In Pakistan, a women-led startup wants to change tourism for the COVID era

Tourists, both local and foreign, travel through the valleys of Hunza, Pakistan, on Dec. 23, 2019. (Photo courtesy: The Mad Hatters/Instagram)
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Updated 25 August 2020

In Pakistan, a women-led startup wants to change tourism for the COVID era

  • Root Network is working toward creating a more sustainable tourism industry by encouraging responsible travel during the pandemic
  • The startup was launched last month by a group of female travelers and development professionals

RAWALPINDI: Pakistani startup Root Network is working to create a more sustainable tourism industry in Pakistan by encouraging responsible travel in the COVID-19 era, the company’s founders said, as authorities closed two dozen hotels in the country’s northwest after dozens of hotel employees tested positive for the coronavirus.
Pakistan opened almost all sectors of the economy, including tourism, earlier this month, after shutting them down in March to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
Thousands of people have since thronged to the country’s picturesque northwest, especially the mountainous Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and Gilgit-Baltistan region, raising fears about new breakouts in remote areas.
“Restarting tourism in Pakistan is necessary for economic recovery, but precautions must be taken to ensure it is not at the expense of local communities’ health and safety,” said Aneeqa Ali, co-founder of Root Network and founder of The Mad Hatters, a travel company that offers tours of Hunza and the greater Gilgil-Baltistan area.




A photo from the Instagram account of tour company Mad Hatters shared on July 26, 2020. (Photo courtesy: The Mad Hatters/Instagram)

Root Network, which says it has reached 80 percent of its financing needs through crowdfunding, was co-founded by a group of female travelers and development professionals last month over a shared belief in the importance of responsible travel.
The startup’s aim is to create an equitable and inclusive tourism industry in Pakistan by increasing access to meaningful economic opportunities for local communities, promoting their culture and heritage, and advocating responsible travel practices.
In this regard, Root Network has devised training manuals that help local tour companies, operators and guides simplify and apply internationally recognized COVID standard operating procedures that locals can adopt. The group is educating hotel owners, tour guides and operators, and porters about measures they can realistically impose against the coronavirus, and emphasize the importance of changing tourism tactics in a COVID era.
“It’s more than just safety, it’s also about economics and the motivation of bringing money back in through being an attractive destination to foreign travelers,” Ali said, talking about the vast tourism potential of Pakistan’s mountainous north. “We want them [local communities] to know that hygienic practices and the ability to provide safety specifically because of COVID is now going to become a hot demand of foreign travelers and they need to adapt to meet it.”




A tour guide from Passu, Hunza, with a tourist in Hunza on Aug. 4, 2019. (Photo courtesy: Root Network/Instagram)

The training has a number of incentives for local tourism beneficiaries, including that they will be paid for their time, provided with kits that include masks, sanitizers, pop up sanitizer stations, and thermometers, and are assigned local ambassadors who ensure guidelines are adhered to.
Laila Rajani, an anthropologist who focuses on Pakistan’s Kalasha people who live in three remote valleys in north-west Pakistan and preserve an ancient way of life, including animizt beliefs, said adapting tourism to the COVID era necessitated working closely with local communities.
“My partners and I are very aware that we are outsiders and it’s not easy for local communities or institutions to trust somebody who is coming in and telling them how to live,” Rajani said. “It was important to Root Network since the beginning to have strong partnerships with local organizations.”
Two such organizations include the Karimabad Area Development Organization and Aga Khan Rural Support Program, both of whom have strong ties to the area. Root Network is also collaborating with local NGOs, medical professionals, and tourist facilitators themselves.
Last year, Pakistan said it would loosen travel restrictions in the hope of reviving tourism by offering visas on arrival to visitors from 50 countries and electronic visas to 175 nationalities.
Those reforms, approved by the cabinet, were meant to open up a new era for the tourism industry, which was devastated by Islamist violence after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
But the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the plans for the Pakistani government, as it has for administrations around the world. Global tourism revenues are expected to fall by up to $3.3 trillion due to COVID-19 restrictions, with the United States standing to lose the most, the United Nations said last month.
“Our plan is to use this initiative to see and spread something to begin a long term relationship that would allow for sustained support down the road,” Root Network co-founder Turfah Tabish said.
“The tourism sector of Pakistan has proven its resilience time and again, and survived through many difficult challenges,” Ali added. “Once it regains its foothold, it has the power to help spur economic activity that will bolster other industries as well. Thus, it is imperative that we provide tourism professionals with the right tools, resources, and relief packages to survive the pandemic and bounce back.”


Pakistani breast cancer detection startup hopes to get FDA approval by next year

Updated 20 October 2020

Pakistani breast cancer detection startup hopes to get FDA approval by next year

  • Xylexa Inc. has developed software that produces mammogram results within seconds, pushing diagnosis accuracy up to 90 percent
  • Pakistan has the highest rate of breast cancer in Asia with approximately 90,000 new cases diagnosed every year

ISLAMABAD: The CEO of a Pakistani startup that uses artificial intelligence and image processing to detect breast cancer said this week he was hopeful his software would break onto the global stage next year after getting approval from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Xylexa Inc., a computer-aided diagnostics platform, has developed software that processes mammograms within seconds and produces results, pushing diagnosis accuracy up to 90 percent while also cutting costs and time.
Breast cancer is one of the leading causes of death worldwide, and Pakistan has the highest rate of the disease in Asia, with approximately 90,000 new cases diagnosed every year. Of those, 40,000 patients do not survive, according to data from the Journal of the Pakistan Medical Association, which says approximately one out of every nine Pakistani women are likely to suffer from breast cancer. Around 77 percent cases of invasive breast cancer occur in women above 50 years, though if diagnosed early, the survival rate is close to 90 percent.
“Breast cancer’s early diagnosis is the biggest challenge [and] when a radiologist reads a mammogram with a naked eye, the [chances of] misdiagnosis are over 30 percent,” Shahrukh Babar, Xylexa’s chief executive officer, told Arab News on Monday.
“We have developed an artificial intelligence-based decision support system which reads mammograms, processes them through innovative algorithms and exactly pinpoints where the anomaly is present and what type of anomaly it is, either it is benign or belligerent,” Babar said. “There is no subscription fee for our service as hospitals and individuals can pay per study. It is a cloud based application which can be accessed easily anywhere and anytime. Even patients will be able to upload their mammograms to get the diagnosis.”
The company began to develop the software in early 2017, and it is now being used on a trial basis in hospitals in The Netherlands and Germany. Xylexa hopes to release its application performance results by November and is developing partnerships with hospitals in Dubai, Europe and the US before it launches the software commercially next year after getting FDA certification, the CEO said.
“We are launching it in Pakistan by first quarter of next year, and will be launching it globally in 2021,” Babar said, adding that his company was closely working with an advisory board of oncologists and radiologists from North America and Canada to fine-tune the product.
Healthcare specialists say death by breast cancer can be prevented in one third of women if routine mammography was performed in women over 50 years of age.
“It is quite alarming that breast cancer is becoming common in younger age groups,” said Dr. Erum Khan, a surgeon and healthcare specialist at Polyclinic hospital in Islamabad. “The the only way to tackle it effectively is early and accurate detection.”