The majority of Pakistan’s online users come from a lower socio-economic segment with low levels of literacy. They have come online recently and are navigating interactive devices like smartphones for the first time in their lives. Most of them only use apps like Whatsapp (100%) and Facebook (about 60%) and very few of them do online shopping.
Most blue-collar workers which include drivers, cooks, guards, office boys, electricians, gardeners and shopkeepers fall in this group. Only a quarter of them have access to consistent, stable internet connectivity. Still getting familiarized with the majority of features on their newly acquired smartphones, they do not occupy the same digital spaces, and are unable to navigate most of the sites and apps that most of the upper socio-economic segment frequently uses.
To install a new app on their smartphones, most users typically have to uninstall other apps they use, due to lack of space. Phones also crash routinely due to insufficient memory. There is also a major language and user interface barrier as most interfaces are in English. A recent survey conducted by Rozee in worker colonies revealed that their primary mode of online communication is through voice notes on Whatsapp, followed by messages written in Urdu. Some also use Facebook, Tiktok, Google, and Youtube. Many are neither aware of nor have ever used the web browser on their phones. Few local online services have been built understanding these constraints.
Meanwhile, the number of Pakistan’s online users has skyrocketed during the last five years. To be more precise, out of 85 million connected smartphone users in Pakistan today, a staggering 70 million came online just during the last five years. In the last year, e-commerce and mobile payments growth have swelled 300% to 400%, further propelled by the COVID-19 pandemic. Majority of the users have second-hand Chinese handsets and widely available 3G/4G networks.
There are now 50 million online smartphone-enabled people amongst our poorest where there were almost none five years ago. Let that sink in.
Prevailing conventional wisdom amongst our local digital ecosystem is that this segment is not profitable and difficult to monetize. Thus, the focus has been on the Haves rather than the Have-nots. The former orders gourmet food on FoodPanda, buys eye shadow on Daraz, a DHA plot on Zameen, or a bank executive job on Rozee; while the latter have been largely excluded from participating in the massive opportunity created by this quickly evolving digi-sphere. While our e-commerce market has rapidly grown to over USD $4 billion annually, this growth has come almost entirely from the top 40% of the online users.
However, there are some very encouraging early signs of disruptive progress.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, the majority of daily wage workers were displaced as supply chains, businesses and affluent households closed their doors. The Rozee team spent considerable time in worker colonies digitally onboarding unemployed workers on to a donation platform named Project Pakistan. They engaged 60 volunteers from worker communities armed with smartphones. They recorded videos of workers, assessed household incomes, digitally verified ID cards, and did skills assessments. The software identified the neediest of them. In three months, donations were digitally sent to 10,000 households consisting of over 60,000 people. Thanks to technology, a core team of only five people from Rozee managed to make this happen.
Building on this experience, Rozee and UNDP partnered for the development of Rozgar.pk – a blue-collar employment platform that digitally onboards the often ignored blue-collar worker segment, and connected them with part-time or full-time opportunities near them.
‘I was using Facebook one day when an ad popped up. It was about the Rozgar platform. Out of curiosity, I started navigating the site and made an account, which was fairly easy to do due to audio guide that helped along the way. Once I set up my account, I started applying for advertised jobs and soon afterwards I got an interview call and was offered the position of a rider.’— Ghulam Hussain, employed as a rider through the platform.
UNDP’s Youth Empowerment Programme has always sought out new and innovative ways of tackling the challenge of unemployment. Given the meteoric rise in smartphone penetration, why not develop a shared platform the likes of Careem, Uber, Food Panda, AirBnB, to provide a marketplace that connects blue-collar workers (e.g. cooks, waiters, house maids, salespersons, plumbers, electricians, carpenters, drivers, etc.) with potential employers? Thus, despite COVID-19 constraints and impossible-to-meet deadlines, the Rozgar.pk platform was born.
Rozgar.pk is the largest platform of its kind launched at this scale in Pakistan, with over 30,000 workers and 9,500 employers enrolled as of March 2021. It allows people at the bottom of the digital pyramid to take part in the gig economy.
‘I was told about Rozgar.pk by my relative who had also gotten a job through the platform. On his insistence, I made an account and was pleasantly surprised at the convenience of using the site. Soon afterwards, I started getting job alerts. I was offered several positions, but I opted for the position of working as a part time cook. This way, I can manage two jobs at the same time and earn decent living.’—Sher Baz, employed as cook through the platform.
Soon after the launch of the platform, we learnt that 25% of the workers had 3G connected smartphones in some form or the other; the team took on the challenge of trying to crack seemingly insurmountable user interface barriers to let workers self-onboard, using their smartphones. The user interfaces and how to build trust online at scale with this segment was re-thought. As a result, voice notes similar to what users were accustomed to sending on Whatsapp several times a day was employed. Audio prompts in Urdu and regional languages were also added to help navigate user interface elements. Artificial Intelligence was used to match selfies taken on their phones to their pictures on their ID cards. Keeping in mind logistics and the financial burden of transportation, GPS coordinates helped to match them to jobs near them.
One month after formally launching Rozgar.pk in July 2020, over 20,000 workers have self-registered on the platform and more than 1,000 job offers have been documented. This would not have been possible even a year ago. Job placement has a profound impact on local economies with hyperlocal digital commerce holds the key to bring millions of small retailers and home-based businesses online. Financial potential of a digital blue-collar jobs platform with 50 million participants is immense, especially considering associated services that can be provided to a digitally engaged community.
Monis Rahman is the Chairman, CEO & Founder of Naseeb Networks
Jehangir Ashraf is the Youth Economic Empowerment Officer at UNDP Pakistan
Ayesha Babar, Communications Analyst & Head of Communications Unit, UNDP Pakistan