Pakistani startups raise $85 million in 2021 with rush of foreign capital in fintechs 

This photograph taken on November 19, 2015 shows Pakistani employees of online marketplace company at work in Karachi. (AFP/File)
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Updated 13 June 2021
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Pakistani startups raise $85 million in 2021 with rush of foreign capital in fintechs 

  • Internet platforms engaged in finance have fetched around $22 million, mostly in foreign funding, since January 2021
  • Increasing mobile phone penetration and growing young population are major attractions for foreign funding in Pakistani startups

KARACHI: Venture capitalists poured over $85 million in funding in Pakistani startups in the first five months of 2021, with fintech companies riding a wave of interest by overseas investors, according to data from Invest2Innovate Ventures, which supports early-stage enterprises in untapped developing markets.

Pakistani Internet platforms engaged in finance and business, or fintech companies, have fetched around $22 million, mostly in foreign funding, since January 2021, according to Alpha Beta Core, a tech-driven boutique investment banking and financial advisory services platform. These include recent deals by TAG Innovation, KTrade and Abhi who have raised $12.1 million in total in separate rounds.

Industry experts say Pakistan’s increasing mobile phone penetration and growing young population are major attractions for foreign funding in startups. Official data shows Pakistan has 85 percent teledensity with 183 million cellular, 98 million 3G/4G and 101 million broadband subscribers. 

The decrease in global air travel during the coronavirus pandemic has also provided an unexpected advantage for startups in Pakistan, cutting out the requirement that investors visit the country as part of the due diligence process, and making them more open to discussing deals remotely over Zoom or other video conferencing platforms.

Syed Amin Ul Haque, federal minister for IT, told Arab News fintechs were “gaining traction” in Pakistan due to government measures to create an “enabling environment,” including by increasing broadband connectivity and reducing taxes on telecoms. 

“IT enabling environment has been created in Pakistan through policy measures,” Haque said. “Withholding tax was 12.5 percent and now it has been approved by the cabinet to bring it down to 10 percent, Federal excise duty on SIM cards was 17 percent and now we have reduced it to 16 percent. All these measures will be part of the financial bill in the upcoming budget, to be implemented from first of July 2021.”

He said during the last 10 months of the current fiscal year, IT exports had increased by 46 percent, the minister said. 
 
Kalsoom Lakhani, founder and partner at Invest2Innovate (I2I) Ventures, told Arab News data collected by her firm showed Pakistani startups had already raised close to $85 million in funding. 

“Which means we have surpassed the total amount, $65.6 million raised in 2020, by the middle of the [current] year,” she said. “Most of the funding has been made in e-commerce... but a high number of deals in fintechs, mainly pre-seed and seed, were made.”

Khurram Schehzad, CEO of Alpha Beta Core, said the growth of fintech in Pakistan was because of a realization that the country’s growing retail, wholesale and trade sectors required a better financial ecosystem. 

“Pakistan is a highly under-tapped market as far as financial inclusion goes — only under 25 percent of the population is banked while cash is rampant for payments,” Schehzad told Arab News. “There is a massive retail, wholesale and trade sector which needs a financial ecosystem with ease and comfort … All these pain points, with a large middle class and tech-savvy population and youngsters, there is a need for solutions at various stages of the financial ecosystem”. 

TAG, Pakistan’s first digital financial super app, last week announced it had closed $5.5 million in a pre-seed round led by Venture Capitals Quiet Capital management and Liberty City Ventures from the United States and Fatima Gobi Ventures. The funding round is the largest ever pre-seed in the Middle East, North Africa and Pakistan region. 

“The funds will be utilized to give access to Pakistan’s large unbanked population through digital accounts,” TAG co-founder and CEO Talal Ahmed Gondal told Arab News. 

Ali Farid Khwaja, chairman of Karachi-based stock brokerage KASB Securities that owns and operates stock trading app KTrade, said the company wanted to “target 10 million mobile phone users to invest in Pakistani stocks within the next four years.”

“We will be spending money to educate how to become partners in the country’s mega corporations and connecting them with financial markets,” he said.

