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On Outrageous Hope: Why Telenor’s long standing partnership with Taleemabad is newsworthy

telenor partnership

Every story of great change is incomplete without the story of outrageous hope.

The kind of hope that comes long before evidence, before impact, and definitely long before a large number of people start believing in an idea. It doesn’t have precedents that support it, and it’s largely based on first principles.

Which is why it is all the more special as the tour de force behind great ideas.

The first time we met Irfan Wahab and his Telenor team, we had nothing but an idea. When their team visited our office in 2016, two of us sat on the ground to make room for them. When they left, we struggled to absorb what had just happened. Not only had Telenor placed us on a plane bound for Norway to meet the senior leadership of Telenor global, but had invested a sizeable six figure dollar amount to help us get Taleemabad off the ground.

We spent the next year travelling deep into Southern Punjab and interior Sindh, working alongside teachers, interviewing parents and students, and integrating technology into their schools.

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At the end of the year, we walked into Irfan’s office, where he spent time breaking down the program and insisting that we think about how it would scale. Back then, this is where Taleemabad’s students were placed on a map of Pakistan.

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In the ensuing months, Taleemabad got a new home in the Taleemabad App, and in the next few years, it found itself being broadcast on National Television and Radio. By 2020, here’s what our map of active users/watchers looked like.

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In between, there were multiple people who decided to take an outrageous bet on Taleemabad. Firdous Ashiq Awan, who was the Minister for Information took the decision to air Taleemabad on national television, and Umbreen from the Ministry of Education decided to push us to try broadcasts on Radio Pakistan.

By 2020, we’d reached considerable breadth. But we still ached for depth. The kind that comprehensively changes a student’s trajectory. We had targeted individuals in a rapidly scaling B2C play, but now wanted to target institutions, aligning parents, students, teachers and administrators in a B2B play.

We knew – having worked all across Pakistan, that a new kind of school owner and teacher was emerging, eager to try new methods, to integrate technology and to challenge the status quo. We wanted to place our outrageous bet on them.

We knew – having worked all across Pakistan, that a new kind of school owner and teacher was emerging, eager to try new methods, to integrate technology and to challenge the status quo. We wanted to place our outrageous bet on them.

By late 2020, GSMA had become the first entity to support this model. By early 2021, 6 schools had been launched – despite COVID, delivering state of the art education (more on that here). On the GSMA launch event, the minister for IT and Telecom became a believer, noting that the technology was great, but that he believed more so that the team was right one to take it to scale.

By mid 2021, we had promising early traction. It was at this point that Telenor jumped back in again, placing faith in the ambitious vision that we’d launch 1000 of these schools in the next five years. This time around there were new faces – Telenor’s Kamal Ahmed and Federal Education Minister Shafqat Mehmood, alongside Abdullah Khan and Irfan Wahab who we’d known and met before.

At the signing ceremony, I could not help but think about that evening in 2016 when Telenor first invested in Taleemabad. In both of these instances, Telenor has not only got involved financially, but has exemplified the kind of courage and foresight that helps great ideas take the leap towards scale.

As Pakistan’s startup eco-system heats up, it’s all the more important then to recognize the value of those who operate on these first principles. Atif Awan from IVC, Kalsoom Lakhani from i2i and many others believed in the takeoff long before the takeoff was on the horizon. Their work is indispensable.

In the upcoming years, we’ll see Taleemabad schools punctuate the map in the same way that we saw our users emerge across the country. This time, we know the pattern, and as a consequence know that one of the most beautiful moments in this journey happens long before the curtains part and the applause sounds.

It’s in those silent, early moments when an outrageous amount of hope is put in an idea.

Faisal Abdullah
Author: Faisal Abdullah

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