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Interview — Tania Aidrus Plans To Connect 20 Million More Pakistanis To Internet

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Aisha Sarwari talks to head of Digital Pakistan project Tania Aidrus about the roadmap of digitalisation of Pakistan and what her goals are.

Aisha Sarwari: There was a talk the other day about Quaid-e-Azam and how he said no nation can rise to the height of glory until your women are side by side. And I paraphrased it to be like, if he was here today, he would say, no nation can rise to this height of glory until the women in your life have the same cell phone technology as you. The equalization is very important, it was there then. The women are very courageous. The only thing about courageous women is that their class got them to be where they are. They got access to education. But the digital agenda that you’re driving is going to change that. It will bring equality, you know, to a girl in Tharparkar. It will bring that level of equality to somebody in Quetta because they have the same access to cheap digital technology. What’s the opportunity like?

Tania Aidrus: So the opportunity. I mean, let’s talk about Pakistan as a whole and then let’s talk about the importance of inclusion, particularly gender inclusion. Opportunity as a whole for Pakistan is unparalleled, what I feel digital and sort of access to the Internet. When I talk about step number one, step number one is being connected

Aisha Sarwari: There’s a big barrier. There’s friction. There are so many things that stop a woman from getting documented, you know, finding identity, going mobility – a billion things.

Tania Aidrus: Step number one is affordability. Let’s forget about all things, you leave that aside, let’s find a way first to make sure affordability is at a level where anybody, you know, with a few hundred rupees a month can get access to the Internet on a consistent level. So, that starts to lower the barrier. Then there are connotations with being connected, where people feel that only men should have cellphones and women should not have cellphones and it’s a cultural challenge that needs awareness. Ultimately, you have to look at the smartphone that you carry and access to the internet as an economic empowerment tool.

Aisha Sarwari: In terms of numbers, like a GSMA says that without digital equality, there would be a 30 percent increase in internet users, or what are we looking at? So if there is a one-liner opportunity, given if we do this in 2020, only then is it possible. What’s that like?

Tania Aidrus: So, to me, again as I talk about the basics, we are in the year 2020. We need to have aggressive goals for how many people we want to have connected onto the Internet. Currently, we’re at roughly 35 percent of the population of Pakistan. There is no reason why this number should not be at 70 percent in the next two years.

We should be talking about something like adding 20 million more Pakistanis connected to the Internet. Now, this will only happen if the entire ecosystem comes together. So players like Jazz, all the telcos. I think banks have a role to play in this. How do we make devices more affordable? Startups have a role to play. Startups, incubators, the government has a very specific role to this. Can we continue to look at smartphones and data as luxury items?

Aisha Sarwari: And the tax regimes should reflect that.

Tania Aidrus: Absolutely. So, everybody has come together to make this ecosystem come to life.

Aisha Sarwari: So, what have been some of the ‘wow’ or ‘aha’ moments since you became a bureaucrat? I know you hate that word, but.

Tania Aidrus: No no, I don’t hate the word. There are lots of bureaucrats that I deeply respect.

Aisha Sarwari: But I think we in the English lexicon use it as a showstopper. How have you moved things? Have you been pleasantly surprised?

Tania Aidrus: There are lots of things. My learning curve has honestly been the steepest it has ever been in my life. So that’s the first thing I’ll say in the past few months. My motivation comes from interacting, ultimately with the people that I care about impacting. So, students, young startups. And when I say students, I don’t mean just college students. You know, I ran into a Grade 8 kid in Lahore the other day, it was like a few weeks ago, and he came up to me and he was just like so incredibly excited because this is a generation that has grown up with technology. So the conversation was just incredible for me because I walked away feeling well, like, you know, that I may have the opportunity to have somebody who’s, you know, twelve or thirteen, fourteen years old to start to feel like living in this country. Through technology, with the government’s support, with the private sector coming together, you know, I can do wonders, I can reach the stars. Anything is possible. And so that hope and the sort of imagining the possibilities. Yeah. We need to spark that back in our youth.

Aisha Sarwari: You have sparked that back in the party, by the way. So, it was at a point where there was, you know, because of stagflation and other issues, a sense of disappointment. And suddenly, you know, you came up with this lever to identify, be patient there are still options to kind of really leapfrog this country, not into possibility, but results. So, you can see sometimes you get more re-Tweeted than the prime minister does. And it’s quite heartening because young people believe in technology and they haven’t heard the narrative reflect that before. But now, there is. Is that a lot of responsibility? Do you sometimes feel overwhelmed?

Tania Aidrus: Yes. I feel overwhelmed every single day. I feel an incredible sense of responsibility, largely because, look, when there is hope, you know, letting down hope is honestly the worst possible thing anyone would want to be blamed for doing and the hope has been, you know, there is a whole generation of young people growing up right now that frankly need to be given hope, but also need to understand the possibilities and need to feel like this country can provide them those possibilities.