The KTrade app, which launched in 2019 and allows investors to trade in equities at the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX), has raised $4.5 million in a funding round spearheaded by Hong Kong based investment firm TTB Partners and New York based VC HOF Capital. German investor Christian Angermayer also participated in the round, according to the statement issued on Monday. 

Another Pakistani fintech, Abhi, a Karachi-based salary advance platform, this week raised $2 million in a seed round led by Vostok Emerging Finance. Village Global Village Global, a US-based venture capital firm focused on early-stage startups, also participated in the round, marking its first fintech investment in Pakistan. Other participants of the round included Sarmayacar, i2i Ventures, Zayn Capital, and Portman Wills, the co-founder of Wagestream, a London-headquartered financial wellness platform. 

To be launched in July, next month, Abhi will provide employees with salary advances based on accrued wages. 

“We have been working on this idea for the past three years and our core point was financial inclusion,” Omair Ansari, co-founder of Abhi, told Arab News. “We want to address pain points in the manual payments process and allow employees to access their salary in advance when they need it.”

The startup is currently conducting a three-month pilot run involving 20 companies from the pharmaceutical, textile, and retail sectors. 

Ansari believes the Pakistani startup market is increasingly on the radar of global venture capitalists and “looking much better now.” He plans to tap the improving conditions to expand in Pakistan and then take his venture abroad.

“After focusing first in Pakistan, we plan to expand to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, UAE and Saudi Arabia,” Ansari said. “Overseas operations are expected to commence within the next two years.” 


Pakistan’s finance minister says new IMF loan agreement targeted for early July

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Pakistan’s finance minister says new IMF loan agreement targeted for early July

  • The quantum and duration of new loan is still not clear, though the government wants at least a three-year program
  • Muhammad Aurangzeb says the modalities of the new loan will be thrashed out with an IMF delegation next month

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s finance minister Muhammad Aurangzeb said on Tuesday the country planned to discuss the contours of a new loan program with an International Monetary Fund (IMF) delegation next month while hoping to reach a staff-level agreement with the global lender by early July.

Pakistan secured a $3 billion IMF bailout last year to avert a sovereign default and hopes to receive the final tranche later this month. However, the government wants a fresh IMF loan since the country continues to face tough economic challenges and plans to implement structural reforms.

“We are still hoping that we can get into a staff-level agreement by the time June is done or early July so that we can move on,” the finance minister said while addressing a news conference.

He informed he had had good discussions with IMF and World Bank officials during the spring meetings held by both international lending organizations in Washington.

Aurangzeb maintained it was not right to say that the IMF was imposing strict conditions on Pakistan since the country needed to carry out reforms on its own to strengthen its economy.

“This is Pakistan’s program which is helped, supported, assisted by the fund,” he said. “This is how we have to see it since this is the way ownership will come.”

He said the quantum and duration of the new IMF program was yet not clear, though the government wanted to secure at least a three-year loan package.

Both sides have said they were already in discussions for the new loan.

A formal request, however, will be made once the current facility expires, with the IMF board likely to meet late this month to approve the second and last tranche of the current support scheme.

The economy is expected to grow by 2.6 percent in the fiscal year 2024, the finance minister said, adding that the inflation was projected at 24 percent, down from 29.2 percent in fiscal 2023.

It touched a record high of 38 percent last May.

Aurangzeb said structural reforms would include increasing the government’s tax revenue-to-GDP ratio to 13 percent to 14 percent in the next two or three years from the current level of around 9 percent, reducing losses of state-owned enterprises through their privatization, and better management of the debt-laden energy sector.

With input from Reuters


Pakistan refiners warn $6 bln upgrades at risk due to fuel price deregulation plan

Updated 23 April 2024
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Pakistan refiners warn $6 bln upgrades at risk due to fuel price deregulation plan

  • Regulatory authority proposes oil marketers, refineries be allowed to set prices instead of government 
  • Refiners demand they be consulted before the implementation of “irrational recommendations”

KARACHI: Pakistan’s plans to deregulate fuel prices could lead refiners to halt planned upgrades worth up to $6 billion and force some refineries to close, some of the country’s top refiners said in a letter to the country’s oil regulator.

Looking to drive down prices for consumers, the South Asian nation’s Oil & Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) has proposed that oil marketers and refineries be allowed to set fuel prices, instead of the government setting prices.

