With the recent announcement of the P@SHA Fund for Social Innovation, the ThinkChange Pakistan team thought our readers would be interested in hearing more about the fund and its potential to foster entrepreneurship in Pakistan. We sat with Jehan Ara to find out more.

Recently, your organisation, the Pakistan Software Houses’ Association (P@SHA), announced the P@SHA Fund for Social Innovation. What is your aim with the establishment of this fund?

The aim is very simple. The people of Pakistan face a lot of problems many of which require government intervention. However, it will be a long, long time before the government is able to tackle all these problems even if it had the will to do so. We have seen how private and community initiatives can start to make a difference to the lives of people. Whether it is the Grameen model in Bangladesh or Edhi, TCF and the Imran Khan Foundation here, all of them started as specks of an idea that then grew to impact the lives of many. We have also seen how during the earthquake and the floods, many young people individually or collectively took on the responsibility of helping the survivors both in the short term and in the medium term.

Pakistan has over 100 million young people who live in our cities and towns. Some of the problems that we face actually require micro level solutions at the community, village, town or city level. Young people living in these areas are aware of the problems and very often know better than anyone what the solutions may be. Whenever we have engaged with young people and asked them why they haven’t tried out an idea to see if it is workable, their responses have been quite standard – where would they get the money to work on an idea or to get a project off the ground,  who could they turn to for advice or mentoring, what if they failed, etc. etc.

So a number of ideas that could result in simple but workable and sustainable solutions are not even attempted.  Sure a number of them will fail but at least they will have tried and they will have learnt something from the exercise.

We are hoping that the P@SHA Social Innovation Fund and the entire mentoring and training program connected with it will result in a few ideas actually seeing the light of day. We do not think that technology holds the solution to all our problems but it is a great enabler and with an ever-increasing number of Pakistanis having access to communication devices – mobiles or the Internet, the opportunity to make solutions available with the use of technology has never been greater.

Can you tell us the story of how it came about?

We have been talking about it for quite some time within the P@SHA Community but being a members’ association, P@SHA itself is not adequately funded so we had been wondering if we could get together a group of CEOs from within the community who could contribute toward the setting up of a Fund that could be used to fund ideas.

Coincidentally I discussed this with Badar Khushnood, Pakistan Country Consultant for Google and Google.org team when they visited Pakistan last December. A lot of discussion took place during which I explained to them what the motivation was, what kind of talent existed within Pakistan and the hopes that we had in our young population.

I was subsequently asked by Google.org to send in a detailed proposal for a seed grant to start the ball rolling and the rest, as they say, is history. I was amazed at the speed with which everything happened. There were a couple of exchanges wherein I was asked for some clarifications but that was it.

Google didn’t want it to be called a Google Fund because all of us are hoping that although the seed grant  has resulted in the formation of the Fund, it will be something that other organizations will add to so that it does not fizzle out but instead becomes a Fund that can continuously be tapped into by youngsters with innovative ideas.

What does “social innovation” mean to you?

Any kind of innovative product, process or idea that results in creating some sort of social impact, that brings about positive change, that alleviates a problem that irks the people in the community or the society in which we live. I really think that the interpretation depends on which part of the world you come from simply because the problems are very different and hence so are the solutions.

So for people in Pakistan or the developing world, access to communications, to healthcare, to very basic things like education and clean drinking water are all social needs that have to be addressed. But technology can also be used to help improve processes related to agriculture and the environment and create more employment or business opportunities which would also result in social impact.

If you look at any kind of inclusion – financial, gender, people with physical challenges, people without access  to communication or any other kind of service, you could come up with an idea that solves one or more of these injustices because that is what it is when people within a country, a society or a community are excluded from the benefits that others have access to.

We were discussing just the other day that people interpret the term “social” in many different ways. How loosely have applicants to the fund interpreted it?

Some of them have got it right but there are others who have confused it with Social Media or social in terms of entertainment. We are therefore trying to clarify what social innovation means in each talk that we give. We are also citing examples in our blog section so that potential applicants understand what the term social innovation actually refers to.

At this stage I don’t want to mention any particular project that has been submitted but among people I have run into at events, there have been those who have come up to me and actually shown me mood games and other mobile applications that have nothing to do with changing people’s lives for the better.

Why “social innovation”? What is it that makes you, your supporters and the mentors want to contribute your time to this endeavour?

To be honest, I would be gung-ho about supporting any kind of innovation because I believe there is a lot of untapped talent in this country that needs to be nurtured and mentored. However,  Pakistan does face a lot of social problems and there are a large number of people who don’t benefit from any technological development that takes place or any opportunities that arise.

I think it is our collective responsibility to be inclusive, to ensure that technology and development extend beyond just a few million people in this country. It is only then that we will  grow as a nation.  Most people take the easy road and work on ideas that continue to target the same small established user group. We thought that by focusing on social innovation, we would force them to look at the use of technology for inclusion, for social good, for development.

Our time is being contributed toward changing and developing our society and empowering the abundance of young taent and energy that we have available as a resource. If we don’t do this, we are missing out on a great opportunity for this country.

You interact with many entrepreneurs in the technology space on a daily basis. What do you see as the upcoming trends in Pakistan? Will there be a convergence with social entrepreneurship?

More and more young people want to take advantage of the growth in the use of social networks, the online stores set up by organizations like Apple, Google, Blackberry, Nokia and Microsoft and the growth of the mobile population in Pakistan so one sees a lot of games being developed for these platforms. There are also productivity applications being developed, SMS based applications and now with access speeds becoming more reasonable, some apps which involve audio and video streaming are also being developed. I think with increased usage of video you will see a lot of localization beginning to happen instead of apps being developed just for English speaking users.

I think there is bound to be a convergence with social entrepreneurship because the needs of the populace will dictate the development. Already we see entrepreneurs looking at applications being developed for the mobile banking space, citizen reporting, disaster management, disaster relief, agriculture and disease monitoring. This is only going to grow as cost of handhelds and of connectivity goes down. And remember any development that is done for Pakistan can be marketed to users in the rest of the developing world so they have a big market available to them if they have the vision to see it.

Finally, for a potential applicant to the P@SHA fund, what would be your words of advice?

If anyone has an idea that will bring about positive change through the use of technology as a platform, he or she should apply to the Fund between now and the end of August. The idea doesn’t have to be complicated but it does have to cause social impact.  It has to be an innovative idea or at least a variation on an idea that may have been done differently somewhere else.

Do try and figure out if you have the capability to implement the idea or at least know people with different skillsets who can be part of your team. Also try and figure out how you will keep the project sustainable once you have the initial funding to develop it.

It may be a good idea to talk to people in your community to find out what the pressing issues are that need to be addressed. It could lead to brainstorming that could result in a project that is truly community generated and has the ownership of the community that you are trying to benefit.

I would say look at the areas of health, education, social engagement, hygiene, crop improvement, energy, revenue generation, empowerment or extending the reach of people to opportunities that exist.

For more information, visit the P@SHA Fund for Social Innovation website.