Strong education sector before tech investment

Interview with Intel Pakistan Country Manager Naveed Siraj

An edited version of this story first appeared in The Express Tribune on February 1, 2014.

ISLAMABAD – The time when Intel Corporation, a world leader in computing technology, starts to invest in Pakistan for local manufacturing and assembly of its products might come about in the not-so-distant future.

But in order to get to that level of attracting international technology investment — a level that countries such as China and India have already achieved — Pakistan’s government needs to set concrete goals, especially in the education sector, and then strive to achieve them, according to Intel Pakistan’s Country Manager Naveed Siraj.

The Intel Pakistan chief sat down with The Express Tribune for an exclusive interview, after the conclusion of Intel’s 10th annual National Science Fair in Islamabad on Wednesday, to speak about his firm’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and about using “Information Technology (IT) as an accelerator for national growth.”

Siraj said countries such as India and China where Intel has invested in wafer fabrication facilities in the recent past have a long history of investing in education. Those countries, he said, also have a tradition of strong academia-industry linkages.

Education seems to be the common denominator in these examples. There is a lesson for Pakistan there, Siraj said. He said Pakistan’s poor education indicators are a serious cause of concern but they also provide a premise for Intel to invest in the country’s education sector.

This premise is reflected in Intel Pakistan’s CSR programmes which include teacher training, adult IT literacy and the annual US-based International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), for which Pakistani students qualify through an elaborate series of local science fairs.

More recently, Intel Pakistan is focusing on “women empowerment and girls’ education” through its existing CSR projects, Siraj said.

But like most private-sector representatives, Siraj admits the private sector’s efforts will eventually be limited to business objectives. The government will have to do the heavy lifting.

“The private sector needs to continue to invest and increasingly we see the government’s intention to speak with the private sector,” Siraj said. “But, in the end, it depends on whether the government sets the goals and achieves them.”

He said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the new government will try to improve economic indicators and drive investment. When the government starts delivering results, Siraj said, the IT sector would perhaps be the first movers for new investment.

Technology can be leveraged to achieve education goals but there are some major impediments to technology use, Siraj said.

“From a Pakistani perspective, our biggest predicament is that a major segment of our population is deprived of devices due to lack of affordability,” he said. The lack of universal broadband access adds to the challenges, he said.

The Intel Pakistan chief said the official Universal Service Fund, which is dedicated for developing telecommunication infrastructure in “un-served and under-served areas,” needs to be made more effective. Similarly, broadband services needs to be pervasive and be offered at competitive prices, Siraj said.

Siraj thinks that the free laptop scheme for high-achieving students in Punjab, which attracted some criticism when it was launched, was a “step in the right direction” with one caveat.

There needs to be subsidy for other segments of society especially women and rural communities, Siraj said.

“The government should keep on encouraging high-achiever students, but also incentivise a larger cross section of society to be able to afford devices,” he said.

Intel-powered tablet PCs were introduced in the Pakistani market in 2013 and Siraj said the response has been “very interesting.” He said the tablet PCs could “have a transformational impact on device users in Pakistan in terms of computing, being able to connect and then get content.”

Device affordability and connectivity can also lead to use of unconventional learning methods, such as web-based learning and Massive Open Online Courses, in Pakistani schools to improve children’s analytical skills.

“All I am really interested in is that a particular teacher in say Vehari is able to show online courses to students and preferably each student has an affordable device to follow the lesson,” Siraj said.

Such web-based courses can also be used to impart entrepreneurship skills to students and help them become job creators instead of job seekers, he said.

For the future, Siraj said 3G licensing might open up avenues for technology investment in Pakistan. He said he believes the rural communities could also be a “game changer” for Pakistan’s future IT landscape.

“A lot of IT services are urban-oriented but our agriculture and farm-produce tasks are mostly done manually,” Siraj said. “Those processes can benefit tremendously from IT services.”

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