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Wille Eerola has over 25 years of international experience in business development, brand advertising and brand building, and emerging markets. He was appointed Pakistan’s Honorary Consul General to Finland by the President of Pakistan in February 2016. Wille is also the Chairman of Finland-Pakistan Business Council, which has organised three summits in Islamabad in recent years. He also heads the Nordic-Pakistan Business Summit, which has so far brought over 80 Nordic companies to Pakistan.

Below are selected excerpts from BR Research’s recent sit-down with the trade executive in Islamabad:

BR Research: You wear a number of hats when it comes to promoting the Nordic region’s business ties to Pakistan. And you have been here often. What is your reading of the current mood in the economy, compared to a few years ago?

Wille Eerola: What I feel – and what I have been telling companies in Finland and other Nordic countries – is that security-wise Pakistan is really safe, compared to four years ago. Cities like Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad are really safe compared to the image they have overseas. So that’s one thing. As for doing business here, I think Pakistan is also doing better.

I have noticed that Pakistanis are emotional. When things don’t go very well, in terms of politics or economy, they get very frustrated. The other side of the same coin is that when things start to go positive, they also get more positive. And that’s what I have seen lately. People are smiling more, compared to four years ago. But this is obviously how a society works: a good vibe spreads everywhere.

BRR: Are you suggesting there is more hype than actual improvement on the ground?

WE: It’s not only hype; there is also something happening. Without going into the macroeconomic issues, I’d say that Pakistan is doing much better economically than before. You can see a lot of foreigners coming here. Infrastructure development is indeed taking place. There will be new roads, bridges, and buildings. That is always a good sign.

Finnish companies have previously been surprised to see not many new buildings and high-rise’s here in Pakistan compared to other South Asian countries. Now when you drive around Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, you see a lot of new buildings coming up. As a real-estate developer, you actually have to believe that whatever you are building, someone will live there or put up an office there.

BRR: How are you planning to sell that optimism to the Nordic businesses?

WE: As Pakistan’s HCG, and coming from the marketing and business background, I am focused on changing Pakistan’s image linked to doing business here. To make people think differently about Pakistan, you first need to take people to Pakistan. And that’s what I have been trying to do, through our business summits.

Since it’s a two-way street, I also work to promote business opportunities from Pakistan to Finland. Besides, since Pakistan’s embassy is in Stockholm, I also help Finland-based Pakistanis who need diplomatic assistance.

BRR: So what is your Pakistan pitch to the Nordic companies?

WE: One of the most common questions I get asked is, why Pakistan, and why not India or Vietnam, for instance. My answer is: this is simple math. Pakistan has 200 million people. Its economy is growing between 5 to 6 percent per annum. And it has a growing middle class. Put all that together and Pakistan should be among the most interesting countries to look at for overseas companies.

One could argue that India, Vietnam and other emerging countries have a similar profile. But in India, for instance, it’s very hard to do business and earn profits because competition is super high there.

BRR: Let’s talk a bit about trade. What are the areas of opportunity for Finland-Pakistan bilateral trade?

WE: I feel that the bilateral trade numbers could be ten times higher than the current tally. But at the same time, Finland is doing better compared to, say, Norway, where there are a lot of people with Pakistani background. Finland has traditionally been exporting to Pakistan a lot of technology – in the earlier years, Nokia was a big presence here – as well as power generators. Trade in equipment and technology is still there. But there are new areas where Finland and Pakistan can benefit each other.

For instance, Finland can export healthcare technology and hospital management solutions to Pakistan. Besides, there are education opportunities in Finland. And those are easy things. From Pakistan to Finland, one export could be software professionals. In the post-Nokia era, Finland is becoming a hub for mobile applications development. Finland has a continuous lack of software folks. Pakistani IT companies should definitely look at Finland.

In traditional exports, too, Pakistan can capture some market share in Finland. For instance, we all know that Pakistani mango is the best mango in the world. But it’s not available in Finland at all. How difficult is it to export mangoes? But even Pakistani mangoes are not heading to Finland. I am sure there will be another 150 products, which are easier to export, that are not heading to Finland.

BRR: Why is that so?

WE: You can export from Pakistan to Finland pretty much everything – you just have to take a start. But I feel that the recognition of Finland as a potential market among Pakistani businessmen is mostly zero. Finland’s recognition here is pretty much the same as the recognition of the rest of the Nordic market. Pakistani companies shouldn’t focus on Finland’s small population – which is about 5.5 million – but its high per capita income of around $45,000. That can generate interest. And then the whole Nordic region put together is a big market.

BRR: Do you agree with the notion that academic and cultural exchanges between two distant nations assist in building business relationships later on?

WE: That’s something that should be supported more between Finland and Pakistan. There are many Pakistani students in Finland, doing their masters and PhD at some of the top universities there. There are even Pakistani researchers working there. But everyone is not thinking in terms of business as they are doing their masters or PhD in academic fields.

One of the things that I have noticed is that once students return to Pakistan after finishing their coursework, they don’t keep those connections alive. So, they don’t end up building on their networks. This scenario should be highlighted at the level of HEC, Pakistan, to ensure that cooperation between Pakistan and Finland remains alive.

Even when business relationships are in place, networking becomes difficult when Pakistani executives have to keep applying for visas, which often have a very short duration. What can you really do in a week? Towards that end, it would help if both Finland and Pakistan have their respective embassies in Islamabad and Helsinki.

BRR: In terms of services exports, what are your thoughts on Pakistan’s competitiveness as a tourist destination compared to other countries in the region?

WE: That’s an interesting area. Already, we are trying to build the first tourism package for Northern Areas. We are targeting young and adult individuals. The Finns are very keen to go to new places. As for competitiveness, Pakistan needs to work on building more hotels. That’s an investment opportunity for European businesses.

BRR: Do you think CPEC is an area where Finnish companies can find business in Pakistan?

WE: There are opportunities. But honestly, I’d have branded CPEC differently. It’s called the “China-Pakistan” Economic Corridor – so when you say CPEC, this creates an impression that the projects are just for Chinese companies. Impression would have been different had the project been branded neutrally, as a Gateway or something else

CPEC itself has done a lot of good things. At the end of the day, it’s a loan, which Pakistan has to pay at some time later on. In a perfect world, maybe policymakers would have entered international financial markets, collected the money, opened the tenders and got international companies to build the infrastructure. That way it would be Pakistan’s project. And then Pakistan would charge for transportation.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2018