Since 2015, Fiza Muhammad, a linen exporter from Pakistan, has been selling towels, bed sheets, and pillows to Amazon customers in the United States and the United Arab Emirates. But in order to run her business, she was forced to rely on a partner in Dubai — Amazon hadn’t officially allowed sellers from Pakistan to use its platform. The process was “tedious,” she said, and gave her less control over things like branding and marketing.
For years, Muhammad and other Amazon sellers in Pakistan have used unofficial workarounds like these to reach Amazon customers abroad. But those days are finally over: On Friday, Amazon officially added Pakistan to its list of countries where sellers are permitted to be based. Merchants in Pakistan can now freely sell their products on the e-commerce site, a move that may provide a much-needed boost to the country’s digital economy.
“It’s a big accomplishment for our E-commerce & will open up vast opportunities for a new breed of young men & women entrepreneurs,” Abdul Razak Dawood, an adviser to Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan, said on Twitter. Amazon did not immediately return a request for comment.
Amazon hosts millions of independent sellers from around the world on Amazon Marketplace; they are required to provide banking details and other identifying information to sign up. Independent estimates suggest the vast majority are from the U.S. and China, but there are also thousands from other countries, including India. Pakistan may have been excluded for so long because it has a relatively underdeveloped e-commerce sector.
Badar Khushnood, a member of Pakistan’s National e-Commerce Council and a co-founder of the retail software platform Fishry.com, told Rest of World that efforts to add Pakistan to Amazon’s seller list were part of the government’s 2019 e-commerce policy. The regulations are a portion of Khan’s plans to build banking services and other infrastructure needed for digital commerce in the country.
Talks between Amazon, Pakistan’s Ministry of Commerce, and the National e-Commerce Council began last year, according to local media reports. Around that time, the tech giant initiated a pilot program for merchants in the country, which provided one-on-one business advice and digital onboarding support to some 38 of Pakistan’s biggest manufacturers.
The eventual goal was to open seller registration to Pakistani merchants, which could help the country boost exports. Pakistan sent around $23 billion worth of merchandise abroad in 2019, according to The World Bank. Exports from Bangladesh, which has a much smaller population, totaled nearly $40 billion the same year.
Khushnood said now that Amazon is open for Pakistani merchants, e-commerce in the country will thrive. “Pakistani manufacturers have tons of potential, and they know traditional products won’t work — value-added services and innovation are key. A simple Himalayan salt lamp from Pakistan won’t sell much,” he said, “but a salt lamp that works with Alexa might.” (The country is home to a number of salt mines.)
Muhammad, the linen exporter, has begun setting up her own account on Seller Central (the Amazon portal for third-party merchants) and said she’s feeling optimistic about the future of her business. Her excitement demonstrates how Amazon has enormous sway in countries like Pakistan, even though consumers there can’t use the platform to buy goods themselves.
Even before Pakistan was added to the sellers list, there were already enough unofficial Amazon merchants in the country to support a cottage industry of gig workers, including Amazon Virtual Assistants, fulfillment consultants, and web developers. Hameer Ali works at Extreme Commerce, a local startup focused on teaching people e-commerce skills. Since 2017, he has been providing support to freelancers who want to work on Amazon’s marketplace, which can be notoriously difficult for sellers to navigate.
Ali said he thinks the scores of Pakistanis he has trained over the years — the Extreme Commerce Facebook group alone has over 620,000 members — will now have access to greater opportunities. “We have a massive advantage now; without Amazon being in the country, we have been able to come so far,” he said. “With Amazon coming here, the horizon is huge.”
But there are still challenges ahead for Amazon sellers in Pakistan. Ali pointed to the country’s antiquated banking system, for example, and said he anticipates that sellers may need to continue using digital wallet apps instead of traditional bank accounts. “We are glad Pakistan will soon be a listed country on the Seller Central, but there is still more work that needs to be done,” Ali said.