The bold relaunch of Wateen has created waves in Pakistan’s nascent broadband sector. Having gained a wealth of experience in telecommunications, CEO Wateen Naeem Zamindar talks to Blue Chip about the endless possibilities of connectivity and the transformational effect of Internet access on people’s lives and businesses through providing access to global sources of information, services and international markets.
Naeem Zamindar: “when I took over the company about 11 months ago, we were having financial issues and a lot of good people had left. Wateen had an amazing infrastructure, a Rolls Royce of a network but the momentum that was built up in 2007 had been lost completely.
The most important thing was to get good people. So we ensured that we got a strong management team in place, implemented a strong revitalization programme and created new structures. This business is very dynamic, it is not a traditional company where you just need good process management and strict follow-through of plans. The plan changes everyday and it requires more of an entrepreneurial approach to organization like Google. That evolution is the first thing we started working on and we have invested a lot in it. We organized a relaunch party where we saw the energy and passion the employees, had they are driven and committed.
Secondly, we organized the finances, created a new business plan and obtained funding from the Abu Dhabi Group and negotiated with the banks for debt restructuring to give us the financial stability to grow.
Thirdly, we focused on the customer. Our whole strategy has shifted – we are very customer focused. Communication in this country is undergoing a massive transformation because of the Internet and we want to be the wave of change. The business model that we are implementing is connectivity but focusing on value added services. We are the first cloud company in Pakistan – it is called the Wateen Cloud.
Within the next five years, businesses will not need an IT department, whatever you need in terms of services, enterprise resource planning and CRS can be managed by Wateen. All you need is Internet access to the cloud and all your accounts and IT systems will be managed for you. This will bring costs down and give small companies a great competitive advantage. Pakistan has mainly mid-sized enterprises. In Pakistan there are about 400 large companies and about 200,000 mid-sized companies, the small entrepreneurial sector is huge with around 2 million SMEs. That will be the engine of growth and we can enable this through the cloud-based approach.
On the consumer side, consumers will not only use Internet for their business but also for entertainment like television. Content can be created according to each consumer’s preferences ranging from interactive entertainment to education. Students in Chichawatni can learn what students in Cambridge our learning. We want to play in this value added space.
To turn it around we have done two things. First of all stabilize the business make sure the people, the process and the systems are stable and focused on the customer. As a company we are stable, we are a long-term business, we are financially strong, our strategy is towards bringing value-added into our customers’ lives. It will take a while and it is not a short journey, it’s a five year journey and requires a lot of patience. The vision that we have could potentially make it the biggest company in Pakistan.”
What are the challenges you face in Pakistan?
NZ: “The big challenge that we face is that the economy is not moving as fast as it should. So there is a lot of uncertainty. We require a lot of investment and Pakistan is a challenging place to invest right now because of the political, social uncertainties. But the opportunities are what excites everyone and brings them here. We have dealt with difficult law and order situations. We operate everywhere, we are building a fibre optic network in Balochistan so we know how to work in any environment. Our policy is to work with local vendors and contractors as this gives people a sense of ownership. We are changing the models, we are getting local franchisees and building an economic environment in these areas. I was surprised to find out that a district in Balochistan has the highest literacy rate in Pakistan. The people of Balochistan were welcoming the introduction of fibre optic, all people want progress and change. We all want Pakistan to succeed because we know our future is connected to Pakistan’s future.”
What impact will Pakistan’s population demographic have going forward?
NZ: : “I teach meditation and I run an NGO called The Art of Living Foundation as well as a youth corps where we take young people from villages and send them to different villages to make people realize that you are responsible for your own life. Most people feel so disempowered and powerless to do anything with their lives. Once they realize that they are responsible and they have the capacity to change their lives, then things start changing. 60% of our population is under the age of 30. When I worked in the IDP camps, there were children everywhere. We have a huge population explosion and if we can’t use that capacity we are going to be losing an opportunity which we should not.
Steve Jobs says it very well, he says that one thing he has leanrt in his life is to ‘stay foolish, stay hungry.’ Pakistan is full of young people like this.. The potential we have is unbelievable. A child in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa with a small tablet for $50 can access the knowledge of the world, he can increase his productivity and skills exponentially. The technology that is developing is amazing and we can bring it to everyone.”
