Reem Rahman

The Ripple Effect: Women Powering Work Through Microfinance And Entrepreneurship

When Roshaneh Zafar quit her job at the World Bank in 1995 to establish the Kashf Foundation, she carried a moment of inspiration and a powerful vision for the future with her.

These came from a chance meeting with Muhammad Yunus, which instilled a strong belief in empowering women — socially and economically — through the Grameen Bank model. Ten years later, after plenty of opposition along the way, she has proven her critics wrong by showing that women-centered and women-managed microfinance programs in Pakistan can indeed flourish and succeed. Beginning with 15 clients in 1996, Kashf now boasts approximately 500,000 families. The organization has not only provided women with $265 million in loans, but it has also expanded to provide women with education, training, and employment opportunities. I caught up with Roshaneh to talk about her journey and the key lessons in motivation, strategy, and creating impact that she’s learned along the way.

Reem Rahman: What is the inspiration that led you to the field of women’s empowerment in particular?

Roshaneh Zafar: In Pakistan, 51 percent of our population is considered to be gainfully employed, but their work is not recognized. Women do contribute to the economy, but a lot of times through informal activities for which they aren’t remunerated. One of our key challenges is to build the business case for investing in women’s economic work, which is something that blends both microfinance and gender issues.

When we started working in microfinance with the aim of empowering women economically and alleviating poverty within their families, we came up against many challenges, the first being: How do we convince a woman to take loans, invest them in a business and then make financial choices to enhance revenue? It is because we have these challenges that we continue to do what we do. We got involved to change social dynamics, and this won’t happen without women’s involvement in the economy. For us it is an imperative.

RR: Why did you choose microfinance?

RZ: With social sector projects, it can often take a generation to see any real change. However, with microfinance, this is fast-tracked. The moment the women with whom we work start earning that extra $10, $20, or $30 — things begin to change in the household. They are able to make choices for themselves and for their children, in terms of what they eat, what they wear, and where they study, and the long-term decisions they make for their future.

Another reason we do microfinance is because of the ripple effect: you change one woman, she’s going to change ten more. To give you a simple example: we all know that social contact enables people to progress and access further opportunities. In Pakistan, most women are connected only to their families; they do not have the opportunity to socialize with women who are non-relatives. The introduction of microfinance is changing this. Now there are communities across Pakistan where it’s the norm for women to leave the house to go to a meeting or to take part in a financial education program — and people don’t question it. These women are the role models for current and future generations.

RR: What are current challenges that you face through your work in the field of women’s empowerment?

RZ: In Pakistan, we have great laws for women’s empowerment, but they’re not being implemented, which creates a gap. This is something that the UN is aware of. If you’re talking about broader issues like education and healthcare, then of course we know that those are areas that need to be worked on before women can be empowered.

However, if we think about the individual female entrepreneur, there are four specifics that affect whether or not she is successful:

  1. Skills
  2. Impact reach (where and how she is selling her product)
  3. Financing
  4. Access to training and education (to produce new products and diversify)

This is what the entrepreneurs with whom we work told us. We’ve done a lot of research on this through our “Business Incubation Lab,” which supports women who are running businesses and helps them scale those businesses up.

Finally, there are challenges around gender and microfinance. We may claim to work for women, but are we measuring the right things— who is using the loans, who is making the financial decisions — to ensure this is the case?

RR: What would you highlight as the two biggest, most exciting opportunities on the horizon?

RZ: Working with start-ups that are more relevant to women and really honing in on the sectors where women are more engaged, whether it is agriculture, livestock, or other sectors. A lot of exciting work is going into that! I also think the development of new technology, which will help us do what we do more effectively, is hugely exciting.

Editor’s Note: Reem Rahman (@reemrahman) is a knowledge manager at Ashoka Changemakers currently analyzing trends in innovation for the Women Powering Work Competition. Ayah Abo-Basha (@ayahabasha) is an associate on Ashoka’s Global Venture and Fellowship Team and a student of anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis.

financial inclusion, microfinance