Roshaneh Zafar, founder of Kashf, receives honorary degree from University of Antwerp

March 29, 2023

The honorary degree for general merit was awarded to Roshaneh Zafar. She received the award for her financial empowerment of women in Pakistan. She dedicated the award to the women entrepreneurs in her country, as well as to all her colleagues at Kashf Foundation. As part of the annual report in 2019, we had an interview with her (shortly after the Covid-19 outbreak). On the occasion of her honorary doctorate, we are pleased to publish the interview, which is still relevant, now here on the website.

Conferral of Roshaneh Zafar’s Honorary degree for General Merit with Herman Van Goethem, rector of University of Antwerp

Gender equality in Pakistan. A silent revolution?

According to a report of the WEF, World Economic Forum, Pakistan ranks at the bottom of the country list in terms of gender equality between men and women. Even though performance has improved slightly compared to a few years ago, the numbers remain rather disappointing. Only 25% of the women have a job, whilst 85% of the male population is working. And only 18% of the professional income is earned by women. That is about the lowest percentage worldwide. And those are the official figures. “Many women are working in the informal economy. Agriculture is the most important sector by far. As many as 70% of the agricultural work is done by women. And 70% of those women aren’t paid. And do you think they are recognized for the work they do? No!”  

We listen to Roshaneh Zafar, founder of the Kashf Foundation. Our Pakistani partner organisation Kashf has done an impressive job in respect of gender equality. She is the best person to tell us how she succeeded in empowering the most impoverished women in her country and how she taught those women to free themselves and their families from the stifling effect of poverty. 

Roshaneh Zafar was born and raised in Pakistan’s second largest city and cultural capital, Lahore, which is close to the border with India. Roshaneh grew up as the youngest of a wealthy, liberal-minded family; her parents felt it was important to give Roshaneh the same opportunities as her three older brothers. After secondary school in Lahore, Roshaneh decided, with her family’s approval, to move to the United States to attend Business School in Wharton. 

As a woman, were you an exception in your community because you studied abroad?
Zafar:”For sure. Most girls from my community stayed in Pakistan at that time, which was the early 1990s. After high school, hardly anyone went abroad, let alone to the United States. The parents of most of my friends did not let them continue their studies. Do you know the film Mona Lisa Smile, which portrays the lives of girls in an American school in the 1950s? Until recently, the life of girls in Pakistan was quite similar: the main reason for girls to go to school is to learn how to be a good wife. Many of my friends could have become scientists, engineers, doctors or economists. They could have contributed to the solutions needed for life’s bigger issues. But they never got that chance. I realised early in life how privileged I was and I am grateful for the opportunities I have been given.“   

Why did you choose to study economics? 

Zafar: ”As a young Pakistani woman, I was keen on gaining economic independence and earning money. The financial world seemed the best way to achieve that goal. I was 17 and dreamed of becoming an investment banker. A dream I held on to until I graduated from Wharton. I even had a job interview on Wall Street once.  

After I graduated, I started to realise that this was not my dream at all. I wanted to be more than a mere cog in a big machine. Besides, I would only make people, who already had a lot of money, even richer. That suddenly seemed rather pointless and I decided to change course. Instead, I went to Yale University to do a Masters in Development Economics.“ 

After obtaining a master in Development Economics, it seems quite logical to start working at the World Bank
Zafar: “It felt like the logical next step. Having put away my dream of becoming an investment banker, the World Bank became my new ambition. It would give me the opportunity to make a difference on a large scale. I wanted to get my hands dirty, work in the field. That is why I didn’t want to work at the World Bank headquarters in Washington DC. I decided to return to Pakistan after graduating from Yale and moved from Lahore to Islamabad. I ended up working at the World Bank for four years, until 1995.”

Why did you quit your job at the World Bank after four years? 

Zafar: “My conscience prevented me from staying longer. Don’t get me wrong, it was a great time. I met great mentors and learnt so much, especially because I got to do field research. The most important thing I learned during that period was the power of story. How the impact of a story can drastically change people’s views. I was responsible for researching the impact of development projects on women’s lives. I had to document their life stories. It turned out that all these different women had essentially the same ambition that you and I have: we want to create a good life, a good home for ourselves and our children. But unlike us, they do not have the economic means to achieve this ambition. I received the same question from women all over Pakistan: how can I contribute to my family and our economic future.” 

And you felt that the World Bank did not respond adequately to this question? 

Zafar: “Exactly. The activities of the World Bank were just not suited. While the World Bank invested in projects and donated money to governments, it did not involve local communities. As a result, projects failed to achieve their goals. Like the parable of the engineers who built a well, which is often told in our sector. I experienced a huge gap between the goal of a project and the expectations and needs of the local community. In particular, the role of women in the community was marginalised. While I started to notice that women wanted to be part of the solution.”   


Two western engineers visited a village in West Africa. Seeing the women of the village leave every morning to walk 8 km to the nearest well, they began to mull over a solution. Wouldn’t it be a great gift if they could shorten the 16-km daily trek? They invested in water research, found groundwater near the village and worked with a company to build a well 2 km away from the village. When they returned to the village a year later, they were surprised to see that no one was using the well. When they asked the women why, they replied, “You have not asked if we need the well. Fetching water is an opportunity to enjoy some time away from home.”


