Pakistan Proptech Startup Scene a Standout Among Emerging Markets

A huge, young and growing population’s need for housing and other real estate services is driving innovation

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A country of 230 million people with a median age of 23, Pakistan is embracing proptech innovation as a means to more efficiently increase housing availability and other real estate services. The proptech industry in turn is providing new job opportunities for Pakistan’s growing number of highly educated young people.

Atif Bin Arif, founder and CEO of Karachi-based MyGhar, a coliving startup that provides furnished private and shared rooms with all-inclusive billing, said his decision to start the company was based on his trying to rent an apartment in Islamabad, the country’s capital. He found that Pakistan’s residential culture was a problem for a young bachelor looking to rent.

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“You know, we live with our parents over here,” said Arif, who was raised in Toronto and moved back to Pakistan 10 years ago to take over his family’s travel and hospitality business. “It’s just a cultural norm that families live together and move out when they get married.”

However, Arif wasn’t married as he looked for an apartment.

“That was the first time I moved between cities as a temporary move,” he said. “As a single male, that was one of the most daunting tasks I have ever come across. If you visited 10 properties, 10 out of 10 landlords would say no to bachelors because they would think they’re going to come and ruin the place. So, culturally, that was a problem.”

It took Arif nearly two months to find a place. 

“Also, it was expensive,” he added. “They would ask for three months’ deposit, three months advance rent, and one month of broker fees. It was a completely offline process. I would be going on classified websites, visiting properties, and physically exhausted. That’s where the Eureka moment happened: I am someone with resources and it’s taking me this long and it’s this daunting of a task? Imagine the average individual.”

Because Pakistan’s black market is three times the size of the nation’s legitimate economy, real estate is the only industry outperforming other asset classes, said Arif.

“Funds cannot be parked anywhere except [in real estate],” he said. “I realized that’s where I wanted to be. There was no dedicated housing solution. And I thought that if I can create furnished spaces that are move-in ready that people can book on a monthly basis, completely flexible and digital, we might be solving one of the most pressing needs in the housing industry in Pakistan. That’s what we’re out to build.”

The market is huge and growing. About 500,000 Pakistanis graduate college annually, and one-fifth of those move to city centers, Arif said.

Pakistan’s foreign direct investment in June 2022 was $271 million, according to CEIC. The country’s only unicorn — EMPG, the Emerging Power Market Property Group — came out of the proptech sector.

Given Pakistan’s vast market potential, its housing challenge is not the only area where proptech startups are looking to provide solutions. The workplace is being disrupted and digitized, as well.

“We provide flexible workspace solutions across coworking enterprise offices,” said Omar Shah, co-founder and CEO of Colabs, a Lahore-based proptech firm founded in 2019.

Having seen the traditional Pakistan real estate market that has existed for decades — one he characterized as grossly inefficient and expensive — Shah realized it was ripe for digital disruption.

“I did this because it was the sharing economy,” he said. “The whole concept of the sharing economy is that the same spaces are used by multiple people. And as we move towards a more flexible world, people realize that these solutions are more organized and better fitted in terms of what we’re all doing.”

Colabs bills itself as the fastest-growing flexible workspace in Pakistan. It provides back-office services; HR payroll accounting, for which it is developing a SaaS platform; and an entrepreneurial division for events, workshops and training that acts as an accelerator for other startups.

Similar to MyGhar’s Arif, Shah sees great opportunity and growth for Pakistan proptech.

“I am a former investment banker and investor,” said Shah. “I spent nine years doing private equity venture capital in London and across emerging markets, including Dubai, Latin America, Turkey and Africa. I moved back three years ago to start COLABS. Today we are the top company in the country in terms of speed of growth. We are managing about 1,200 seats across multiple locations. In the next 12 months we hope to get up to 3,000 seats.”

In March, Colabs raised a $3 million seed round from venture capital firms in Pakistan and internationally, said Shah. “Our investors include Fatima Gobi Ventures, Indus Valley Capital, Shorooq Partners, Kinnow Capital, Zayn Capital, as well as angel investors.”

Also, like MyGhar, COLABS is part of a Singapore-based holding company, said Shah. “It’s very common in Pakistan to have your holding company in Singapore, or the Cayman Islands, or Delaware,” he said. “The holding company makes it easier for investors to raise money at the seed or series level by having a foreign audit.”

Although U.S. investment in Pakistan-based proptech startups remains rare, interest in the market is growing, said Zach Aarons, co-founder and partner at MetaProp, a Manhattan-based early-stage proptech startup investment firm.

“A few reasons why I’m excited about the proptech ecosystem in Pakistan is that it’s such a large and young country,” said Aarons. “It has a favorable regulatory environment for fintech and an inefficient current real estate market. Plus, it has high mobile phone penetration and very quickly growing internet access.”

In fact, over the last 18 months, U.S.-based general technology venture capital firms such as Tiger Global Management and Kleiner Perkins have begun slowly to invest in Pakistan proptech startups, said COLABS’ Shah. However, he admits that Pakistan still trails far behind other emerging proptech markets such as India, Indonesia, Singapore and Vietnam.

As a Pakistan-born immigrant to the U.S., Farhan Masood, president and CTO of Soloinsight, a leading workflow automation and security proptech company founded in 2018 and based in Chicago, has a unique perspective on what’s happening in his homeland.

“I think things are changing now,” Masood said of Pakistan. “Things have drastically changed. If you look at the amount of investments that are coming to Pakistan, proptech is the most [exciting]. Ask any Pakistani, ‘What’s your dream?’ The dream is to own a house.”

In such a huge population, home buyers and renters are met with major inefficiencies due to a lack of product as well as no established financing, government support or conventional mortgage systems, he said. “You don’t have any of that support, so the market isn’t right for a huge amount of business.”

As for Soloinsight, it is a somewhat rare Pakistan-U.S. proptech startup, Masood said. 

“We started in Pakistan and moved to the United States and now focus on some of the most iconic buildings and Fortune 500 customers,” said Masood, who received the so-called “genius visa” after attending the MIT Business Acceleration Program.

“I’m actually a dropout, but I have a lot of contributions and patents around authentication, facial recognition technology, machine vision and data analytics. I’ve worked with national databases for identity management,” Masood said of his more than 23 years of working to make building infrastructures secure.

Soloinsight has 114 employees, 104 of whom are based in Lahore, with the other 10 in Chicago. The company’s leading product, CloudGate, is a visitor identity and access management (VIAM) platform that delivers security and an intuitive guest and host experience at multiple locations via the cloud. The startup has integrated its product with access control and visitor identity firms, such as Honeywell, Johnson Controls and LenelS2.

Despite the various types and degrees of ongoing chaos in Pakistan — including a parliamentary no-confidence vote in April that ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan and recent catastrophic flooding — MyGhar’s Arif is bullish on the country’s proptech potential.

“It’s a huge opportunity,” he said. “I think the fact that there’s less competition here is the opportunity, which is why we’re all here. It’s why we work day in and night out, regardless of the economic and political turmoil.”

Philip Russo can be reached at prusso@commercialobserver.com.