What are your views on the broadband market in Pakistan?
NZ: “The broadband market in Pakistan is still in its very early stages. Over the last five years it has started picking up, now about one and a half million homes and business are connected with broadband in a population of 180 million so it is still very under penetrated. Broadband will first have to be covered in the major urban areas at least – every home, school and college needs to have a broadband connection. The real growth is right ahead of us. The real explosion will happen when low cost devices like tablets are available. Ipads are great but they are expensive but now people are talking about $50 devices, these low cost devices will be the biggest game-changer. For example, when low-cost mobiles for Rs2,000 were available, everybody had a mobile phone. If tablets become available at Rs4,000 or $50, nearly every young person will have it. Not only can you talk on this but you can see each other through applications like Skype, you can do business on it, learn, listen to music, do anything you want, the possibilities are limitless. This wave will be much bigger than the cellular wave.”
Wateen will be bringing broadband access in 20 cities in Balochistan, how will the introduction of broadband in such areas impact business, industry and day-to-day life?
NZ: : “In every way. Once you have access to connectivity, you have access to the world. You can be sitting in Pakistan and take all the Stanford courses. Education, health, commerce is available to you. A case study was brought to my notice of a small manufacturer outside Peshawar who assembles handbags made by women from Afghan refugee camps. They would be paid $4 for each bag and the same handbag would retail in the US for $40. They created a website where they would take picture of the bag from a mobile phone and post it on the website, put a price and people could order online. They would charge $29.99 instead of $40 and people would buy directly from them. They made an arrangement with a courier company to take parcels every week. We have all heard about the exploitative practices of the middle man particularly in agriculture where farmers would get virtually nothing and the big money would be made by the middle men but this practice is applicable everywhere in Pakistan because we don’t have direct access to the markets. But now we can be part of the global economic system. The Internet is the great equalizer. The Internet is all about empowerment. Another great idea is a website called kickstarter.com, you place an idea on the website and people will give you money to start a company. This is an example of the democratisation of ideas through the Internet.”
What corporate social responsibility initiatives is Wateen involved in?
NZ: “Wateen’s DNA is around corporate social responsibility. This is driven partly by my mindset. I believe we are responsible for this society and this world and we have to look after it. So whatever we do is aligned with that goal. We particularly wanted to work with the government to enable telecentres in rural communities where people can walk in and have access to the Internet, vocational programmes will be running there, people can take langiage courses for Urdu and English and have access to e-health facilities.
In addition, we want to be the drivers for bridging the digital divide. That is why we were one of the biggest participants in the Universal Service Fund project to promote access to telecommunications services across Pakistan because we want to go out there and bridge the digital divide and we are working with them to make it happen.”
You have gained a wealth of experience in telecommunications, what drew you to a career in the telecommunications industry?
NZ: “When I came back to Karachi I became an entrepreneur but did not have the infrastructure to succeed. I had an offer from Citibank but at the same time I heard about a company called Mobilink. It sounded like a great idea so I moved to Lahore in 1993. Since then I have been inspired by telecommunications because I have seen how it can change people’s lives. This will be the greatest equalizer and is a massive revolution in the making. We are leading the way and I want to be a part of it. I think we are going to change history.”
Going forward, what is your vision for Wateen?
NZ: “The vision of Wateen is to simply become an outstanding company focusing on enabling its customers’ lives not only by providing access to the Internet and connectivity but by giving access to tools and resources that enrich their lives and businesses in ways that can give empowerment to compete with the rest of the world. You can find your soul mate online, your dream job, research your problems and find solutions.”
You have gained renown as a corporate leader as well as for your work with The Art of Living. Who have been your role models in your life?
NZ: “I have been inspired by the Silicon Valley thought process, people like Steve Jobs. When I worked there it was one of the most exciting times of my life because they are really redesigning the future. In Pakistan it has been Zouhair Khaliq who was my boss for many years – he is an outstanding leader and an upright man. Being upright, principled and fair actually pays off in a country like Pakistan and he is an example of that. He is a clear thinker and demonstrates that merit pays off. My father is an outstanding man because he is passionate about changing people’s lives and has been involved in founding many charitable institutions.”