SDG16+ Champions of Change
Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities.
As the founder and President of Seed Out, Zain Ashraf works on providing interest-free loans to deserving individuals living below the poverty line. Seed Out is one of the first NGOs in Pakistan to leverage technology to fulfill its development aims and as a result has established a unique nexus between financial inclusion and technological advancement. The main mission of Seed Out is to provide quality and low-cost microfinance services in an attempt to alleviate poverty and enable beneficiaries to live their lives with dignity via developing entrepreneurship.
Zain Ashraf’s contribution to development work in Pakistan has earned him international recognition. He was recently featured in Forbes 30 Under 30 in the Social Entrepreneur category as well as being conferred with the Commonwealth Youth Award for Excellence in Development Work in 2018.
We spoke Zain Ashraf to learn more about his work and what drives him:
What ignited your pursuit for more peaceful, just and inclusive societies?
When I was growing up, many women would come to our doorstep asking for money. Throughout the years, I saw no improvement in their financial condition. This motivated me to build a platform where we could transform borrowers into donors. Pakistan needed a transparent, technology based, interest-free platform capable of developing quality entrepreneurs who can contribute to the country’s ecosystem. Pakistanis are amongst the most charitable people in the world, yet a huge segment of the population is living below the poverty line. Charity is not the right answer to the challenges that extreme poverty brings. Instead, enabling individuals to establish their own small business is a better alternative. Crowdfunding micro entrepreneurs is a huge challenge, and introducing such a platform in the NGO sector of Pakistan was never going to be easy. There are other organizations working to lend microfinance to aspiring micro entrepreneurs, but we are the only ones offering interest-free loans. Since its launch, Seed Out has helped more than 1385 successful micro-entrepreneurs establish their own small businesses, provided business and financial training to more than 300 female entrepreneurs, and helped them set up several small and smart businesses.
To achieve a peaceful, just, and inclusive world, what does success look like to you? And what are the key factors in achieving this vision?
Success to me is the eradication of poverty. The vicious cycle of poverty is so ruthless that it prevents those affected by it to live fulfilling lives, and it ultimately gives rise to social unrest. Until and unless the basic needs of all individuals are met, the question of developing a peaceful, just, and inclusive world can’t even be considered. Peaceful coexistence is only possible when everyone is provided with a fair and equal chance to grow socially and economically. Every human being is entitled to fundamental rights that can only be exercised in an equitable society. That is why we at Seed Out are highly committed to helping aspiring micro-entrepreneurs to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty by establishing their own micro-businesses.
How does your work contribute to the SDG16+ goals?
The fundamental goal of my organization “Seed Out” is poverty alleviation. We provide aspiring micro entrepreneurs 100% interest free financial support to start, expand, and/or sustain their small businesses, build capacity and improve their living standards. Seed Out is different from other organizations in the same field because of the size of financial support we offer. Our main belief behind this idea is that economic vulnerability poses a great threat to peaceful existence, and that better economic prospects hold potential to yield satisfying and harmonious modes of survival.
At Seed Out, we do not allow any room for prejudice, and discriminatory practices while accepting, processing, and awarding applications. We also take strict measures to ensure that no child labor is involved. As far as Seed Out management-employee relationships are concerned, we ensure fair, just, and inclusive conditions – and we believe in providing equal opportunities for all regardless of their religion, color, ethnicity, gender, language etc. No nation can dream of a peaceful, just, and inclusive society if citizens’ needs are not met and they aren’t provided with equal opportunities along with inclusive representation.
How has COVID-19 impacted your work? Are there any lessons learned from the pandemic that you hope to apply in future work?
Seed Out has a robust Cloud Portal Management System that allows us to continue our work uninterrupted. Even when the whole country has to observe strict lockdown due to the upsurge in COVID-19 cases, Seed Out is able to keep its operations going. However, we saw COVID-19’s damaging impact on our beneficiaries due to the complete shutdown of entrepreneurial activities. These micro-entrepreneurs don’t possess the means to sustain themselves through such circumstances, and it eventually led to the collapse of their small businesses. We saw delays in the payment of installments, losses due to operational shifts and the relocation of family units, which critically impacted us and our beneficiaries.
What advice do you have for those seeking to make a difference for a more peaceful, just, and inclusive world?
The COVID-19 pandemic taught us many crucial lessons. The havoc caused by this virus made us realize how unprepared we are to respond to such outbreaks. We need to be proactive when dealing with COVID. As a nation, we did not have any plans to deal with such a massive disruption. We have to improve our early preparedness, rapid response & mitigating strategies, and we should conduct more rigorous capacity building training for our beneficiaries, especially regarding the use of the digital space, crisis intervention and health safety. We believe that having accurate demographic data is very important, and that organizations like ours have access to databases that can help the Government respond more efficiently to future crises.