Challenges and drivers

Whilst seeking to economically empower women in Pakistan, Kashf has faced many challenges over its 20-year history. However, the approach of its founder Roshaneh Zafar has seen it create solutions and overcome difficult times, whilst always keeping the clients’ needs central. She explains that the primary challenges the organisation faces fall into a framework of three types – macro, institutional and market related – and that with each challenge it has had to adapt and grow.

Macro challenges

“We provide financial products and services to low-income women, essentially those running home-based businesses. Most earn between USD 3 to USD 5 a day, and they don’t keep cash flow statements or balance sheets. Typical credit checking is difficult because there’s very little information. One of our challenges is to assess the entrepreneur and analyse the household’s economy and dynamics. We’ve had to develop tools that can give us a sense of net worth. We know the average performance of different types of businesses, where they get their stock, and can get a sense of their credit history. We regularly collect data and have a strong loan tracking system. It’s not always successful, but our delinquency rate is very low at only 0.5% on average. We’ve figured out how to work in an environment where there is little data, irregular streams of income and informal systems.”

Institutional challenges

Like many organisations, human resource management, leadership training and succession planning are key operational challenges. “Investing in staff training and building their capacity is ongoing for us. Even though the realm of microfinance is changing, for example with branchless banking options, we can’t do away with human contact. Investing a lot in our staff is an asset, but it’s also a cost.”

Market challenges

As a market frontrunner and innovator, Kashf has stimulated and created its own competition. “We were the first to open urban markets in Punjab, and a lot of competitors followed suit. When we initially entered the market, only 20% of all outstanding loans in this region were made to women. Now it’s over 50%. We developed the proof of concept when it comes to women’s financial empowerment in Pakistan.” Kashf is also the first and only to offer a female-centric health insurance product. “It’s our largest program and covers 1.5 million women, men and children. So far no one else is replicating it, but it won’t be long before we have competition. The product’s viability is proven. We’re also looking at the rural finance market for women and have developed a group-based cash flow product. We’re opening-up new markets and new opportunities."

Our success has been phenomenal but when I think about women in my country, we still have a long way to go.
Roshaneh Zafar, founder and director of Kashf Foundation

Education and working with schools

Roshaneh Zafar’s approach to creating solutions has also given rise to working with schools. Pakistan has one of the world’s largest number of children out of school, and she wanted to address it. “Our impact assessments triggered us to work with schools. We learned that when a woman earns more, she puts better quality food on the family table, and puts her children into private schools because the quality is perceived to be better than in public schools. We wanted to close the loophole, so we developed a low-cost private school product. Our idea was to provide finance, but when we did our research, we discovered that finance was not the only need. The schools needed support with management training, book-keeping, planning, rosters for attendance, and teacher training. Quality of a learning environment is important, so we collaborated with one of Pakistan’s largest private school networks, who designed the teacher training and then trained our trainers. We now have 15 trainers who only train teachers and school owners.”

Shifting mindset

When I set up Kashf’s first strategic plan we expected to reach 10,000 women by 2003, but by 2003 we had actually reached 60,000 women. Similarly, our other plans have also exceeded our expectations, but we still have a lot of work to do. One-on-one, our success has been phenomenal, and there are so many client stories I can share, but on the other hand, when I think about women in my country and read the local papers, we still have a long way to go. Women are still treated as commodities here. Because of this, we campaign through a dramatised television series, which is broadcast on mainstream channels. It’s a microscope of what happens to women in Pakistan. Our public service campaigns are on different topics from child rights, child sexual abuse, and violence against women. But they always give a message of hope. These are issues bigger than helping our entrepreneurs succeed. It’s about creating an environment about where women are respected, one in which we can support each other.”

Triodos Microfinance Fund and Triodos Fair Share Fund are the first international lenders to Kashf Foundation.