Roshaneh Zafar: empowering women through microfinance

June 9, 2024

As the visionary leader of Kashf Foundation, Roshaneh Zafar persistently pushes boundaries, acting as a catalyst for change in the lives of millions of women.

Roshaneh Zafar: empowering women through microfinance


oshaneh Zafar, an icon of inspiration, the founder and managing director of Kashf Foundation. She has tirelessly championed social change, earning her reverence on many fronts. A recipient of the Tamgha-e-Imtiaz, one of Pakistan’s highest civilian awards, and a winner of the Vital Voices for Women’s Empowerment and the Skoll Foundation’s Social Entrepreneurship Award, Roshaneh Zafar’s work transcends traditional boundaries.

A woman of immense strength, Zafar defied societal norms that dictated life choices. She boldly carved her own path, unwavering in her pursuit of improving society.

Through her work with the Kashf Foundation, she has ardently advocated for women’s financial inde-pendence. Ms. Zafar actively sought change by providing microfinance services that empower women.

Roshaneh Zafar’s conversation with Instep unveiled the passion that fueled her inspiring journey and impactful work. Her life story originated in Lahore, where she was raised amidst influential figures like her father, Syed Muhammad Zafar, a prominent lawyer and politician. Supported by her family, she broke barriers early on, becoming the only woman from her high school class of 45 to study abroad.

Ms. Zafar embarked on her educational voyage at the prestigious Wharton Business School, University of Pennsylvania, USA. She furthered her education with a Master’s degree in Development Economics from Yale University, USA. Reflecting on the steadfast encouragement from her family, Ms. Zafar shared: “I grew up in a family where I didn’t face any discrimi-nation. I had three brothers and myself. My parents made no distinction in what I could do and what they could do, so I grew up in a bubble where gender dyna-mics were pretty equalized.” She delved deeper, explaining how from a young age she yearned to be a voice for the unheard and underprivileged. Reflecting on her internship at SOS Village after her O levels, she realized that “there is a lot of grey, a lot of pain, and inequality”.

Roshaneh Zafar: empowering women through microfinance

Her teenage years were marked by spending time with Asma Jahangir and Hina Jilani, which ignited a passion for law or finance. However, during her time at Wharton Business School, she realized this wasn’t her true calling. Recalling her undergraduate years, she said, “I was taught to make money for people who really don’t need it. During my junior and senior years, I interviewed on Wall Street and realized I couldn’t fit in there. I come from a country with so much inequality, and why would I want to be a cog in the wheel, helping others make money who don’t value it.”

Breaking the mold, Roshaneh Zafar gained valuable experience working for the World Bank in Islamabad for four years. Reminiscing about her experience during this time, she said: “I got to travel across the country. I was very fortunate in that way. My work revolved around researching the impact of the World Bank’s social development programs on women. I gave voice to countless Pakistani women, which was amazing, and they would tell me that just because you are educated, it doesn’t mean we have different aspirations; we want good education for our children, healthcare, and a good home, but we lack economic opportunities. I kept thinking about how to address this and mobilize women.”

This realization spurred Roshaneh Zafar to search for a way to address the economic inequality she witnessed. Driven by a passion for helping others, especially women, she found her true calling after meeting Muhammad Yunus, the founder of Grameen Bank. She traveled to Bangladesh for 3-4 months, gaining a deep understanding of the bank’s foundation built on solidarity and social collateral. With a $10,000 loan from Muhammad Yunus, she returned to Pakistan and founded the Kashf Foundation, the country’s first non-banking microfinance service.

“These stories are ones with which people can relate. You sometimes have to sugarcoat as well. You need to have romance, and you need to have good actors who attract the youth. Crafting impactful narratives takes time. We spend a year and a half researching social issues and collaborating with writers to create sensitive scripts. We don’t preach to the audience; instead, we weave social issues into the background as a character itself. – Roshaneh Zafar

This defining moment marked the beginning of her journey to empower countless women and transform lives through financial independence. Her commitment to her work knew no bounds as she navigated countless challenges while laying the foundation of her brainchild. She mentioned, “For the first two years, I worked as a loan officer. I essentially served as a social mobilizer, going house to house to convince women to take our loans and participate in our training programs. Many women would say, ‘Don’t talk to us, talk to our men. You don’t know our culture.’”

Even with such opposition, she did not lose hope. After nine months, she was able to convince the first group of five women in September 1996. As she recalled, this time a genuine smile lit up her face. Today, Kashf Foundation has expanded its work to over 68 districts in Pakistan, providing PKR 272 billion in loans to 7 million female micro-entrepreneurs and creating 2.5 million jobs.

Ms. Zafar narrated an example of one of her clients, describing how “many women become entrepreneurs out of necessity.” She explained, “One of my clients, whose husband used to work as a guard in a factory, was leading a comfortable life until her husband met with an accident and could no longer work. She had an idea of supplying thread rolls to the factory. The first thing she did was to send her children back to school and also began hiring other people. Now, she has a mini-workshop.”

Even after working for many years, her passion remains undimmed, evident in her continued visits to the field to witness the impact of her work.

Roshaneh Zafar: empowering women through microfinance

As she speaks about her foundation, her sincerity is obvious, reflecting her deep commitment to her cause. She shared her sentiments regarding the positive transformation facilitated by Kashf Foundation, stating, “The greatest impact we’ve achieved is providing a pathway to a better future for women and their families during these times. That, to me, signifies the most significant change.”

Expressing optimism for the future of women, she added, “I have high hopes for the increasing participation of women in the workforce. Having a seat at the table is crucial, and I anticipate this will prompt changes in companies’ HR policies, fostering greater inclusivity. Moreover, I envision a rise in women’s mobility, facilitating increased opportunities for them.”

Roshaneh Zafar’s influence extends beyond microfinance. She has embraced the power of storytelling to amplify her message of empowerment. Reflecting on her expanding role in producing drama serials under the banner of ‘edu-tainment’—dramas that combine education with entertainment—she emphasized the importance of realism in their dramas, stating, “These stories are ones with which people could relate. You sometimes have to sugarcoat as well. You need to have romance, you need to have good actors who attract the youth, the OST is also an advertisement for your drama, plus we also have different tracks in the dramas that include both rural and urban areas to attract different demo-graphics.”

“Crafting impactful narratives takes time. We spend a year and a half researching social issues and collaborating with writers to create sensitive scripts. We don’t preach to the audience; instead, we weave social issue(s) into the background as a character itself. Our goal isn’t high ratings (TRPs) but a social transformation. We aim to change mindsets by holding a mirror to society, revealing its flaws and offering solutions. It’s about sparking dialogue and creating a path out of problems.

Roshaneh Zafar: empowering women through microfinance

Authencity is the key. Our stories are based on real experiences, featuring relatable characters with human flaws. Ultimately, we want to showcase the triumph of the human spirit.”

When describing the collaborative process behind their projects, she expressed the importance of teamwork. “We have a creative team. Muneeza Hashimi is a part of it and we brainstorm ideas for 2-3 days to establish the plot. We do writer interviews and see the work that is out there, and then we match the character with the actor. Then we leave the director to do the magic.”

Without a doubt, Roshaneh Zafar has forged a path entirely her own, pioneering and unwavering in her pursuit of lofty goals. Her sincerity is evident in both her words and actions, illustrating an unabated effort to impact millions of lives. With each conversation, her dedication to creating a lasting impact shines through. We can only hope to see Roshaneh Zafar extending her work to create greater impact, alongside the Kashf Foundation’s continued mission to transform even more lives.

Roshaneh Zafar: empowering women through microfinance