The News on Sunday recently caught up with Dr Amjad Saqib to talk about his work.
All journeys, whether great or small, begin with a single step. For Dr Amjad Saqib, a former career bureaucrat, it was establishing the Akhuwat Foundation in 2001. Driven by his vision to eliminate poverty by working at the grassroots level, Dr Saqib has turned Akhuwat into the largest organisation that provides interest-free loans to the most vulnerable in the Pakistani society.
The microfinance organisation has a network of 827 branches across Pakistan. It has disbursed 4.8 million loans amounting to over Rs 145 billion. Realising tht poverty is a multidimensional problem, Akhuwat has expanded its interventions to include education, healthcare and access to food and clothing.
Dr Saqib has recently won the prestigious Ramon Magsaysay Award, named after the late Philippines president remembered for his integrity and public service. The first Magsaysay Award was bestowed in 1958 on Mary Rutnam. Other esteemed recipients of the award include the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Dr Yunus.
Previous recipients of the award from Pakistan are: Abdus Sattar and Bilqees Edhi, Akhtar Hameed Khan, IA Rehman and Shoaib Sultan Khan. Dr Saqib is one of the five recipients of the 2021 Magsaysay Award for pioneering the interest-free lending model in Pakistan.
The News on Sunday (TNS): Please tell us about the journey of Akhuwat. How did it all start?
Dr Amjad Saqib (DAS): Like all struggles, Akhuwat was met with criticism and scepticism in its early days. Its success today is an ode to its resilience, endurance and support from the Akhuwat family and its friends. More than 55 million people in Pakistan live in poverty. To date, Akhuwat has been able to provide relief through the provision of interest-free microfinance to only 4 million families. There are still about 52 million people living in poverty who have no means of becoming financially sustainable. The Akhuwat firmly believes that the best way to achieve its mission of eliminating poverty is through partnerships and collective effort. Despite its great success in becoming the world’s largest interest-free microfinance organisation with a return rate of over 99.9 percent and serving over 4 million families, Akhuwat is far from having achieved its vision. That is why it has sought collaboration with the state.
Its success has been made possible largely through the generous support of private organisations and Pakistan’s charitable people. The challenge will remain until the day there is no poverty in Pakistan and every single child can afford and pursue high quality education. The dream is huge, but the resources are finite. Despite its efforts to minimise operational costs, Akhuwat requires additional funds to continue expanding its operations.
TNS: What made you join this initiative?
DAS: It was the passion for bringing forth a change in the society. I initiated several conversations with my friends on social issues like generational poverty and their potential solutions between. Being blessed with a circle of friends who understood the depth of the situation, possessed the desire to bring about a change and upheld similar values ultimately was a start. They became pillars of support for me. After analyzing the problems faced by the poor who were not being helped by interest-based financing, we decided to start this programme. Interest-free microfinance was then the most unconventional and often criticised idea at the time Akhuwat was born.
“To create a sense of reciprocity, the borrowers are encouraged to voluntarily donate whatever amount they may like to support others in need. Around 40 percent of Akhuwat’s borrowers become donors,” says Dr Amjad Saqib
TNS: How is Akhuwat different from other micro finance organisations?
DAS: Akhuwat promotes a model of inclusive finance. The high interest rates being charged for microfinance were considered an essential part of the system to ensure its sustainability. Breaking the mould, Akhuwat initiated an interest-free microfinance model based on the Islamic concept of mawakhat. This encourages the formation of a bond of solidarity and support between those with means and those without. Volunteerism, the desire of the poor to bring change in their lives and support from affluent members of society made it possible for Akhuwat to be where it is today. Its model is unique and creative as a result of adopting the following practices:
Benevolent or interest-free loans ranging from an amount of $100 - $1,000, Akhuwat disburses loans with zero interest rate as it believes in creating a system of mutual support and trust with the poor.
Use of religious places
In order to minimise operational costs, Akhuwat’s model disburses loans at places like mosques, temples and churches to promote an inclusive and tolerant environment.
Loans are given to the household; both male and female members from the household sign the loan and are jointly responsible for repayment. The Akhuwat model empowers female members of the borrowing household by recognising them as decision-makers while respecting the local culture.
Converting borrowers into donors
To create a sense of reciprocity, the borrowers are encouraged to voluntarily donate whatever amount they may like to support others in need. Around 40 percent of Akhuwat’s borrowers become donors and forever a part of the Akhuwat family.
Through the creation of a revolving credit fund, with Akhuwat’s remarkable rate of return of 99.9 percent, once a loan is returned, it is disbursed to some other deserving family.
Resources are provided by the state and the programme is implemented by Akhuwat working as a civil society organisation.
Inculcating a spirit of volunteerism in its staff and workers.
TNS: What are the areas in which Akhuwat works and how large is its portfolio?
DAS: Microfinance is Akhuwat’s flagship programme; through it Akhuwat has supported over 4 million families across Pakistan by disbursing Rs 145 billion to date. Following the onset of Covid-19, Akhuwat dedicated its efforts to curtailing the impact of the pandemic through the establishment of the Corona Imdadi Fund that continues to arrange resources for the provision of ration bags, freshly prepared meals and financial support in the form of grants and loans, medical kits including masks, sanitisers, PPEs and ventilators for hospitals.
In addition to microfinance, Akhuwat’s narrative has taken on a more active role in the education sector. If loans can be given without interest, education can also be provided without fees. This was the vision with which Akhuwat Education Services (AES) was founded. The AES aims to provide fee-free quality education to talented yet underprivileged students from across Pakistan. Currently, the AES has launched four higher secondary education institutions in Karachi, Kasur, Chakwal and Faisalabad in addition to 302 government schools that have been adopted under the PSSP (Public School Support Programme). Over 45,000 students are receiving fee-free education through the AES. Its flagship programme is Pakistan’s first fee-free university, Akhuwat University, which started accepting students for its first academic year in October 2020.
As part of its initiatives in education, Akhuwat is in the process of starting its first academic year at Akhuwat Mushahida School of Hospitality and Tourism in September 2021. The objective of this initiative is to promote the hospitality industry as a career and produce professionals in this field so that they can spearhead the booming tourism industry in Pakistan.
Akhuwat’s success would not be possible without the unwavering support and trust of the government. In 2019, funds were allocated to Akhuwat for the purpose of providing affordable housing to the underprivileged. Known as the low-cost housing scheme project, this project provided the opportunity to Akhuwat to introduce the first ever shariah-compliant product that has to date allowed the financing of over 16,000 houses. Many more are under construction. Seeing the progress of this project, the amount of financing was increased in June 2021 to Rs 7 billion.
Akhuwat’s foundation, built on inspiration derived from Mawakhat-i-Medina, has paved the way for the creation of synergies between the ongoing Kamyab Pakistan Programme (KPP) of the government. The most important feature of the programme is interest-free microfinance, designed to reduce the hardships faced by the poor on account of the exorbitant interest rates. The Rs 1 trillion project will in turn support projects like Kamyab Jawan, Low Cost Housing Scheme, interest-free loans to farmers and Sehat Insaaf Cards.
Akhuwat is committed to supporting the government’s efforts for development as Mawakhat-i-Madina is the essence of Riyasat-i-Madina. Akhuwat (which means brotherhood), is hopeful that through its model of interest-free lending and empowerment of the poor, Pakistan will rise out of poverty, God Willing. For such a dream to be achieved, it is pertinent that as Pakistanis, we join hands and practice fraternity.
The author is a staff reporter and can be reached at shahzada.irfangmail.com