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Digital Economy, Media, and Rural Pakistan

Digital Economy, Media, and Rural Pakistan

By Ayesha Shabbir 

Did humans ever imagine that they would be able to make payments and receive money on their mobile phones with just one touch? Surprisingly, our dreams have been turned into a reality, and all the credits go to digital economy. Not only has it transformed the traditional ways through which businesses are operated, it has enabled common man living in rural areas to become self-sufficient. This whole phenomenon has enabled people to become financially empowered by accessing financial services through digital means.

Digital Economy comprises of many components such as connectivity, digital identity, digital citizenship, digital commerce including online shopping, transactions, banking etc. It also includes the development of traditional sectors such as farming, mining etc. using modern digital communication tools and media infrastructure. It is a far reaching and multidimensional idea and encloses the evolution of agricultural economy, human centric services and infrastructure dependent on socio economic changes in the rural areas.

An important catalyst for growth of digitization in the rural areas of Pakistan is mass media. Though mass media in Pakistan faces daunting issues with regards to accessibility, resources, and freedom of speech inter alia. However, despite the challenges many economically enabling and progressive companies like Jazz and Telenor in Pakistan have been able to educate the rural population about financial inclusion, literacy and stability etc. through different media campaigns. Recent statistics of Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) delineate that the digital landscape of Pakistan has experienced a boom with 165 million mobile subscribers, 70 million internet users and 60 million smart phone users. The increased access to technology provides media with an opportunity to make a social impact.

Pakistan’s rural population, as per World Bank estimates, was 62.84% in 2020 which is a major reason why rural areas cannot be ignored in the country’s economic growth. Nevertheless, the digital infrastructure of the rural regions is not very strong because of the existence of a great digital divide between urban and rural areas. The 2020 Inclusive Internet Index ranks Pakistan as 76th out of 100 countries to have 35% of their population access to the internet leaving behind lesser opportunities for people in the rural areas.

The rural development in Pakistan requires consistent effort and intervention of media in order to bring a sustainable change. Despite the hurdles, Media and Government of Pakistan together have been working on initiatives that will transform the lifestyles of population in the remote areas of Pakistan. A popular and accessible medium of communication in the rural areas is radio. Deconstructing the impact of media campaigns initiated for the farmers to enhance their financial inclusion and empower them, it is revealed that radio shows such as “Kisan de Gal”, running since 2000, for the people in rural Punjab in order to educate the farmers about advanced farming trends. This awareness program ultimately improved the economic output of farmers. Similar shows were also aired for locals in Sindh and Baluchistan named as “Wassan Basi” and “Pkhair Raghly” respectively with similar economic impacts.

Another instance of media intervention for the empowerment of farmers was a website called Internet Society in which they launched and promoted a campaign called “Digital Dera” in collaboration with an NGO named Agriculture Republic. The campaign started in Pakistan’s fertile Punjab province to empower the farmers and develop a smart village. It was set up in Chak 26-SP located in Punjab in the region of PakPattan. The focus of this campaign was to empower the farmers economically by providing them solutions to farming challenges and equipping them with knowledge about digital payments. The campaign was promoted by the volunteers of the community with the use of print media advertising in different parts of the region.

The world Bank identified that Pakistan, in 2016, had a cereal yield of about 3,064 as compared to 3,138 which was on average for South Asian regions. The main reason was the inefficient farming techniques that the farmers had been initially using. Telenor, taking opportunity from this issue, started their service called Khushal Zamindar in the rural regions of Punjab, Gilgit, Baltistan, Chitral and Sindh. It was a digital audio platform, which included a base of 6 million active users monthly, providing daily weather predictions and practical agronomic advices to the farmers. The impact was in the form of twice an increase in the income of the farmers.

Another example of such sort is deploying of agribusiness digitization recommendations to facilitate the financial deepening of the small scale agriculturalists who are giving their outputs to agribusinesses. The dairy value chain was digitized by the collaboration of Jazz and GSMA. They worked on registering the famers with their unique IDs to keep records of suppliers, sales and a record of milk procurement that provided the facility of tracing milk collection and quality. They were also provided the facility of digital payments to the farmers which reduced their dependence on cash payments.

