Inspirational Woman Interview: Roshaneh Zafar


Roshaneh Zafar is the Founder and Managing Director of Kashf Foundation, the first specialized microfinance organization in Pakistan. She established Kashf after she met with Dr. Muhammad Yunas of the Grameen Bank. Ms. Zafar holds a Masters degree in International Development from Yale University and BSc Degree in Finance from the Wharton Business School. Ms. Zafar has a wide range of development experience; she started her career with the World Bank and then went on to set up Kashf Foundation. Ms. Zafar has won many awards and recognitions for her contributions to the field of social entrepreneurship and women’s development.

What is your background? 

Roshaneh Zafar: I am an economist by training and studied Finance and Economics at the Wharton Business School – University of Pennsylvania at the undergraduate level and then went on to pursue a Masters in International and Development Economics at Yale.  I worked for 4 years at the World Bank in Islamabad looking at the social impact of World bank projects through a gender lens. The time I spent in documenting how investments in water and sanitation impacted on the lives of women, through my field work at the Bank, was extremely important for it brought me in touch with hundreds of women from communities. This exposure made me realize that it was not enough to invest in infrastructure, but it was equally important to provide women with sustainable livelihoods. I still remember the many conversations I had with women in low income communities where they unanimously told me that they definitely wanted to invest in a better future for their children, but lacked the financial resources to do so and most importantly they lacked the ability to influence choices within their households.  I was particularly struck by the link between power, control and access to resources in the household economy and how that impacted on the long term choices a family would make.  Having come from a family where I never had to face any form of gender discrimination, the stark differences I saw within low income families when it came to boys and girls, men and women, deeply influenced me. It was around this time that I met with Dr Muhammad Yunus of the Grameen Bank in Islamabad at a conference, it was a chance meeting but it definitely changed the course of my life, as a few years later I left my job and embarked on a journey of learning about Microfinance and women’s economic empowerment to Bangladesh.

You are the Founder and Managing Director of the Kashf Foundation, the first specialized microfinance organization in Pakistan to specifically target women from low-income communities. Can you tell us about what inspired you to found the Kashf Foundation and what its impact been so far?

Roshaneh Zafar: As already mentioned I was extremely troubled by the way in which women are treated in a patriarchal society, while at the same time I was struck by the determination and perseverance of female micro-entrepreneurs who despite all the challenges and hurdles they face, work hard to earn a living for their families.  The concept of microfinance bridges both aspects for it provides women with access to financial services, while enabling them greater voice and control over the incomes they generate.  When you start working in other social sector projects, it takes a generation to really begin to see changes. But in the context of microfinance, there’s a fast-tracked approach. The moment the women start earning that extra $10, $20, or $30 – things begin to change in the household, and the choices that are made, are made today rather than in the future. And those choices relate to the families of those women, to their children in particular— in terms of what they eat, what they wear, and where they study, and what long-term choices they make.

Another reason we invest in women led enterprises, is because there’s a ripple effect. You change one woman, she’s going to change ten more. In the past 20 years since we started, we have invested in helping over 1.5 million women establish businesses and our results show that on a year on year over 60% of women report increase in their gross profits and over 30% are able to save on a regular basis.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in founding, scaling, and leading The Kashf Foundation?

Roshaneh Zafar: Well, what would life be without challenges! This is when one learns the most, and I can tell you it has been one exciting journey. Initially, our first challenge was building trust between us as a team of outsiders and the community, especially when it came to women as they were not used to being directly approached or recognized as economic agents.  Even though women contribute as workers in the informal sector, they are rarely recognized for their inputs. Making women realize their economic worth and at the same time convincing their families was a big challenge and in fact this continues to be an ongoing issue. Based on this, I still remember Dr Yunus telling me that designing and delivering financial services to the poor won’t be my main challenge, but changing mindsets will be.  As a result, over the years we have invested in both capacity building of the female entrepreneurs and gender advocacy at the household level, especially targeting men and “mother in laws”, as in the South Asian context mother in laws exert a great deal of influence on household dynamics.  Other challenges of course arise and are related to institutional building like fund raising and human resource management, where culture building and gender diversity management are key aspects.  Fund raising is of course related to the business viability of the opportunity and that is where we had a big challenge to prove the business case for investing in women’s livelihoods.  As they now say, investing in women in smart economics but that was not the thinking 20 years ago.

In your opinion, what are the biggest barriers to financial inclusion in communities that The Kashf Foundation works with?

Roshaneh Zafar: Since we work with women entrepreneurs many of these challenges are linked to them. But if we talk about the woman entrepreneur, there are three or four things that impact her: First, her skill level becomes critical, which is closed linked to the second challenge, her mobility and her access to markets, that is, where is she selling her product and how is she selling it. The third challenge is financing –which we all know is a critical matter that the field of microfinance tries to fill. And the fourth is access to a new training and educational schemes that can provide her with further skills to produce new products and diversify her opportunities. In order to address these barriers, we actually have another very interesting project called the “Business Incubation Lab”. Under that we work with women who have been successfully running businesses for at least 2 years and we help them scale those businesses through a 4 month business and enterprise training, what we fondly call the “Harvard business school for women.” During this training we also take women entrepreneurs to the market, where they are able to connect with the vendors directly and learn about improving their products and their overall marketing capacity.

