With almost 64 per cent of population comprising individuals below the age of 30, Pakistan is standing at a crossroads of the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Nowadays, the youth is more interested in entrepreneurship over traditional occupations such as public service or conventional jobs. Especially for young women, the reality is that they are still the primary caregivers whether we’re talking about children or aging parents. Being your own boss generally allows for more freedom than working for someone else. This additional autonomy is especially helpful when family may be the number one priority.
The trend is further strengthened by numerous incubators providing support for start-ups and enterprises. However, most of these incubators are situated in big cities - like Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Peshawar - making it inaccessible to youth from the semi-urban and rural areas.
To bridge this gap, Oxfam introduced its First Flight Incubation Programme for rural and semi-urban youth with promising start-up ideas. Through Oxfam’s Empower Youth for Work (EYW) programme in districts Jamshoro and Layyah in Sindh and Punjab provinces respectively, it has been specifically designed to provide incubation support to aspiring entrepreneurs from remote areas.
With a certificate of tailoring and a diploma in dress designing, Zakia Bibi, a resident of Mandi town, Layyah District, is one of the beneficiaries of this programme. When Oxfam’s Innovation Hub started working in her area, she got her chance to materialise her lifelong dream of starting her own business. The Innovation Hub in Layyah is run by Oxfam’s local partner, Bargad.
The training sessions on basic life skills gave Zakia a lot of confidence and with her innate abilities and dedication; she was soon selected as a Youth Innovator. Back in her village, Zakia went door to door to inform people of her area about the Hub and its activities. Zakia’s journey from a dream to reality didn’t come without a resistance from her relatives. But with her father on her side, she remained unfazed and continued her entrepreneurial journey. “Initially it was a constant struggle since the community was extremely sceptical of my work. Even young people showed very little interest as they were content with their lifestyle, including my youngest brother who was critical of my decision to join the Hub. He believed that women working with NGOs don’t earn positive reputation in the society. However, after seeing my strong resolve for positive social change, he visited my workplace out of curiosity and ended up becoming part of a youth group himself,” she recollects with a smile.
Eventually, she gathered a group of 30 young people and started giving them training sessions.
Around this time, Zakia also took a session on micro-business and GALS training which reignited her passion to start a business. She shared her idea with the management of the Hub, who offered her a space inside its premises. Thus ‘Inno Cafe’ was born with the tag line ‘Khwaab se tabeer tak’. Selling local fast food items like pakoray, samosay, juices and milkshakes of seasonal fresh fruits, her first regular customers were her fellow youth group members who came to attend different trainings at the Innovation Hub. Her goodwill helped her business get a kick start.
With a plan to motivate other young girls to work at her cafe, Zakia is all set to expand her business to include other in-demand products such as achaar (pickles) and chutneys (sauces). “Majority of my male family members trade in fresh mangoes, a local produce of Layyah. If I ask them to share their leftover produce I would have a steady supply of the fruit for my cafe,” she asserts.
22-year-old Khushbu is a resident of the small village of Karokho, District Jamshoro. The village offers limited options for women’s mobility, even for education or employment. Things changed for the better when EYW team reached Karokho to recruit young women from the district for its Innovators’ Training programme. Khushbu, a Bachelor’s student, was the first to volunteer and convince her father to let her attend this programme at the Innovation Hub in Jamshoro. “Leaving the house for the first time to attend the training programme was initially intimidating for me. But, I completed the Life Skills Training and then attended the Micro-Business Training, which was entirely a new yet exciting experience for me,” tells Khushbu.
Growing up watching women around her remaining confined within their homes, Khushbu never imagined earning her own living let alone becoming an entrepreneur. She started her micro-business ‘Mehak Applique Work’, selling handcrafted applique with a minimal initial investment. With the support of her network she had established during the trainings, she developed market linkages. Today, Khushbu works with 25 female artisans from her village. Through her e-market platform, ‘Affordable.pk’, she has established market linkages and partnerships with other small businesses and distributors across the country. “One day, I hope to turn my business into a globally recognised brand”, she enthuses.
The incubation programme ‘First Flight’ incorporates input from local youth experts, adopting the principle of ‘idea to income’. In the first 3 weeks of the incubation cycle, intensive training sessions prepare youth to conceive, design, and plan their start-up ideas, with the assistance of mentors. Their individual investment pitches are presented in front of a panel of judges in the final week, who after assessing the strength of the ideas and the dedication of the entrepreneurs announce the grant winners. These winners receive technical and business development support from EYW.
“This initiative is not only enabling innovators since two years to materialise their entrepreneurial ventures but is also creating gainful and decent employment for young women and men,” says Sehar Afsheen, Gender Justice Programme Manager at Oxfam in Pakistan.
“Experience of a seasoned entrepreneur is precious. No theoretical model can replace the experience that one gains through actually doing the work, failing, and succeeding. This is what EYW’s First Flight programme is doing with an ambition of setting up and facilitating at least 100 start-ups, from idea to implementation stage, during the course of 5 years,” she adds.
“Entrepreneurship is an idea that gives an entrepreneur the courage to break old moulds, create new things according to the clients’ taste, needs, and demands while using their best expertise,” says Shamsa Jabeen, creator of ‘National Business Forum’ - a business platform on WhatsApp, where industrialists and budding entrepreneurs can share ideas and work in collaboration.
Endorsing her opinion, Amir Adnan, a successful owner of his clothing brand, says, “Starting an entrepreneurship project means having an idea and working on it. You don’t need a huge capital to start a venture. In fact, I would prefer a small venture with very small capital. For instance, women in villages can start supplying rotis in their neighbourhood and earn. This is a skill they are well versed with. But the idea and the confidence to execute an idea is missing. There is a need to build confidence and media can play a big role in raising this awareness.”
“The shadowing exercise of working with seasoned entrepreneurs and gaining practical advice, knowledge and mentorship gives real support. With the changing landscape of entrepreneurship in Pakistan, planning ahead is the key to a successful entrepreneurship model. Most young entrepreneurs in Pakistan lack the knack for taking risks as they are not taught about this during their entrepreneurship trainings,” observes Parishae Adnan, a young and upcoming designer.