holdings, is witnessing how mobile phones are changing Pakistan’s agriculture. Farmers regularly call friends and relatives to keep abreast of market prices, weather conditions and ways to strike the best possible deal.
Indus Basin Holdings, which is backed by leading international investors, invests in agribusiness and keeping a close contact with farmers is a vital requirement. It is engaged in the business of cereals, rice, guar and other agricultural products. It takes pride in eliminating the role of middlemen by directly lifting the produce from farmers.
“One hundred per cent of contract rice farmers working with us have a mobile phone,” Sarfaraz told The Express Tribune. “If they don’t have a mobile, then someone in the family is connected through the device.”
Farmers are sent important information via Urdu SMS regularly. “We tell them what type of seeds to use, about a possible pest attack and how to avoid it.”
But are the farmers educated enough to read? Not necessarily.
“However, according to demographics, most of our population is young. These 18 to 20-year-old kids find a way around technology,” he said. “In any case, even our grandparents have a hard time getting used to mobile phones.”
As Pakistan gears up for third generation cellular connectivity, experts have been trying to figure out its impact on the economy.
Being a relatively newer technology in developing countries, there is little empirical evidence how it could prop up Pakistan’s economy. Yet some economists believe that follow-up investments, which will be made in developing applications, would be sizeable.
As for the investment telecommunication firms make in infrastructure, Abbas Ali Mirza, CEO of Relacom Pakistan, says people should not expect much.
Relacom Pakistan has been working with mobile companies for nine years in areas of construction, technical installations and network management.
“Over the years the firms have already invested in upgrading their systems like towers,” he said. “They have put the equipment in place. Only minor changes have to be made and that’s all.”
Initially, the 3G service providers will focus on big cities, where they have the infrastructure and from where they expect to generate revenue easily, he said.
“A 3G tower’s footprint or coverage area is less than 2G’s because the former needs more electricity. But we would be left with some holes in rural areas.”
While fierce competition helped take 2G to 90% areas of the country, people have to realise 3G is going to be a premium product and its penetration will be gradual.
One area where Mirza sees growth is e-commerce. “At the moment, that’s a very small market but direct contact with such a huge population opens door for all sorts of opportunities.”
The entertainment-starved young population will also be a big market for social app developers, he said.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 24th, 2014.