Can you tell us more about Kashf’s micro-credit, micro-insurance, financial education/vocational skills, business incubation labs and research into savings and rural microfinance?

Roshaneh Zafar: We have a very systematic approach towards improving and enhancing the capacity of women and their families to make better financial decisions.  With this in view, we offer the following trainings; Smart savings to help women enhance their ability to save from current income and to plan for a rainy day, debt management to enable women and their families to handle financial transactions, financial negotiations to assist women to better negotiate rates of raw materials or of end products and household budgeting to help them formalize household level financial decisions. In addition to this Kashf has also established business incubation labs to assist women entrepreneurs to enhance their business management skills, marketing and product development aspects along with helping them to establish networks with vendors. In terms of financial products we offer a full range of women centric financial services which includes a loan for productive enterprises, micro life insurance, micro health insurance and micro savings.  The idea is to not only help the female entrepreneur invest in the current productivity of her business but also help her manage contingencies through savings and access to micro-insurance. Currently Kashf is a pioneer in the field of health of insurance and through $1.50 per month the entire family of our client is covered against hospitalization up to $300 per family member, with no exclusions for pre-conditions, while also providing a income loss cover, where the household is provided with a cash payout of the daily minimum wage for up to 10 days. The reason behind introducing health insurance was that our research had shown that even if a family was able to earn greater income through access to loans, with time if there is a health issue in the household all the economic gains made would be diminished.

Can you tell us about some of your experiences as an Ashoka Fellow and a Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur?

Roshaneh Zafar: It is wonderful to have been part of these dynamic networks from the very beginning for not only was I able to meet some amazing individuals but was also able to learn a great deal. I still remember when as an Schwab Social Entrepreneur in 2005 I was to speak at the opening plenary of the World Economic Forum with a highly accomplished panel comprising of Elie Wiesel, Jack Straw, Carly Fiorina – I was so nervous, but it was amazing to receive a resounding applause for my speech which focused on the importance of investing in women’s empowerment and how this could be a counter to terrorism and help us build safer and more inclusive societies.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

I think I have already responded to this question, but I will mention again that it is impossible for a country or a society to evolve and compete in the 21st century without making sure its women and its girls prosper too! This is a no brainer, and every day at the level of my work I see the miracles women’s active participation in the the economy can make.  Last week, I was traveling to one of our communities and I met an extremely dynamic Kashf client, who was running a small grocery store with her husband. Prior to her working with Kashf, she told me life had been extremely hard and she had not had enough money to feed her children, let alone send them to school.  Despite the resistance of her in laws, she had taken a loan from Kashf 4 years ago and started a small store out of one room in her house, and slowly and gradually that business has grown and she has moved the store by renting a space on the main street in her community, and is now sending all her children to school. These are of course small incremental steps, but in the long run they change the lives of many.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Roshaneh Zafar: My maternal grandmother Malika Pukhraj was extremely influential in my life and in her own way she taught me how important it was to live life on one’s own terms and to follow one’s dreams. My grandmother was a trained classical singer, and in her days this was not an easy profession to follow in what was then united India.  However, she chose to invest in her music career despite all the odds, and due to her incredible talent became one of the most acclaimed classical singers in India and Pakistan.  She was a woman of substance who always believed in investing in the education of girls, and as a result even though she never went to formal school and had been home schooled as a child, all of us in the family (that is her grand daughters) went on to study and pursue careers.  She as also the first financial donor to Kashf, and when I went and shared the idea of replicating the Grameen Bank in Pakistan in 1995, she encouraged me and said that I must do something for the less privileged women of Pakistan. She also wrote her memoirs, which were published in English under the title of Songs Sung True.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources about economics, international development, and women’s issues?

Roshaneh Zafar: I am an avid reader, and have a huge repertoire of favorite books, and it is really hard to pin point a favorite book. Since you have asked the question, I will try to answer it, albeit with difficulty.  I have been very akin to the literature coming out of Latin America, so of course Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Isabel Allende, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes have been some of my favorites. I have of course read them in English. My latest favorites have been Elif Shafak from Turkey and Ala Al Aswany from Egypt, while I have also been reading a lot of the great fiction coming out of Pakistan to quote Kamila Shamshie, Nadeem Aslam and Daniyaal Mohiyuddin.  I also enjoy William Darlymple’s works in particular and love the epic sweep of some of his books about the sub continent. I could go on but I will stop here for now, yes you had mentioned economics so a lot of Amartya Sen’s work has been an influence on my thinking in recent times especially regarding the notion of human dignity and how to measure it.

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