As part of the change, OGRA proposed scrapping or reviewing a rule that requires fuel buyers to purchase supply from local refineries, another issue the refiners said could result in “disastrous consequences.”

The refiners — state-run Pakistan Refinery and private domestic refiners Pak Arab Refinery, Attock Refinery, Cinergyco, and National Refinery — said they were already struggling to operate near full capacity and asked that they be consulted before the implementation of “irrational recommendations.”

“The refining sector requires OGRA support through pragmatic and supportive measures, rather than suggesting ways that if implemented would result in their permanent closure,” the refiners told OGRA on Monday in a letter, which was reviewed by Reuters.

The deregulation was aimed at boosting competition and protecting the public interest, OGRA told Reuters in a statement on Tuesday, but did not respond to specific questions on the letter from the refiners. However, it said in an April 17 presentation reviewed by Reuters the potential impact of deregulation on refinery upgrades had to be assessed carefully, calling it a challenge.

“The refineries upgradation will bring in investment of $5 — 6 billion and not only result in cleaner environment friendly fuels but also result in savings of precious foreign exchange of the country,” the refiners wrote in the letter to OGRA.


Pakistan hopes to get new IMF loan by early July, says finance minister

Updated 23 April 2024
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Pakistan hopes to get new IMF loan by early July, says finance minister

  • Pakistan’s current $3 billion financial arrangement with IMF expires in late April
  • Islamabad is seeking “bigger,” long-term loan to ensure macroeconomic stability

Pakistan is hoping to reach a staff-level agreement with the International Monetary Fund by June or early July, its finance minister said on Tuesday.

The country’s current $3 billion arrangement with the fund runs out in late-April, which it secured last summer to avert a sovereign default.

Islamabad is seeking a long-term bigger loan to help bring permanence to macroeconomic stability as well as an umbrella under which the country can execute structural reforms.

“We are still hoping that we get a staff-level agreement by June or early July,” Finance Minister Muhammad Aurangzeb told a conference in Islamabad.

He returned from Washington last week after leading a team to attend the IMF and World Bank’s spring meetings. “We had very good discussions in Washington,” he said.

He said he did not know at this stage the volume and tenure of the longer program.


Pakistan ‘rarely’ punished officials for rights abuses in 2023— State Department report

Updated 23 April 2024
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Pakistan ‘rarely’ punished officials for rights abuses in 2023— State Department report

  • US State Department releases annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” for the year 2023
  • Report says Pakistan witnessed extrajudicial killings, torture and restrictions on media freedoms last year

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s government “rarely” took steps to identify and punish officials who may have been involved in rights abuses in 2023, a report released by the US State Department said on Tuesday, pointing out incidents of extrajudicial killings, torture, enforced disappearances, violence against journalists and restrictions on media freedom had taken place in the country last year. 

US Department of State released its annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices” to highlight rights issues in several countries, including Pakistan. In the report, Washington identified that Pakistan last year witnessed arbitrary killings, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearance, torture and “cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by the government or its agents.”

“The government rarely took credible steps to identify and punish officials who may have committed human rights abuses,” the report said. 

Cases of “enforced disappearances” of citizens have long plagued Pakistan, where militants have waged a war against the state for decades. Families say people picked up by security forces often disappear for years, and are sometimes found dead, with no official explanation. Pakistani security agencies deny involvement in such disappearances.

The report also pointed out that last year Pakistan had seen incidents of restrictions on freedom of expression and media freedom, violence against journalists, unjustified arrests, disappearances of journalists, censorship and criminal defamation laws. 

Pakistan’s recent actions to restrict Internet and mobile services throughout the country, especially on days when elections are held, have invited criticism from rights organizations and Washington. The interior ministry last week confirmed it had banned social media platform X in February to protect national security, maintain public order, and preserve the country’s “integrity.”

The State Department report further pointed out that rights issues in Pakistan during 2023 included extensive gender-based violence, including domestic or intimate partner violence, sexual violence, early, child and forced marriages. It said Pakistan had also reported incidents of female genital mutilation and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting members of religious, racial and ethnic minorities. 

The report added that violence, abuse and social and religious intolerance by militant organizations and other non-state actors, both local and foreign, contributed to a culture of lawlessness in the country. 

