A Pakistani i-banker is building his country's 'health Amazon'


The e-commerce bug is alive and thriving not just in India, but also in neighbouring Pakistan. Dawaai, an online pharmacy set up by investment banker Furquan Kidwai, is just one among the many online retail stores that are attempting to bring a bit of the e-commerce magic to strife-torn Pakistan.

With a growing middle class, like in most Asian countries, the healthcare system in Pakistan is divided between expensive private-sector medical institutions and low-cost government healthcare centres.

A report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that the country’s healthcare infrastructure is underfunded with only 0.8 per cent of the GDP allocated for public health in 2010. By comparison, India spent 1.2 per cent.

Back to the roots

In order to combat the various healthcare problems in Pakistan, several young entrepreneurs are setting up online pharmacies and healthtech organisations. And amongst these is Karachi-based Dawaai.

Its Founder and CEO Furquan was an investment banker in London and New York for seven years, before deciding to come back and starting Dawaai. He says a place like Pakistan has a huge demographic advantage when it comes to creating a great consumer business.

Where else would you find a burgeoning middle class that has or will have money to spend? These 200 million need to spend to live a decent lifestyle. With this thought in mind, Furquan wanted to get into something that was an essential item, where the customer did not take much convincing.

Furquan Kidwai

The industry and its aims

The pharmaceutical industry was untouched and ripe for disruption. The first idea was to bring something like BOOTS or CVS to Pakistan; however, he had to give up the idea due to low margins, pricing limitations, and a highly regulated market.

The aim was to provide integrated pharmacy services with convenience and quality. The team at Dawaai is reinventing the concept of retail pharmacy by taking authentic medicines to the patients’ doorsteps as quickly as possible. The idea is to structuralise the pharma industry in Pakistan, while simultaneously adhering to all the existing pharma laws.

“Only qualified pharmacists handle all our pharmaceutical products, including procurement, storage, and dispensing. These associates are available 9:30am – 9:00pm (Monday to Saturday), and we are just a phone call away from all our valued customers,” says Furquan.

Being an online store, the biggest challenge that Dawaai.pk faced was maintaining two separate portals for its prescription, and consumer health and OTC products (Well.pk). This was primarily driven by limitations on online marketing for e-tail stores selling prescription items.

Furquan adds that an online store cannot compete unless its technology front is efficient. Therefore, the team believes in continually updating the system. He adds that they try to ensure that every customer who comes on to the portal experiences a smooth transaction and better service every time.

The market and the team

“Unfortunately, most e-tailers in Pakistan have this mentality of having a website as a shop front with just a facility to take orders. Some of the new technologies we are working on will be a breakthrough in the global e-commerce space, and will tremendously improve the way consumers interact with us and experience shopping,” says Furquan.

Dawaai’s monthly revenue growth has been close to 23 per cent over the past year. Based on market intelligence, the team is claiming that based on revenue, they are the largest online health store in Pakistan and one of the largest e-commerce startups in the country.

The team comprises graduates who have first-hand experience of how their work impacts the business. Furquan adds that with an open-floor culture and no hierarchies, it is a fairly stimulating environment for anyone keen to make a difference and with an ability to think outside the box.

Instead of hiring people who have years of experience in the industry, Furquan has tried to get team members who are self-motivated and can lead from the front.

The company follows a hierarchy-free horizontal structure with every department working on a set goal and following the same standards.

No limitations in terms of inputs from the category managers to the pharmacists mean that the company is always evolving and dealing with everyday issues, thereby making operations more smooth, and serving the customers properly.

Also read: How Pakistan’s startups are rewriting their country’s new story

The startup scene in Pakistan

Speaking about the startup scene in Pakistan, Furquan says it is in its infancy. This makes it difficult to hire quality graduates, as they still aspire for typical FMCG jobs. It involves a lot of personal selling about the potential for business. So far, they have been able to hire a star team by inspiring all their members to work on creating the next ‘Health Amazon’ in Pakistan.

“We have been funded by foreign investors, which include a VC from the US, a Super Angel from South Africa, and a McKinsey consultant from the UK. We are now in advanced discussions to close our current funding round,” says Furquan.

Sahr Said, Founder of Lahore-based online salon discovery and appointments platform BeautyHooked, told YourStory the e-commerce market in Pakistan is estimated to reach $600 million by 2017 from its current size of $30 million spent on online purchases annually.

The Karachi Stock Market index has been growing north of 40 per cent for the past few years (30 per cent+ in $ terms) and broke the highest ever 32,000 KSE 100 index points barrier.

Like they have done in India, startups could revolutionise the way business is done in Pakistan. More power to them!