"In Peshawar?" was a common reaction by confused members of the Pakistani and international technology community when told about the location of the country's first Digital Youth Summit (DYS). The city's reputation is often unfairly dominated by insecurity, yet over 300 young men and women from across Pakistan showed up to the two-day conference this week, making it the largest youth tech conference in the country and marking Peshawar's emergence as a hub of innovation and technology.
More than 60% of Pakistanis are under the age of 30 and while unemployment is rising, it is not possible for the government to provide jobs in the public sector to this huge mass of youth. On the other hand, a youth-led national and organic movement is growing, changing perceptions about "secure" public sector jobs and creating an ecosystem for entrepreneurship, freelance jobs, and technology. Peshawar is at the helm of this change.
Starting with a civic hackathon in January 2014, 150 young techies from across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (KP) demonstrated their energy and creativity for solving prevalent civic issues through technology. Twelve winners of the hackathon became fellows at the government of KP’s Information Technology Board (KPITB) and began developing their own civic startups. Their prototypes from the hackathon are now turning into full-fledged apps. "Traditionally we wait for governments to solve citizens' problems. This helps citizens solve government’s problems, which hurt all of society," said Muhammad Ibraheem, one of the fellows. His team’s app, No Kunda, allows citizens to take pictures of electricity theft they see in their community and report them to authorities. Another, DocSeek, aims to be a “Yelp for government health facilities in KP”, enabling residents to easily find nearby government health facilities, complete with user reviews.
The fellows presented their apps and experiences at the Digital Youth Summit as one of the summit’s 28 sessions over two days. Over 66 speakers from across Pakistan and the world converged to engage with local youth on topics of fostering innovation, startups and freelancing jobs through the digital economy. The participants included innovators, entrepreneurs, and an exciting group from emerging startup communities. Youth interested in building digital livelihoods heard from investors on how to attract funding, practical tips on writing proposals, and the opportunities available to become part of a global digital economy, such as through micro-work. Along with the sessions, there was an expo of digital innovators showcasing their products. The attendees cherished the opportunity to meet successful entrepreneurs, with sessions consistently running out of time for questions, and speakers swamped after the sessions by aspiring young innovators.
Many of the attendees (as well as some speakers) were university students, and common questions touched on the practical tools and networks required to set up their own ventures, particularly in an environment where many people do not consider freelancing and digital work to be ‘real jobs’. One session, on enterprise planning proved so popular that it was repeated for those who could not attend the first time. In addition to youth meeting inspirational role models, they also met each other to share ideas. Madiha Hassan founder of Pakistan’s first ridesharing app, Savaree, and described as a local digital ‘rock star’, said, “I attend tech conferences around Pakistan where I see amazing people, but it’s always the same, established people.” The DYS she said, allowed her “to see entrepreneurs my age and connect with them.”