It is now July 2010, and I am well into my summer internship at Acumen Fund. Earlier this month, when I read the devastating news about the suicide attack on the shrine of Hazrat Data Gunj Baksh in Lahore, in which nearly 40 people were murdered by suspected Taliban extremism, I was reminded in an extremely graphic way of why I am at Acumen and what I hope to accomplish here. The last two years have been brutal for all Pakistanis and while some of us choose to remain aloof and removed – safe in our houses on the right side of the bridge and behind our guarded enclaves, blaming the unseen hand of an unseen enemy – it was in fact only a matter of time before the inequalities and inequities that we have allowed to fester in our society caught up with us.
The Taliban, extremism, radicalism and terrorism is our wakeup call to a world that is changing, and a call to realize that neither the government alone nor traditional aid will bring about a just and equitable change in Pakistan. It is people like Jawad Aslam, Roshaneh Zafar and Dr. Sono Khangarani who will provide people with decent and dignified alternatives to handouts and begging. Unless people see a decent future for their children and themselves, one in which every citizen can maintain a basic standard of living, educate their children and live in a decent manner, the Taliban will continue to recruit from amongst the disenfranchised masses and provide them with a violent alternative to bring about their vision of equity.
Acumen Fund is the means to such a future – they are working to provide energy, clean water, healthcare, affordable quality housing, and improved farming methods to Pakistan, India and East Africa. They have approved $11.1 million to invest in Pakistan over the past decade in numerous projects that are expected to be self-sustaining and profitable business operations.
Before this summer I was no stranger to Acumen – they recruit regularly at my college campus (LUMS) and I was fascinated by the organization and its approach to ‘solving’ poverty-related issues. However, like many of my peers I put aside my idealism and decided to go the corporate route and to leave social entrepreneurship to the activists and dreamers. After my MBA, I worked at a major multinational in Pakistan and one day in 2007 I received an email from our CSR office which asked for volunteers from marketing, sales and supply chain to work with an Acumen investee – Micro Drip. I jumped at the opportunity and found myself immersed in the problems of selling drip irrigation systems to poor farmers in rural Sindh. To my surprise, I actually found there were many similarities between selling FMCG products to consumers in urban and peri-uran areas and marketing to rural farmers. Consumers, it seemed, wanted the same thing, albeit in different settings. Sales teams, more often than not, also encountered the same hurdles in selling to the BoP that they did to ‘regular consumers’. This was an eye opener and cemented my belief in the power of markets, even in the unlikeliest of settings.
It is this belief and a deep admiration of Acumen Fund’s mission and approach to some of the world’s most intractable problems that brought me here again in 2010. I was studying for an MPA at NYU and I decided to apply to Acumen Fund, my top choice for a summer position. My experience this summer has been nothing short of a revelation – every day at Acumen brings new surprises, challenges and a renewed commitment to their vision. Whether I am performing diligence for a potential investment, digging through data on older deals or consulting with entrepreneurs and colleagues in the country offices, sitting in Monday Morning Meetings or on portfolio calls, I am constantly reminded of why I am here.
Sitting in far away Manhattan, an entire wall covered with pictures of our investments (both active and exited) show our customers: a hopeful old woman, a hard-working man in his yellow turban, and wide-eyed children. These serve as a constant reminder that we must do our best to ensure that our customers get the goods and services they need, and can live with dignity and grace.
Faiza Mawjee is a Summer Associate on the Portfolio team at the New York office. She is an MPA candidate at NYU Wagner School of Public Service, specializing in international development. The Summer Spotlight series features posts by Acumen Fund Summer Associates from around the world.