“Terrorist and cross-border militant attacks against civilians, soldiers, and police caused hundreds of casualties,” the report noted, crediting Pakistan’s military, police and other law enforcement agencies for carrying out “significant campaigns” against militants last year. 

The South Asian country has seen an uptick in violence, mainly suicide attacks, since November 2022 when a fragile truce between militants and the state broke down. Pakistan has since then carried out military operations against the Pakistani Taliban or the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and a Baloch separatist militant organization, the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) in the country’s two western provinces that border Afghanistan.


Iranian president in Lahore on second day of official visit to Pakistan

Updated 23 April 2024
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Iranian president in Lahore on second day of official visit to Pakistan

  • On Monday, Islamabad and Tehran signed eight accords including on trade, technology, health, culture, information 
  • Interior ministers of Pakistan and Iran agree on joint action plan to deal with terrorism, smuggling, drug trafficking 

ISLAMABAD: Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi arrived in Lahore on Tuesday on the second day of a three-day visit to Pakistan where he will meet top government officials and business leaders before traveling to the country’s commercial hub, Karachi. 

Raisi arrived in Islamabad on Monday on a three-day visit as the two Muslim neighbors seek to mend ties after unprecedented tit-for-tat military strikes earlier this year. The Iranian official’s visit is the first by any head of state to Pakistan after the South Asian nation’s February general elections and the formation of a new government headed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif. The visit also comes as tensions are high in the Middle East after Iran launched airstrikes on Israel a week ago and Israel retaliated with its own attack on Friday.

“Iranian President Syed Ibrahim Raisi has reached Lahore,” state television PTV reported, where he was received by Punjab Chief Minister Maryam Nawaz. 

The Iranian president began his Lahore trip by visiting the mausoleum of Allama Muhammad Iqbal, Pakistan’s national poet, whose literary works in the Persian language have garnered him wide recognition in Iran.

After meetings in Lahore, Raisi will travel to Karachi, where he will hold meetings with the provincial leadership and be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Karachi, state-run Radio Pakistan reported. 

Commuters ride past a welcoming billboard displaying an image of the Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi along a street in Karachi on April 22, 2024. (AFP)

On Monday, Raisi held delegation-level meetings in the Pakistani capital as well as one-on-one discussions with the prime minister, president, army chief, chairman senate and speaker national assembly. 

He also witnessed the signing of eight MoUs and agreements covering different fields including trade, science technology, agriculture, health, culture, and judicial matters. These include an MoU on the establishment of the Rimdan-Gabd Joint Free/Special Zone; on cooperation between the Ministry of Cooperative Labour and Social Welfare of Iran and the Ministry of Overseas Pakistani and Human Resources Development of Pakistan; on judicial assistance and legal cooperation at the ministry levels; on cooperation for animal hygiene and health; on mutual recognition in the field of quarantine and phytosanitary; and on the promotion of culture and films.

“The economic and trade volume between Iran and Pakistan is not acceptable at all and we have decided at the first step to increase the trade volume between our two countries to $10 billion,” Raisi said at a joint press conference with Sharif. 

The interior ministers of Pakistan and Iran also met on Monday and discussed border management to prevent smuggling and drugs trafficking, and “decided in principle to ban terrorist organizations in their respective countries,” state news wire APP said.

“The two sides agreed on a joint plan of action to deal with the menace of terrorism being a common problem, with further improving mutual support and exchange of intelligence information.”

A security agreement regarding this decision would be signed “at the earliest,” APP added. 

Pakistan and Iran have had a history of rocky relations despite a number of commercial pacts, with Islamabad being historically closer to Saudi Arabia and the United States.

Their highest profile agreement is a stalled gas supply deal signed in 2010 to build a pipeline from Iran’s South Fars gas field to Pakistan’s southern provinces of Balochistan and Sindh.

Pakistan and Iran are also often at odds over instability on their shared porous border, with both countries routinely trading blame for not rooting out militancy.

Tensions surged in January when Pakistan and Iran exchanged airstrikes, both claiming to target alleged militant hideouts in each other’s countries. Both sides have since then undertaken peace overtures and restored bilateral ties.