For 28-year-old Fiza Farhan, being caught up in a 9-5 job was hardly appealing. Rather than just another cog in the corporate machine, she always wanted to make an impact on Pakistani society.
Working as the CEO and Co-Founder of a local microfinance institution, the Buksh Foundation, and the Director of Buksh Energy (an offshoot of the foundation), Farhan’s work focuses mainly on clean energy projects for the country’s rural and underprivileged areas, areas that are often overlooked by the public sector.
This year, Farhan made it to Forbes’ international list of 30 Under 30 social entrepreneurs– quite an achievement for a young Pakistani. Last year, the young entrepreneur was also selected as a “Future Energy Leader” at the World Energy Council.
“We were very different in our approach from day one,” says Farhan earnestly, “Our microfinance challenged the conventional norms of micro finance society; for example, in microfinance you’d be giving loans of a small amount which means nothing to set up an enterprise – loans are given out to anyone who has a national ID card. So the due diligence is zero. When you’re not checking the creditworthiness of the client, how can you expect the financial mechanism to be sustainable? There is bound to be a collapse. It’s very easy to give money, people will take it, but the difficult mechanism is to collect the money back. We challenged these norms; we wanted to create enterprises, not clients. It’s very nice to say; oh yes I have a 1,000 clients, but what are they doing with their lives, you know?”
For Farhan, if an individual takes a loan once without coming back for a second one, the institution is doing something right: sustainable, economic agents are being created to make big impacts on their respective communities. “I found it very funny when people in the microfinance industry used to say very proudly; oh this client is coming to us for the third time, they’re so loyal. I feel if someone’s coming to you for the third time that means you’re not alleviating his poverty. That means you’re not making him sustainable. How is that a matter of pride?”
So how does Farhan’s foundation make sure they take on good, reliable clients? An extensive interview process, the development of a credit evaluation, in addition to a thorough psychological evaluation of the client. “We call it the ‘willingness to pay analysis;’ this has led us to a default rate of less than one percent!”
Currently, Buksh Energy, a renewable energy company, has provided solar lanterns to approximately 140 villages across the country. “In 2012 we wanted to do something for the underprivileged communities in Pakistan, in villages that were forgotten,” Farhan says, “The poorest of the poor communities are those where there is no infrastructure, no electricity. We then developed the ‘Lighting a Million Lives’ project; it was in collaboration with an Indian entity [TERI] which has been working on similar projects for the last 8-10 years. Taking the basic framework from them, we developed it into the Pakistani scenario.”
Launched in 2013, Farhan’s team began targeting off-grid villages and set up solar charging stations that would run on solar panels and would, in turn, charge World Bank certified solar lanterns.
For the project, a woman from each village is selected given two weeks of technical and non-technical training. On the completion of her training, the woman is christened “Roshna Bibi” (translation: Light Lady). “She then becomes our agent of change in that village,” states Farhan, “She runs the solar charging station on our behalf, empowering the village with light. We also employ two technical officers from the field, voluntarily, and train them in technical skills. They can then fix the solar charging stations themselves. It’s a rental model. The rent that the Roshna Bibi collects is about 3,000 [Pakistani rupees] per month; half goes into her sustainable income and the other half goes into an after-sales kitty so that if there’s anything that needs fixing, the village can pay for itself, hence the self-sustainability concept. That’s how the model works.”
After setting up solar charging stations in 80 villages, Farhan mentions that the impact assessment report was astounding.
“We in our nice offices in cities cannot imagine the conditions of life without light,” says Farhan. “I’ll give you an example very close to my heart: One of these Roshna Bibi’s told me that before the project was initiated the late night deliveries that the midwives used to do, used to be by the light of kerosene lamps. These newborn babies would inhale the kerosene and either have lung problems or even choke to death; the women would think that the baby died in childbirth. There were also instances of snakebites at night where villagers would accidently step on snakes – these were things I could never have perceived of…”
In addition to solar charging stations, the Buksh Foundation has also initiated solar mobile charging stations. Interestingly, the demand for solar mobile charging stations came from the villagers themselves.
“What these villagers do is that they travel to nearby cities to charge a whole bunch of phones. Once back in the village, the phones are handed back to the owners fully charged. It’s quite expensive for them. Now the villagers are able to charge their mobile phones when they come to pick up and drop off their lanterns.”
Currently working on solar water filtration plants for villages where one plant will be able to pump out clean drinking water for 6,000 households, Farhan is also in the process of initiating a women’s training program to empower women in rural areas to become agents of change in pockets of communities in Pakistan.
“The more I’m on this path, [the more] I feel my long-term goal is to create major change in this society,” Farhan says. “Social entrepreneurship is critical to Pakistan; the public sector is not delivering to the communities of Pakistan. However, social entrepreneurship has to come with the right mindset, the right spirit. If social entrepreneurship is implemented with the right mindset of having financial benefits for all included, social benefits for all, environmental benefits, community-wide impact – not just for the village but for the country as well – that’s where I feel social entrepreneurship justifies its success.”
Sonya Rehman is a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. She can be reached at: sonjarehman [at] gmail.com