Right now, and again, this has been a problem for us, why did I leave 20 years ago? And why did so many people like me leave because of a narrative that if you don’t have the connections and way of life available here, then you can make something better of yourself by going abroad? We have an incredible diaspora that’s incredibly connected and has done extremely well. The question for us is the route for Pakistan to be successful, we cannot continue to send our best people away. The route needs to encourage and again instill hope in our young people that they can accomplish it in this country. Frankly, technology is the only way.

Aisha Sarwari: It’s like the printing press of yesteryear. You do not need literacy anymore in that sense. You know how to operate a smartphone, you are pretty literate.

Tania Aidrus: And, you know, and the reality is, is, yes, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done on the localisation of content because in Urdu, for example, there isn’t as much content that can cause awareness. By the way, I also look at it as an opportunity for this country. I mean, we have amazing content creators. We have amazing content. I mean, just look at the traditional content that we create.

Aisha Sarwari: Honestly, most people do English Urdu in the sense that I get a lot of Urdu in Roman Urdu and Pakistanis are so innovative. So, I asked you about the ‘wow’ moments. What was the sort of really ludicrous, funny like ‘did that happen’ moment. Please share with us because some can be rather interesting wake ups at digital.

Tania Aidrus: So, look, I mean, again, there are lots of amazing moments and there are lots of like, I can’t believe we’re still talking about these things and they range from just even now how long it takes for like just files to move and finds a way of getting decision made within the government. You know, you walk into some offices and you see like piles and piles and piles of them.

Aisha Sarwari: So the boss signs it and throws it on the floor and the office boy comes and fixes it. It perpetuates a culture of backwardness, unfortunately. Can we go paperless at some point?

Tania Aidrus: I think that there are examples of ministries that are already doing that. And they’re led by ministers, incredibly forward-looking people who have told their staff that I won’t sign. Can be missed. I need longer fame and fame, career and quantity at all to watch Mad Men name and fame. Duhamel, who will get permission to give it any go simply because of its name and fame. There’s also name and shame. And it’s you know, the reality is, if people say that go have a conversation, I’m happy to do it. But look, the reality is, is we still everybody has a lot of work to do. And I think we have to create a culture of healthy competition where, you know, then it’s a known fact that look, the prime minister said we have to do it and the top three ministries that do it, they will get name and fame and the ones that don’t do it they will get name and shame. So we have to create that healthy competition because frankly, then like, you know, the healthy competition is great, by the way, for driving these types of things.

Aisha Sarwari: Then what’s the problem with the government? I think everywhere in the world there’s no punitive damage. I mean, like somebody is shamed, so what do you’ll get transferred or you’ll get a promotion?

Tania Aidrus: I think accountability has to be created. So let’s think of how accountable accountability starts. What is the goal that I want to achieve this year? What are my KPI’s? My KPI is XYZ. From where will the performance monitoring take place and who will hold me responsible if I don’t achieve it and what will be the repercussions?

Aisha Sarwari: Tania, you’re self-motivated and self-accountable. The challenge becomes when there’s not that culture instilled and the system is so big that you can’t create that.

Tania Aidrus: I think you can create it. There are a lot of people currently working to build a control performance management. Look, the reality is, is we have to understand we have done things a certain way for seven decades. And I think the one thing I continuously try to tell people is this government has been in power for a year and a half. A year and a half is an incredibly short amount of time. And I think for anything that we talk about and, you know, in my little, very small world, I face a lot of “What have you even done so far? You’ve been here for two months, what have you done?” The reality is, that yes you have to show progress also the expectations have to be set properly, but there is no magic bullet here. There is no silver bullet that’s going to overnight change the economy. And that’s going to overnight change you know, the job situation. Now, there are measures that we need to put in place and we are seeing those. We have an incredible economic team now.

Aisha Sarwari: The recent report showed progress in terms of the indicators’ trajectory is getting better. And I feel upset about people who are not in the arena, who don’t dare to step into the arena, but then they are going to go throw tomatoes at the audience.

Tania Aidrus: Look, this is called drawing room conversations. So this is something that the diaspora often talks about, and I fully take the blame for this. Why isn’t Pakistani moving forward? But you know, ultimately, who’s going to roll up their sleeves and show up?

Aisha Sarwari: Nobody.

Tania Aidrus: And so, the reality is, is in many ways a huge part of my motivation in doing this was I was like, no more drawing-room talk. I roll up my sleeves and show up and give it a shot. Aisha Sarwari.

That inspiration came from you. Tania, thank you so much for doing this for Pakistan, regardless of where this goes. And congratulations on what you’ve already achieved. Thank you.

Tania Aidrus: Thank you so much.



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