Fellowship Updates

Immersion Loops

May 24, 2012

Last night, I spoke at The SF Acumen Fund Chapter‘s event and someone asked a question that struck me as important.  They asked about Acumen’s perspective on design.  My gut reaction was that Acumen Fund is not a design firm, but the question warranted more consideration.

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Bavidra Mohan, another Fellow in my cohort, took the lead in highlighting the importance Acumen and its investees place on human centered design principles.  In particular, Bavidra’s role at D.Light (incidentally the full name is D.Light Design) was to gather feedback from the end customer in rural India and take those lessons all the way back up the supply chain to D.Light’s manufacturing plant in Shenzhen, China.

While Bavidra was speaking, it occurred to me that design is not only a popular trend (we actually held the event in a design company’s space) but that it has now become an essential component of how anything is developed, from internal processes, to advertisements, to product messages.  While it may not be the first thing you think of when you consider diligencing a BOP business, it is true that Acumen is fundamentally in the business of investing in products and services that are designed in a way that meets the mass market (think BOP) consumers’ true needs. Read more »

A Tribute to Development Workers

September 9, 2011

I never thought working in the flood affected areas of Pakistan would be so hot (temperature-wise).  One time while I was on site the power went out from 1pm to 8pm as part of routine load shedding.

It was nearly 50 degrees Celsius (120+F) outside and without our fan, who knows how hot it became inside our little oven, er…office.  Even Pakistanis thought the area was rough.

Every time I visited the site, I was incredibly impressed by the physical conditions our field team put up with on a regular basis.  In the middle of nowhere, they lived in extreme heat and still managed to make incredible progress constructing a 166 home village for flood victims.  Read more »

A Rubberband Kind of Year: See You Later Pakistan

August 25, 2011

Perhaps it is fitting that my last month in Pakistan has been the month of Ramzan (Ramadan).  For those unfamiliar, Ramzan is the month of sacrifice in the Islamic calendar.  Jawad Aslam, my CEO, close friend and resident expert on all things Muslim, described Ramzan to me as “religious boot camp”.

On the surface, Ramzan is a month of fasting—no food,  no water, no cigarettes, no consumption of any kind from about 4 am to sunset.  Many shops are closed in the afternoon, and restaurants open around 6pm to serve a packed house the moment the fast breaks.

The fast, however, is merely a symbolic (and admittedly difficult) gesture that represents a deeper sense of sacrifice.  Muslims use Ramzan to give up bad habits, spend more time with themselves & Allah, and seek further enlightenment.

Though Ramzan makes it impossible to schedule goodbye lunches and teas with the many friends I’ll be leaving behind here in Pakistan, I’m glad to experience it at the end of my year here.

As I look back to the kind of year its been, I see so many parallels with Ramzan.  I gave up a lot to be here, and in the process I’ve come to know myself & the world around me in a much deeper way than before.  Jawad jokes that I’ve aged 5 years in 10 months.

At the outset of this journey, I wrote that I expected to be stretched like a rubberband in the coming year.  When a rubber band stretches, it snaps back, but it ends up larger than it was before.

My hope was that the experience would broaden my horizons, but not so quickly that I snapped.  It seems to have worked out.

Admittedly, the tendons in my knees have tightened because I never quite felt comfortable running outside in Pakistan, but my perspective has been stretched beyond expectations. Read more »

The World Can’t Afford to NOT Have Poverty?

March 31, 2011

At present, I’m in Nairobi, Kenya meeting with the rest of the Acumen Fund Fellows.  What better opportunity than now to conduct a debate across our blogs.

Khuram kicked off the debate by saying (see his blog here for the full post): “ I was just thinking..That given the resource constraints in this world, it is essential that we have poor people. Otherwise, if we all had money – we would want more cars, more protein based diets, more IPods, more flatscreen TV’s etc. Can you imagine the impact that would have on our environment and agriculture? More animals needed to feed richer hungrier people >> more agricultural resources needed to feed animals; more oil needed to fuel the demand for more cars; more industrial production required for bigger wallets >> greater impact of carbon emissions and climate change >> greater number of natural disasters…..”

Mario replied (see his blog here), pointing out that there are two kinds of poverty: poverty on e and poverty two.  Poverty “one”refers to people who lack access to basic human needs.  On the other hand,  poverty “two” refers to people who have basic needs met, but are at the lower end of the income distribution in their community.

