With A Little Help From My Friends….

Dr Amjad Saqib is the force behind one of the most impressive and successful private microfinance projects ever run in Pakistan. He has helped transform the lives of millions across the country through financial empowerment and has now turned his focus on education. Arsalan Haider talks to the man to find out what he has been up to recently.

Tell us about Akhuwat’s history and the aim behind the organisation.

While working as GM at the Punjab Rural Support Program (PRSP) in 2001, I strongly detested the 20 percent interest charged on loan distribution. One reason was that the policy was in direct conflict with the teachings of Islam. The other was that in the formal banking sector, the interest was much lower, but available only to ‘creditworthy’ affluent individuals. It was there that I planned of starting a micro finance program where loans were in form of Qarz-e-Hasna and benevolent loans. I took my idea to a small gathering of friends and won over their support. With an initial donation of a humble 10,000 rupees from Saleem Ranjha and undying support of Dr Kamran Shams, Dr Izhar Ul Haq and Humayon Ehsan, we laid the foundation of Akhuwat. The first loan was given out to a woman.

In the initial years, Akhuwat was simply a philanthropic venture to see how interest free micro finance would do. However, by 2003, the donations had increased to a whopping Rs 1.5 million and the loan recovery rate was 100 percent. Consequently, it was decided to initiate Akhuwat as a proper and registered organization under the Societies Registration Act of 1860.

From 2001 to 2003, Akhuwat managed to receive donations at an exceptional scale. The work that was once handled by me and one other employee was delegated. These two years became the “action research”, laying the foundation of a great movement and an unmatchable institution to date. The investments made by the small team eventually lead to the establishment of Akhuwat’s first branch in Township, Lahore.

Akhuwat has various education projects including schools, colleges and university. What are the education challenges facing Pakistan, and now what do you think that how these challenges can be met?

Akhuwat envisions a poverty-free society. We believe education is a long term investment to accomplish this. Education is a fundamental right, all young people should have access to quality education and no one should be left behind for lack of financial resources. Conforming to its tradition of extending a helping hand to the under-privileged segment of society, Akhuwat now focuses on making quality education accessible to the poor and destitute. It believes that every child deserves a chance to be educated; not only does it promote learning in terms of the regular curriculum, it also fine-tunes students to become productive and efficient human beings in all walks of life.

How many students are currently enrolled in Akhuwat’s educational institutions and how Akhuwat manages funds for running these institutions?

Around 600 students are enrolled in Akhuwat higher education institutions located in Kasur and Faisalabad. Akhuwat-Faisalabad Institute for Research Science and Technology, offers a BS degree in Bio Technology, directing young minds towards purposeful research. Akhuwat College Kasur, is a state of the art residential college for boys, offering a variety of intermediate programs. Akhuwat College students are selected through a national merit based selection process. High achieving students from economically marginalized households from all provinces and areas of Pakistan come together for two years. At Akhuwat Colleges, students not only acquire quality education but are also provided the opportunity to develop as competitive young people ready to take on the challenges of higher education. The intermingling of students from multiple geographic, ethnic and religious backgrounds instills compassion, care and above all, Akhuwat in their lives, creating bonds of lifelong friendships. Akhuwat has recently initiated a pre-primary School at Chakwal with splan to upgrade annually. The idea is to create a model of education where children are groomed to become compassionate and caring citizens of Pakistan, where the need to co-exist peacefully and to sustain our environment is instilled from an early phase in life. 

Akhuwat has also adopted some government schools. What role does Akhuwat play in their rehabilitation and why there was need to adopt them?

Akhuwat’s philosophy of brotherhood bonds it to all philanthropic endeavors, so we responded immediately to the call from the Punjab Government to build public-private partnerships for reviving 4,600 non-functional schools. Akhuwat has adopted 301 public primary schools in six districts of Punjab. These non-functional schools with under 15,000 enrollment at the time of adoption by Akhuwat are now proud to have around 50,000 students, 1700+ teachers and improved academic facilities, including toilets in every school. These teachers are provided professional development and training courses on a regular basis. In addition to compliance to Punjab Government’s parameters, internal quality is assured through a robust network of coordinators and monitors.

Here I’d like to add another collaboration with the Government of Sindh. The NJV Government Higher Secondary School lies on a sprawling multi-acre campus on main MA Jinnah Road, in the heart of Karachi’s historic Saddar district. This historic monument was established by Sir Bartle Frere in 1855 and is the first public school in Sindh. This school was named after Rao Narayan Jagannath Vaidya who had worked for many years with zeal and self-sacrifice for the advancement of education in Sindh, NJV was a premier school that attracted the brightest minds from all over the province. Akhuwat adopted the school in 2015 with a mission to restore NJV to its former glory and preserve its heritage. NJV now competes with the best high schools in Karachi, particularly in terms of infrastructure and education facilities, these include a gymnasium, new IT rooms, a state of the art library, cafeteria, a renovated primary school building, art department and arts college. The progressively improving quality of education can be measured by the phenomenal increase in admission applications at each level.

Tell us about the how the idea of Akhuwat University came to your mind? Why was there a need for a free university?

here is a lot of potential in young people. Pakistan has a significant population of young people who are the future of the country. A research suggests that students can’t pursue higher education because many belong to a socio-economic background that excludes education as a priority area. The concept of a free university primarily encourages students who have the potential to excel in their fields of education; providing them with equal opportunities will eventually lead them to change lives, become future leaders to build better societies. 

Would you like to share details of your university project? What disciplines and subjects do you want your university to offer students? Are you going to introduce new subjects that are more relevant in the changed scenario?

Planning for Akhuwat University is underway. Our aim is to start with programs in Liberal Arts. Currently we are developing a women’s college in Chakwal. The purpose of this college is to educate, empower and equip young women with the right set of education and skill set and develop their potential to become leaders, influences and good will ambassadors in various economic circles. The first batch, we have chosen fundamental and critical course disciplines like education, economics and English language and literature. We will study national and international trends and modify courses and programs accordingly.

Higher education in Pakistan has seen boost in last two decades but still very few Pakistani universities managed to get to top 500 rankings. Where do you see AKhuwat University in next five years?

We would like to see Akhuwat university stand as a model institution that produces competent, well rounded and value oriented graduates who can contribute to the development of the country and also be sought by the international markets. We envision it as a prestigious university that operates purely on merit and is considered as a university of choice by students. 

 

Akhuwat has turned its focus on making quality education accessible to the poor and destitute. It believes that every child deserves a chance to be educated

Do you think universities in Pakistan are providing quality education as per international standards?

There has been an addition of universities in Pakistan’s education sector recently and some of these institutions have made a mark by producing a generation of intellectuals who carry the values of research, innovation and entrepreneurship and are able to apply modern techniques to traditional methods and practices. The change is visible with companies replacing individuals with fresher perspectives and creating a more holistic approach towards productivity. Some newer universities are struggling, job markets for graduating students will rank them and only the best will survive. 

There are numerous private universities operating in Pakistan which are providing quality education. Do you think, those universities would see Akhuwat as their competitor attracting their target market?

At Akhuwat, we would like to aim for the highest standards, quality education and inclusion of students from all over Pakistan. We believe a merit based criteria would encourage the students to compete for a free, quality, international level education in their home country.

My team and I firmly believe that in education we must talk of collaborations and cooperation. Given the population trends in Pakistan, there is tremendous space for more quality universities. But I must add that competition is a healthy feature if used positively for improving quality. 

Arslan Haider is Editor Reporter of Academia Magazine. Prior to joining Academia he has worked with leading national dailies. He has can be reached at arslan.haider@academiamag.com and on twitter @arslanhaider14.