One of the greatest challenges of rural areas is lack of access to education, information, and awareness. People depend on cable TV connections for leisure. In this scenario, even simple TV ads have serious impact on people. This gives advertisers an opportunity to bombard audience with informative and impact driven content. A new ad of Jazz Cash is a testament to this fact. It   features a modern ambitious girl (performed by Iqra Aziz) from a city that travels to a village. While touring around, she observes a local woman who is stitching beautiful clothes. Curiously, she asks the woman about the price of the craft. The local woman disappointingly responds that she can’t sell them to the customers in the city because she does not have options to receive money for her products. This prompts Iqra Aziz to introduce her to Jazz Cash, a financial service for individual customers providing facility of online banking, digital payments and corporate facilities like disbursements etc. The statistics show that 40% of Jazz Cash users live in rural areas and 14 percent of them comprise of women (Kanwal).

While we talk about the progressiveness of economy through the help of media, there are certain aspects that need to be addressed on the ground level. Media can primarily address issues on national and international television but some formalities have to be performed by the intervention of policy makers and the government. A very particular issue in the rural areas is network shutdowns that inhibit the smooth overflow of media intervention for the rural development. A case study of Sindh regarding the shutdown of networks demonstrated that usually the network shutdowns are because of a national security threat but what needs to be considered is that network shutdowns even for a few hours can impart adverse effects on social and economic implications and ultimately affect economic growth of the country. An IHRB researcher resided in Telenor’s headquarter in Islamabad in order to research the context of network shutdowns. A solution oriented approach was shown by Telenor Pakistan which was to engage with the government of Pakistan on this issue as shutdowns had become targeted and could only be balanced out if the government intervened. This shutdown of network is a huge concern as internet disruptions have damaging consequences for economic activity. Another incidence of internet shutdown that caused a negative effect was 6 shutdowns that took place in the time period of July 2015 and June 2016. This costed at least $2.4 billion GDP globally out of which Pakistan lost $70million.

Social impact of media in the rural development is a gradual process and change doesn’t come overnight. It is a consistent stream of mutual efforts, trust building and creating an enabling atmosphere for people from all the regions of the country. In this regards, brands create trust in the hearts of their customers through persuasive advertising and promising services. One of the examples is HBL. It uses its media campaigns to spread the message through ads. The themes of these campaigns are promoting a digital Pakistan that is not only money-oriented but rather focuses on identifying the financial outliers of the country and enables them to create an environment that provides them social and economic inclusion. Their new campaign called “Hiryali” is a reflection of this idea. HBL’s tagline “Jahan Khwab Wahan HBL” also reflects the brand identity of enabling people to follow their dreams and gives them a hope to have financial inclusion. Over a period of 10 years, HBL has used different sources of media such as print ads, Radio spots and Digital media to create a series of corporate advertising campaigns to deliver the same message across all the regions of Pakistan.

Increased penetration of mobile phones has also transformed the lives of people in the rural areas and brought an observable behavioral change. People in rural areas were comparatively less tech savvy a few years ago but media has been able to inculcate the importance of digital economy through practical and action generating campaigns. As per estimates, Pakistan’s GDP is 18.9% dependent on agriculture and the labor comprises 42% which increase the need of mobile phone usage enabling farmers to help them increase their income through mobile based platforms like Bakhabar Kissan initiated by Jazz providing vital knowledge on everything including harvesting , planning and selling etc. This platform provides different kinds of services such as SMS, IVR, call centers, facility of voice note message transfers and communication apps like WhatsApp business and Facebook. The Jazz BKK call center delivered 70 million SMS messages per month and in 7 different languages and was reported to achieve 1500 calls from people asking about weather, livestock, market rates and agricultural input and outputs.

Convincing people in rural areas about the future of Digital economy is hard because digitization is intangible and rural areas have low literacy rate. As much as Digitization is enabling the rural population to become self-sufficient through online payments, bank transfers, freelance jobs and e-commerce, on the same time it is increasing the challenges of inequality, resources distribution, security and privacy concerns. Despite the concerns, E-commerce is one of the most important chunks of digital economy and while we debate at it, thousands of opportunities have risen through the use of e-commerce in rural areas of Pakistan.

In comparison, India’s biggest website of e-commerce, Flip Kart is producing US $1 billion in expenditures. Pakistan, despite being late to the world of e – commerce has managed to show an exponential growth with US $30 million being spent online.

