As a long-time partner of Acumen, I thought I knew the organization’s work very well, but after a recent trip to Pakistan, I was pleasantly surprised to see the extent of Acumen’s impact in the country.
My journey started after being invited to attend Acumen’s first-ever Pakistan Partner Trip with a group of 11 partners from around the world. The five-day trip was an immersive experience, allowing us to witness the work of Acumen’s innovative investments in education, energy, and clean water, and to meet their dynamic Pakistan Fellows.
The first stop on our trip was the Fellows Selection Conference in Karachi. Narrowed down from more than 700 applicants, 50 fellowship candidates were invited to attend a full day of interviews and group activities to assess their readiness to take on the immersive leadership development journey. Of this group, only 20 individuals are selected to join the next cohort of Acumen Fellows.
The Fellows candidates represented the full diversity of Pakistan. We met a brave young lady and former hockey player who set up an athletic center for low-income girls in Lahore and a young man who founded a micro-finance organization that works to empower women in Sindh through financial independence. These emerging leaders are not waiting for the government to step in to address society’s problems, they are taking the initiative to help their own communities. They represent the inner strength, passion, and fearlessness that the world needs and are brought together by a mission to change the world.
We also had a chance to meet Pakistan Fellows from past Acumen cohorts. Operating from a tiny office in the middle of Karachi, Mohammad Ali started Roshni Helpline to help recover missing children. Mohammad has developed a complex informant system comprised of street children, shopkeepers, and the transgender community to help bring the children back home to their families. It’s incredible to see what he has accomplished with such meager resources and little to no help from the government. Local leaders like Mohammad are exemplary of Acumen’s leadership pipeline that equips individuals with the skills and network to become blossom into effective change-makers in their communities.
Struck by Mohammad’s incredible determination, the Partners on our trip decided to help fund Roshni Helpline’s expansion plans to recover more children, lobby the government, and leverage technology and the media for greater impact. We were acting in the spirit of Acumen, recognizing the potential of new approaches to tackle the world’s biggest challenges.
Next, we visited several of Acumen’s portfolio companies to see the impact of its investment companies first hand. It’s great to sit in a boardroom to discuss impact numbers, but witnessing a child smiling in a classroom and seeing clean drinking water shops in operation are truly inspiring experiences.
Nasra Public Schools was one of the investments we visited. The chain of low-cost schools provides quality education to over 3,500 children, of which 40 percent are women. Since Acumen’s first investment in 2015, Nasra has grown from seven to 14 campuses. Thousands of children who had to travel miles to access an inadequate education will now be able to walk to a quality school in their neighborhoods.
As our rewarding albeit exhausting trip came to an end, my colleagues and I were filled with a great sense of hope and a deep understanding that where needs are greater than resources, donor-driven models alone will not work. We need sustainable solutions to bring about long-lasting impact and change the systems that prevent human potential from being fully realized, and that work will take all of us. Acumen understands the value and importance of building a community. It is the only way poverty can be disrupted. Fellows and investee companies have much to learn from one another, and Acumen provides the perfect platform to do just that.
Here’s to Acumen’s perennial quest to improve the lives of those who seek opportunity and dignity.
Malik Sarwar is an Acumen Partner and the CEO of K2 Leaders Inc. Malik and his wife, Najmi, work to provide education to young women in rural low-income communities in Pakistan through a non profit organization based in the U.S. called Developments in Literacy. Malik, his wife, and their two daughters and two sons are avid scuba divers and hikers.