Right at the time Roshaneh was working for the World Bank and was struggling with these questions, she met Muhammad Yunus at a conference. Yunus had founded the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh and became the founder of microfinance. In 2006, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts. Roshaneh’s encounter with Mohammed completely changed her life.  

Zafar: “As a person of faith, I believe God planned the encounter at exactly that moment in my life. In any case, he was my Eureka moment. He succeeded in Bangladesh, a country that used to be part of Pakistan. Why shouldn’t this work in Pakistan as well? After quitting my job at the World Bank, I sent him an email. He did not respond immediately, but a couple of days later I got a call from someone at a local airline telling me that a certain Muhammed Yunus had booked me a flight to Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. So I crossed the border in 1995 and started working at Grameen Bank. I intended to stay there for at least a year, but after three months Muhammed called me into his office and said: “Roshaneh, we don’t need you here. Why don’t you start a business in your home country?” Before I left his office, he gave me a cheque for 10,000 dollars. He never claimed any of the money back.” 

So, the Kashf Foundation is inspired by the Grameen Bank, but could you just replicate Yunus’ model? 

Zafar: “No, I first took time to travel around Asia and study various models before making the plan for Kashf. Grameen Bank in Bangladesh had one approach, but I also wanted to see the approach of people in India and Nepal. However, I did use Grameen’s main principles: we don’t ask for collateral, clients don’t have to travel to our offices, we travel to them and loans were initially issued to a group of five women. These women were jointly responsible for the repayment of those loans and any follow-up. Initially, this way of providing loans worked well. Since 2008, however, we have been providing individual loans. Together with the entrepreneur, we develop a tailor-made loan for her and her business. 

Kashf is unique in its specific focus on women, which is mainly reflected in the social aspect of our operations. We want to ensure that the women actually borrow the money to support their activities, rather than giving it directly to their husbands. To the outside world, it may look like you are giving the loan to the woman, but are you actually strengthening her activities and enhancing her position? No. Our mission is to help women entrepreneurs grow so they can lift themselves out of poverty.”  

That is a noble cause, but how do you go about it in such a patriarchal society like Pakistan and without creating conflict between the women you support and their husbands or other men in their families and communities?  

Zafar: “We involve the community and the rest of the family as much as possible. We are an indigenous organisation; therefore, we fully understand and take into account the established cultural dynamics. We try to impact our women’s lives based on that understanding, and we are strongly committed to giving the entire community the chance to get used to the changed dynamics. But beware, it takes extensive efforts to accomplish this and it will not be easy, but we have compelling results to look back on.  

Like the interactive theatre. This idea is inspired by the work of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. For example, we are performing a play about child marriages, unfortunately still a common practice in Pakistan. At the moment when a 40-year-old man is about to marry a 10-year-old girl, we stop the performance. And ask the audience if there is anyone who would like to change the plot of the play and why. This gives the audience, which usually consists of around 200 people from the local community, some time to reflect.  

Soap series are another means of reaching people. Since 2012, we have been using soap operas that have gained tremendous popularity over the years. We work with the best screenwriters, actors and directors and constantly focus on gender equality. Until recently, we were busy filming our fourth production about girls who are dragged into prostitution. Until corona threw a spanner in the works.   

It takes a lot of effort, but like Dr. Yunus said, the biggest challenge isn’t to establish a micro financing service. The biggest challenge is to change the mindset of people.” 

And how do you know if your attempts are successful? 

Zafar: “We measure our social impact with the same evaluation instrument we use to measure our economic impact. Hence, we do not only monitor parameters, such as the increase of income, employment, etc., we also research if people have better access to medical care, if women are more involved in the family decision-making process and how confident those women feel, … In addition, we also measure domestic violence. Our data show that women who earn their own money and who are financially less dependent on their husband, have to argue less about money and expenditure. And those women are less likely to suffer from domestic violence.”  

Roshaneh Zafar in the Incofin office in Antwerp with Incofin founder Loïc De Cannière and Co-CEO of Incofin Geert Peetermans

If we look at Pakistan as a whole: what changes do you see in terms of gender equality? 

Zafar: “Things certainly have changed for Pakistani women. In the past, it would have been impossible for them to work in sectors like the media sector, sales, tourism, … Now, you see women everywhere and not only behind the scenes. 

Meanwhile more women are graduating from university than men. This doesn’t automatically result in equal employment of men and women. Women often have to deal with a lack of transportation, child care and support from their families and with misogynistic working environments. It is painful to see that Pakistan is one of the countries with the least number of women leading a business.    

However, I do remain optimistic. I do notice that a silent revolution is taking place and I am convinced that within ten years’ time many more Pakistani women will be part of the economy. Technology will help them. One of the few advantages of the corona crises is that companies are now forced to facilitate people working from home. Enabling women to prove their value more easily.”  

How do you envision the future of Kashf?  

Zafar: “In the near future, our main focus will be on addressing the corona crisis and the economic rehabilitation of our women entrepreneurs and their families. We currently have 535,000 clients and it will possibly take us two years to help them all get back on their feet again.  

In the long term, I still see a lot of potential for our foundation and the microfinance sector to grow in Pakistan. Pakistan has a young and entrepreneurial population. Currently, the microfinance sector in Pakistan counts 76 million clients. I believe that this number can still grow to 100 million clients.”