Pakistani employees of online marketplace company Kaymu at work in Karachi.
Islamabad - Boom widens horizons of small businesses
In the Hindu Kush mountains, craftswomen painstakingly stitch flowing scarves. They are skilled artisans who were unable to sell their products beyond the remote region until mobile Internet came to Pakistan and dropped the market into the palms of millions of previously marginalised people.
The women of northern Chitral are among the unlikely profiteers of an e-commerce boom since 3G and 4G Internet arrived in the deeply conservative Muslim country in 2014, suddenly able to market and sell traditional products without leaving their villages or in some cases even their homes.
"The online platform eliminates the middleman," says Nasrin Samad, the entrepreneur behind the artisan brand Kai, which works with women across the region. Now, Chitrali women "have access to a global audience," she says.
Kai products are sold on polly & other stories (pollyandotherstories.com), which launched late in 2015 to connect traditional artisans like those in Chitral with consumers hungry for "authentic" products.
"Years of working with local community and craft groups had shown us how difficult it was for local small businesses, even the most talented, to access mainstream markets or connect with buyers, both within Pakistan and abroad," founder Amneh Shaikh Farooqui told AFP.
To bridge the gap, says co-founder Ange Braid, the pair built a website to give "small, creative businesses, many of them led by women or young students, the chance to market and sell".
Opportunities like this in a country like Pakistan are "huge", says Adam Dawood, head of online marketplace Kaymu.pk.
In the first quarter of 2015, smartphone shipments to the country soared by 123 per cent, according to the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority's annual report.
Broadband subscribers have topped 26 million people, the Ministry for Information Technology said in February, with broadband penetration going from three per cent to more than 15 per cent.
The ministry cited World Bank studies showing that a 10 per cent increase in high-speed Internet connections can boost gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.38 per cent, adding the arrival of broadband in Pakistan is set to have a "very positive impact on economic growth".
Dawood echoed the report's optimism. "There are tremendous opportunities for everyone to start selling and buying instantly and earn money," he said.
Women are seeing the benefits, but e-commerce presents potentially an even greater opportunity for young people in a country where roughly two thirds of the population - of around 200 million - are estimated to be under the age of 30.
A recent economic survey by the finance ministry singled out the challenges facing youth in Pakistan, including "limited job search expertise, a mismatch between education, aspirations and employers' requirements and a lack of mobility, among other factors".
Seventeen-year-old Daniyal Admaney says he was able to defy scepticism over his youth to launch his T-shirt design business on Kaymu, however. "I... thought that I should do something productive during summer vacations when I have nothing to do except getting bored and sleeping," he says.
Kaymu, a venture of German company Rocket Internet, which builds online start-ups, has helped launch several other e-commerce companies unique to Pakistan such as consumer goods site Daraz.pk.
Employees of online marketplace Kaymu work in Karachi. Such firms are bridging the gap between local businesses in Pakistan and a global audience. — AFP