© Zabai

From Pakistan’s Gig Economy to Bhutan’s Civil Society – How E-Learning Solutions Accelerate Development

FROM: Severin Huber, Antonia Does, Jane Carter – 01. February 2021
© Zabai

Digital learning provides new and exciting opportunities: from mobile phone applications to e-learning management platforms to massive open online courses (MOOCs). This is the third of three blogs exploring how Helvetas leverages digital technology for greater impact and scale in our programs in Asia. Here, we focus on e-learning solutions: how we have employed them to accelerate development, and what we have learned along the way.

Digital skills for Pakistan’s gig economy

Ibrahim Khan is a young man from the newly merged district of Mohmand in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, a predominantly rural area with comparatively high unemployment. In 2019-2020 he participated in the Taroon apprenticeship program, an initiative co-created by the Information Technology Association of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Helvetas (Taroon is a Pashto word meaning ‘linkage’). After graduating, Ibrahim launched his own digital start-up, selling freelance services on Fiverr and other digital marketplaces. He is now part of Pakistan’s gig economy, one of the fastest growing in the world according to Payoneer’s Global Gig Economy Index.

The Taroon apprenticeship program, funded by the Netherlands’ Ministry of Foreign Affairs, trains participants in digital skills such as app and games development and digital marketing. It also links the trainees to the market. Taking advantage of digital technology, the program blends on-the-job training at IT companies with digital learning solutions, using platforms such as Zoom and Google Classroom.

Although gig economies are not uncontroversial, Ibrahim is a clear winner. Not all trainees from the Taroon apprenticeship program become freelancers, however. Some also secure jobs at the IT companies at which they interned; some find opportunities within the government offices while others find remote employment with international companies based on the skills they acquired during their apprenticeship.

Making the most of what they have and trying to make it better: Ibrahim Khan’s team at work
Ibrahim speaking to his team

According to Ibrahim Khan: “The Taroon apprenticeship by Helvetas Pakistan opened so many doors of opportunities for me, I founded the first ever IT company from Mohmand Agency (now district), and very soon, I will make my village the freelance hub of the province”.

Weathering the COVID-19 crisis through virtual learning

The COVID-19 crisis has disrupted many development initiatives, including some in the Himalayan country of Bhutan. Now a constitutional monarchy, Bhutan held its first national elections in 2007, adopted a constitution in 2008, and embarked on a decentralization process that is still ongoing. Supporting the country in this effort, an EU financed project implemented by Helvetas provides capacity-building for civil society organizations and local governments. We also assist the authorities in creating conditions that encourage citizen engagement. With the COVID-19 crisis, however, all physical meetings were halted. In response, the project team shifted to virtual training and online technical assistance with the help of local IT experts. Project activities have thus continued – and the digital skills of participants have been strengthened, too.

In neighboring Nepal, Helvetas staff also had to come up with innovative solutions in the face of COVID-19. Responding to the pandemic, the government ordered a strict country-wide lockdown on 24 March 2020, which was not fully lifted until 21 July 2020. One specific challenge during this time was to conduct a learning workshop for 75 municipal officers from across the country, introducing a new manual about rural roads. Helvetas Nepal staff developed a customized online training platform, based on Moodle (an open source software). Being virtual, the training could be attended by more than double the initially planned number of participants. It was so successful that it inspired the use of the platform for other training needs as well.

Blended learning for improved skills in Myanmar

In Myanmar’s Magway region, where youth unemployment is estimated to be around 30-40%, Helvetas supports disadvantaged young women and men to improve their skills, find a job or become self-employed, and thus increase their income. They receive training both on-the-job and through government provided courses in skills such as motorcycle repairing, hair and facial treatment, and female fashion tailoring. The dual training approach is complemented by a results-based-payment mechanism, ensuring that the skills they learn equip them to earn a reasonable wage. According to tracer studies conducted, around 85% of all graduates become employed or self-employed; on average, they manage to increase their income by 2-3 times.

Encouraged by these positive results, Helvetas decided to team up with Zabai, a Norwegian social enterprise strongly anchored in Myanmar, to digitize parts of the courses (see the image by Zabai at the top of the article). The digital learning solution works via mobile phone or computer, allows the trainees to study on- and offline, and offers an attractive learning experience. In short, it increases the quality of the education, its impact, and has the potential to be upscaled.

Challenges and lessons learned

What we have learned along the way includes the following:

  • Although internet access and mobile phone subscriptions have dramatically increased over recent years, connectivity and phone ownership still pose limitations in certain areas. For this reason, the suitability of digital solutions must always be checked. In some cases, it may be that digitalization is inappropriate; in others, specific measures may be needed, such as digital materials that can be downloaded on low bandwidth, or the provision of access to digital devices as part of the learning package.
  • It is crucial that digital learning solutions are audience appropriate, and field tested to this effect. For example, people who never had the chance of schooling – often women or members of disadvantaged groups – are likely to respond better to pictorial and color-coded images than text.
  • Partnerships with digital innovators, local service providers, and public institutions are key. Helvetas’ role in these partnerships usually is to bring the different actors together and facilitate the development of context-specific digital solutions.
  • Many good digital tools exist already. Often the need is not so much to develop a new digital solution from scratch; rather, it is to understand the challenge, see the opportunity, and co-create the solution that fits the local needs.


This is the third post of our blog series exploring how digitalization is transforming the way we work in Asia.

Read the previous two blogs of the series:

Making the Most of Digital Opportunities

Digitalization brings so many opportunities to increase the scope and efficiency of our work – although it is not without inherent costs and risks.
The trainees learn how to prepare and produce bakery products | © Helvetas

Learning from Project Data to Leave No One Behind

Digital systems of data collection, monitoring, analysis and visualization have transformed the way that we work.