On The Ground

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Viewing problems as opportunities

Although I’ve visited Pakistan often, interning with the Acumen Fund Lahore office has been my first time working here.  My takeaway from the experience is probably something that’s as plain as day for everyone else working at Acumen. It’s really just a shift in perspective.  From one angle, especially as an outsider, you can look at this country and only see a myriad of problems. I did. On my trips here I would see the poverty, the poor infrastructure, the crime and violence. And from visit to visit, there rarely seemed to be any indication of progress – in fact, some things seemed to get worse.

Working with Acumen Fund has made me realize that you can flip that perspective on its head and think of these problems as opportunities. They’re unmet needs that are waiting for a solution.

With the frequent power outages (the electricity just went out as I’m writing this), you can’t help but think about the energy sector when you’re in Pakistan. The gap in peak demand and supply on the national electricity grid is over 5GW, which is equivalent to 25 percent of overall demand. It’s a massive shortfall that’s all the more glaring considering that it ignores the 38 percent of the population who are off the grid. Entrepreneurs I’ve been working with through Acumen have shown me how this problem has created an opportunity for solar power.

If you’re on the grid, solar power is more expensive than conventional sources of power, but off-grid is a completely different story. The off-grid consumer buys kerosene for the lantern which lights his home, and travels to the nearest on-grid shop to charge his mobile phone for a fee. This consumer has modest electricity needs, so when you actually design for his needs you end up with a product that pays for itself in kerosene savings within 3-6 months and causes a dramatic change in his quality of life. Add on-the-ground marketing and sales teams, mix in credit from microfinance banks, and you’ve just opened up a market of over 10 million homes.

That’s turning a problem into an opportunity, and it’s really just the tip of the iceberg. The market is so underdeveloped in some sectors, that I feel that in a 10 minute conversation with friends you can come up with a few good business ideas.  All the inefficiencies – in agriculture, in industry, in healthcare, in education, in financial services, etc. – they all represent tons of untapped potential. Viewed from that angle, in a lot of ways a developing country like Pakistan actually offers a lot more opportunities than a developed country like the US. The caveat in all this is that execution here is harder (and execution is, of course, key), but if you have the business acumen to execute and the patience to listen to your market, then the potential for impact is huge.

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Faisal Tajdar will be joining McKinsey & Co this fall as a Junior Associate based in their Middle East Office.  He recently completed his masters in Materials Science at Caltech, where he worked in the Atwater Group researching novel materials for solar cells.

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