Not only in the urban areas, e-commerce has enormously paved its way to the rural areas. Daraz, established in August 2012, is a large incubator that offers includes four hundred different brands covering 200 cities in Pakistan and it would be a surprise to know that the website gets the highest number of orders (6%) from Ghotki which is a semi urban area located in Sindh. The largest purchases were from Lala Musa in Punjab which has twice the average order sizes from Lahore. According to the Co-founder of Daraz, Muneeb Idrees, primary reason is the access of social media and Television to the people of rural areas. People in the villages are learning about new products through YouTube Ads and Google etc. using their 3G or 5G devices and order through different e-commerce websites. A plus point is the online payment services that have been enabled for people like Telenor Easy Paisa, Zong and Askari Banks Time pay , Mobicash etc. that have reduced the hustle of payments through banks for people living in far off places. One of the reasons is the fastest growing impact of mobile operators such as use of Telenor Microfinance Bank that facilitates 20 million consumers by using Over the Counter and wallet services enables through mobile phones.

To promote financial inclusion in the rural areas of Pakistan, media cannot conventionally use means of communication all the time. For rural development, it’s necessary to execute programs that would enable people to take an action. Awareness programs do not necessarily affect in the rural areas until there is an implementation of the given agendas. As much as the usage of mobile phones and access to Internet has increased the knowledge about digital financial services, it has also given rise to the gender gap in mobile ownership. 11% women in rural areas of Pakistan use mobile internet while 38% of men have an easy access to it. This gap is mainly due to stereotypical and societal issues that include disapproval of male family members regarding women using smartphones. Determined to eradicate a divide like this, Telenor strategized media campaigns for women empowerment and are determined to bring the percentage of women mobile internet users from 40% to 48% by 2020.

An effective campaign in this regard was launched as a collaboration between four Pakistani and multinational organizations among Jazz Cash, Unilever along with the support of nonprofit finance company called Karandaaz Pakistan which is funded by a universal NGO called Women’s world Banking. The purpose of this initiative was to reduce the number of unbanked women in Pakistan especially the rural area and with low income. A concept called “Guddi Baji” was launched in order to help women establish their retailer shops in the villages. In this initiative, Jazz Cash would be a source of their money provider while Unilever was facilitating them to get brand products. According to the CEO of Karandaaz Pakistan, this initiative is a step towards attaining UN’s sustainable development goals by providing financial inclusion to women. Karandaaz communications team played an effective role to promote the initiative using social media, testimonials, impactful videos, directed briefs for journalists and live webinars to approach a larger audience. The news related to this program was published in more than 19 newspapers and was mentioned 160 times. An extensive advertising campaign was also launched in 2019 running in 18 cities of Pakistan that including 5 impactful infographic videos about the successful ventures of the project.

Special assistant to the prime minister on poverty reduction and social protection, Dr. Nishthar during a Press Conference announced the launch of Ehsaas program that aims to work for the welfare of society by promoting financial and social inclusion, access to digitization and enhancing economic stability of the women through the aid of data and modern technology methods. According to Dr Nishtar, the common public doesn’t have an interest for the technical information so e-portal services re-created to facilitate them with people – centered information. To bring about social awareness, Ehsaas program is making use of electronic media to disseminate the information regarding different programs of Ehsaas. The platform is known as “Ehsaas TV” and is currently operating on digital TV. There are different instructional programs designed in Urdu for the masses to easily understand the information regarding Ehsaas program and its other initiatives. The current fiscal year has utilized Rs190 billion out of Rs 200 billion to benefit large number of groups in the society such as orphans, widows and students from low-income backgrounds etc.

A lot has already been done for the upgradation of digital services in the rural areas of Pakistan and media has made use of its power to educate the masses as much as they can. However the government needs to be aligned with the sustainable development goals .Initiatives like, Prime ministers 5 year plan of National Financial Inclusion strategy that focuses on enhancing digital payments and providing accessibility to digital transactions, should be highlighted through media campaigns and their practical use should be educated through media platforms like radio, print , electronic and digital. Lastly, for media to enhance its role in the rural development, a consistent effort must be required not only from the communication strategists but also the government and policy makers. Policy makers must define what a holistic digitization agenda is for them. The objectives of digital transformation should be clearly defined and relevant stakeholders must be taken on board to smoothen the process of implementation. Mobile usage, apart from providing connectivity, also has a greater unexplored scope in digital solutions and delivery of services such as a digital tax collection that can aid in expanding the tax base.

Digitization of content and data can provide novel opportunities for people in the rural areas of Pakistan as we can actually see the uplift of freelance and gig economy in the rural areas of Pakistan. It’s an important time for media to play its pivotal role of bridging the gaps between Urban and rural divide by equipping the rural areas with enough awareness and education regarding their social and financial inclusion. Practical and solution oriented campaigns should be designed for the rural areas under local languages educating the masses about the digital services and how they can use them. Also, it is important to make them realize that the goal of digital economy is not merely money making but also giving people a sustainable and better lifestyle.



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