What do you think?  Can the world afford to NOT have poverty?

I would posit that the reality is quite the opposite.  Not only can the world afford to eliminate poverty, the world can’t afford to let it persist.

There are two things at play here:

Read more »

The First Brick

March 24, 2011

Living in Pakistan far from home and my friends, its only natural that there are moments when I wonder what exactly I’m doing here.  And then there are prophetic moments when the clarity of my purpose washes over me with force.   This was a moment of comprehension.

At Ansaar Management Company (AMC), we are laying the foundation for Pakistan’s future, quite literally.  In a country that sees more poverty than it’s government is willing to prioritize, a lack of affordable housing means that 30-50% of one’s hard earned rupees goes to paying rent.  When 120 US dollars per month is considered a normal family income, its hard to survive off of what’s left over.

By building vibrant housing communities, AMC is helping the poor invest in an asset and build a community.  We help the poor stake out a turning point in their lives.

After years of preparation (slightly delayed due to our moral insistence not to pay speed money for government approvals), we are finally ready to set the tractors loose on our first major housing community.  Today is the day. Read more »

Five Reasons Business Week is Wrong About Pakistan

December 23, 2010

Last week, NextBillion’s news feed featured an article from Business Week entitled, “A Silver Lining in Pakistan’s Floods”. The premise of the article was that “This natural disaster may have given the country an opportunity to tackle a recurring point of contention in Pakistan—feudalism.”

The author went on to state that aid money going to Pakistan should focus on job-creation strategies in addition to housing.  The article argued that the provision of jobs in relief work and an emphasis on business training would pave the way for the end of Pakistan’s feudal system and sustained improvements for the country’s poorest.

Though I appreciate the optimism, I respectfully disagree with Business Week.  As I’ve written before, Pakistan is a land of opportunity, but it is also a land that has many needs.  Yes, it is critical to create jobs, but it would be an error to believe that jobs alone will solve the issue of poverty.

Pakistan is akin to a rose bush nurtured inside of a closed box. Read more »

Mad Max Puts On New Clothes

December 16, 2010

In Maurice Sendack’s classic, “Where The Wild Things Are”, Mad Max dons a white wolf like costume and imagines a world that couldn’t be more different than our own.

I’m convinced that Seth Godin, a world renown marketing expert, is Mad Max all grown up.  Seth isn’t angry at his mom or his dog, but he is angry at the lizard brain inside all of us; the part of us that wants to stifle initiative and new ideas.

Seth Godin sets himself apart from others. Recently, I was lucky enough to meet him Read more »

Talking Trash

December 9, 2010

“Walk into any Pakistani’s home and it will be in pristine condition,” said Amjad Aslam, the Chief Marketing Officer at Ansaar Management Company (AMC), “but outside our walls you’ll find trash in the streets.”   A day later I observed as a couple riding on a motor bike threw their trash AT a garbage container rather than in it.  They sped off without looking back.

Amjad went on, “Pakistan lacks a sense of accountability for public spaces.”  The picture above is from Gulberg, one of the nicest parts of Lahore.  This is not a problem restricted to the poor; the trash-ic jam I snapped a photo of is evidence that even in the nicest parts of the city, waste disposal is an issue.  As Amjad explained, Read more »

Pakistan: A Land of Misunderstood Opportunity

December 2, 2010

Let’s play a game. I’m composing a song in my head and I want you to guess what song it is just by listening to the taps I make on the table. I’ve picked an easy song for you: “Twinkle, twinkle, little star”, so you should get it. Ready? TAP TAP, tap tap, TAP tap TAAAP, tap tap TAP TAP, TAP tap TAAAP…”. Within my mind, the orchestra is in full swing and I can even hear a gorgeous voice belting out the lyrics, but you look at me dumbfounded. You just heard: “tap tap tap tap tap tap tap, tap tap tap tap tap tap tap” and you’re curious why I have picked such an ugly and boring song. Read more »

I'll be going away for a little while…

November 11, 2010

In nature, caterpillars take some time off from the world to grow into something beautiful.  At the moment, I’m sitting on the plane, heading to Pakistan – my own personal cocoon.  I hope that my time abroad will teach me new skills and help me to reflect on what is to come next.

Read more »

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