After having dabbled in various industries and businesses, Naseer Akhtar recognised the growing potential of exporting software and integrating systems in Pakistan, prompting him to set up Infotech in 1995. Having a presence in Middle East, Africa and the Far East, Infotech is a market leader in business and information management consulting, technology solutions provisioning, systems integration and outsourcing services.
He talks to Blue Chip about Infotech’s unique success and his vision for the future of the IT industry in Pakistan
You were involved in a wide variety of businesses prior to your involvement in IT. How did Infotech come about?
Naseer Akhtar: “I inititated the founding company, South Technology and Services in 1987, which had four to six groups. I rebranded it as Infotech in 1995 and that’s where the journey of Infotech started.”
Infotech has its presence in the Middle East/Africa region. Did this come about after the project with Ghana?
NA: ”Well, it was not that huge but it was very strategic for us in our global operations, particularly within the Middle East and the African region. It was a World Bank funded project — the government of Ghana wanted to automate their stock exchange which they were running manually on white boards with the open outcry system, which is a very old system. Since we were working and helping the stock exchanges here in Pakistan, we had gone through a whole evolution of technology cycles so we had sufficient experience at hand to deliver that project and we did that exactly three months short of the permitted time; it was a 12-month project that we completed in nine months. That gave us a boost and the government of Ghana realised our potential and started giving us more projects. That is how we became popular in West Africa and then, we moved on to Nigeria and a couple of other countries and then went to East Africa, which we have been doing through our global arm, Infotech Global in Singapore.”
You entered the global market in 2006. Please tell us about your journey between 1995 and 2006.
NA: ”Primarily, we were solutions providers in hardware, infrastructure, networks, etc. We were not really characterised as a system integrator at that time, which is a bit complex as you need to have software, middleware, application, domain knowledge, consulting, etc. So from 1995 till about 2005 — for a decade, we were struggling — transforming ourselves and positioning ourselves into different domains and eventually, we emerged as a system integrator in Pakistan. A system integrator in IT means that we cover everything: planning, consulting, building or revamping the infrastructure, going into applications space, optimising the business processes, selecting the right kind of technologies; putting together all of the pieces of the puzzle to make it work for our customers.”
You are a market leader in Pakistan and internationally, how have you achieved this premier position?
NA: ”The idea was actually to leverage what we have achieved over here and replicate and sell ourselves abroad. We have worked with almost every top technology company in the world, from IBM to Oracle to Cisco to Microsoft, and around 20 others. Our core competencies are in the financial sector, capital markets, telecom and the public sector, particularly when there is a transformation happening, e.g. manual to automatic systems, business processing engineering of governments, transparency in bringing in efficiency and optimising various organisations like tax and revenue authorities. We are currently engaged in many countries, revamping their tax systems, rolling out citizen services, etc.”
Is it tough to pitch for projects when your clients know that you’re a Pakistani company?
NA: ”No, it’s not very difficult when it comes to competency. They believe in us, that we can deliver far better than most of the leaders in this space. The only challenge we face is our country’s perception.”
Do you consider the brain drain to be a challenge?
NA: “The brain drain is natural. If youngsters don’t have the opportunities to exploit their talents or to try and do something really extraordinary, it is natural for them to go somewhere where they will find such an environment.”
What are your plans for growth?
NA: ”We have over 250 employees and our revenue per head count is far more than the companies who employ 500-600 people. My dream is to bring Infotech to a global scale and make it a 2000-3000 employees company with $100 million revenue by 2015 — this is the internal goal that we have set for ourselves.”
You projected the exports from the IT sector in Pakistan to be ideally close to $5 billion, however, the government is apparently not providing enough support and spending in this sector. Can you elaborate on this?
NA: ”Going by the global statistics of the comparable economies where the talent pool is available, the capacity is there. We should have actually crossed the $5 billion mark but what prevented us from achieving this goal is that in the last 7-8 years particularly, we haven’t focused on how to leverage this opportunity. Somebody needs to carry the vision or set the goals — we have never set goals.The first initiative was taken by Dr.Ata-ur-Rahman about 10-11 years ago. It started off very well — the message was very clear but it was not properly executed. Thereafter we haven’t had continuity in our political system e.g. for the last three years, there has been no minister for IT and telecom. The $5 billion target can be translated into more than 20%-25% of our total exports. So, it just seems that the money and opportunity is sitting somewhere but we are not collecting it because we are neither organised nor structured and we don’t have a visionary or executioner. We are left with no choice but to try independently, as is being done by the few companies that are doing it.”
Which companies are these? Do you see each other as competitors or do you work in collaboration with each other?
NA: ”There is Netsol Technologies, TRG, Systems Limited. In most cases, we work in isolation. That’s why you don’t see huge enterprises emerging because we are not very open to collaborations, however, we are not highly competitive amongst ourselves either. We support each other and help each other in identifying opportunities and going after them.”
A lot of IT success stories are based in California. You started off there, so why did you choose to come back to Pakistan, given the situation is so volatile here?
NA: “Pakistan is such a wonderful place to invest and work in, to live, grow and make money. I am not saying that America is not a land of opportunity, but I find there are bigger opportunities here because you have highly educated people around who are eager to find work. We must find ways to make the younger generation work otherwise they take to the streets to take out their frustrations.”
What corporate social responsibility initiatives has Infotech undertaken?
NA: ”We impart professional training.We take fresh graduates from universities and pay for their training and train them. After they are done with the training, they are not bound to work for us — they are free to apply anywhere. Due to this, there are a lot of people today working in multinationals — not just in Pakistan, but in other regions – who were trained at Infotech or undertook their apprenticeship at Infotech. We sponsor and conduct activities such as forums, discussions, dialogues and seminars and we have had large-scale activities like these at places like IBA, LUMS, UET, FAST, NUST, etc.”
What do you have to say about the competition from across the border?
NA: ”Although I compete with them on a global level, I don’t consider them as competition. I’ll give you an example: last year, we won a project in Ghana, even though we were $10 million more expensive than one of the largest Indian companies. The World Bank awarded us that project based on our competencies and our technical superiority. The only time I would consider them competition is when, let’s say, there is a $200 million project for which 2000 people need to be deployed. We don’t have that capacity, so they grossly outnumber us in that respect.”
What needs to be done in order to build this capacity?
NA: ”First of all, we need to have someone who can lead this effort. We need to have a minister for IT who can take on increasing our exports as a target. We don’t need to set up factories or be dependent on factors that other industries are dependent on — all we need to do is train people and put them to work. If I was given this responsibility, I would allocate $200-$300 million per year for the next five years to be spent on training programmes. We have the manpower but we need to polish the workforce and also have market access.”