A place to call home: An entrepreneur’s journey to bring community to Pakistan’s poor

Published: April 19, 2016
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Jawad outside of AMC’s office housed in what was once his parents’ home in Lahore. PHOTO: ACUMEN

When the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) first started to share the words of the Quran and spread Islam, he was forced to flee his home of Mecca due to persecution. He, along with the Emigrants who had left their homes behind for the sake of their faith, found refuge with the newly converted Muslims in Medinah. These Muslims — known as Ansar, or “The Helpers,” — embraced Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and the Emigrants as their own, providing them with food, shelter and security.

It is this spirit of generosity and brotherhood that led Jawad Aslam to create Ansaar Management Company (AMC), an Acumen investee that provides affordable housing to the low-income communities living amidst Pakistan’s rapidly growing urban sprawl. A Muslim himself, Jawad was dedicated to providing everyone in Pakistan, regardless of income, with a place to call home.

“The Ansar truly embodied the concept of brotherhood, showing how an ideal society of complete strangers could live and thrive,” Jawad said. “They would divide everything they had — their home, their land, their livestock — in half to share with the Emigrants. That spirit of giving and sharing is what we’re trying to achieve with AMC. We help people migrating to the urban areas of Pakistan start a new life.”

A Pakistani American, Jawad was born and raised in Baltimore. Though he visited Pakistan as a child, he only really came to know his family’s homeland in his 20s. His parents moved back in 1994 and, in 1999, at the age of 25, he came to study at a madrassa to learn Arabic and understand the Quran in its purest form. It wasn’t until 2005 that he and his wife decided to leave the United States and try living in Pakistan. They didn’t have a plan, but knew they wanted to lead a more meaningful life. Jawad, who had been working in property development in Maryland, had become disenchanted with the cost of the American dream.

“We were building these homes that were half a million dollars, and I couldn’t help but wonder if these people really appreciated all they had, especially  when that life cost so much to maintain,” he said. “It didn’t feel like it was a living, breathing community and it left me with this sense of emptiness. I  didn’t see myself following that path.

My wife and I were looking for something different. We were living this life of privilege and felt a responsibility to society as individuals. Given what we had been given, how do you hold yourself accountable to that person across the table who doesn’t have one per cent of what you have? I knew I was going to face God one day, and felt I had a big responsibility and wanted to figure out how I was going to own up to that.”

Jawad and his wife packed up their life and arrived in Pakistan, one month before the 2005 earthquake shook Kashmir, killing 86,000 people and leaving more than four million families homeless. Despite his real estate experience, Jawad had made a point to steer clear of the country’s housing sector since, in Pakistan, it’s especially crooked. But a few months passed and he needed to make ends meet, so he started working for Saiban, Acumen’s first housing investment in Pakistan.

Residents from Khuda Ki Basti, Saiban’s housing development outside Lahore, Pakistan, which AMC managed. Photos by Sa’adia Khan.

Residents from Khuda Ki Basti, Saiban’s housing development outside Lahore, Pakistan, which AMC managed. Photos by Sa’adia Khan.

Its founder Tasneem Siddiqui had a unique vision for housing, providing the country’s poor with not only shelter but also a real sense of community. All of Saiban’s developments are built around a green common space to encourage camaraderie and include a school, mosque and small businesses run by the residents. The brick homes are well maintained, public utilities like electricity and running water are provided, and the residents play an active role in the betterment of the community.

It was an approach Jawad had never seen, let alone imagined possible in Pakistan.

“As soon as I saw the model, I knew this is what I wanted to do,” he said. “Tasneem Saheb wasn’t only building homes — he was building communities.”

In a matter of weeks, Jawad and his wife moved into one of the housing developments to fully understand the lay of the land and, shortly thereafter, he became Saiban’s project manager.

Jawad spent months at a time living within the developments to foster community among the residents. The model was tested when he was thrown into a fray about one of the development’s non-sectarian mosques. Each group insisted that their interpretation of Islam was the one and only version, so Jawad worked with the community leaders over the course of a year to break down barriers and help them find a solution together.

Jawad (center facing) meets with the community leaders outside the non-sectarian mosque in Saiban’s development.

“It was really powerful for me to see Saiban’s model in action,” he said. “I had come to Pakistan with my own preconceived ideas and wasn’t sure overcoming sectarian issues would even be possible. It was jaw-dropping to hear these men say to one another ‘You and your sect are just as much a part of this community as I am.’ A light bulb went off for me.”

Jawad knew what he needed to do. He began to apply his property background from the US and build upon Saiban’s model. Tasneem had designed Saiban with the intent of replicating it across the country to help the poor and, at the time, Pakistan was facing a housing shortage of seven million units. Jawad wanted to transform Saiban’s nonprofit into a for-profit social enterprise. Having become an Acumen Global Fellow in 2007, Jawad saw the potential of social enterprise to tackle Pakistan’s housing crisis and felt he had learned what it would take to create a sustainable solution in one of the most complex, challenging and misunderstood places in the world.

By 2008, AMC was born. Jawad received Tasneem’s blessing and built a team of three to help him fulfill his vision of creating “housing for all.” His plan: to develop affordable housing and thriving communities at cost for the country’s poor while selling adjacent plots for a profit at market value to continue serving AMC’s social mission. It wouldn’t be easy, but it was the first time in Pakistan that someone was actually paying attention to the poor when it came to housing.

Most families, who had come to Pakistan’s cities looking for work, were forced to live in slums and squatter settlements without electricity, clean water and sanitation. For these low-income families, owning a home had only been a pipe dream. The government had failed them, aid couldn’t keep up with the demand, and the private sector was only thinking about its pockets.

“When I first met Jawad, I really felt we had this chance to do something different,” said Amjad Aslam, AMC’s first employee and today its Director of Development. “In Pakistan, buying a house is an achievement in itself. The majority of the population had never had that choice. We were giving them a product within their reach. I’m a little romantic as a person, but I didn’t see it as just giving them a house — we were giving them opportunity.”

AMC’s various housing projects under development throughout Pakistan. Photos by Sa’adia Khan.

AMC’s various housing projects under development throughout Pakistan. Photos by Sa’adia Khan.

AMC’s various housing projects under development throughout Pakistan. Photos by Sa’adia Khan.

AMC’s various housing projects under development throughout Pakistan. Photos by Sa’adia Khan.

In the matter of a year, AMC had broken ground on its first project, a 90-acre development that would provide dignified housing for 3,000 mixed income families. Acumen and Bamboo Finance came on as investors, seeing the social enterprise’s potential to take on one of Pakistan’s biggest challenges and scale in a nation where government and aid had failed. AMC also brought on Acumen Fellows to help shoulder the load, as well as Muslim Urban Professionals from the US who needed work and had ties to Pakistan. The plan was to build the homes in blocks to capture the fellowship of the Ansar and the mohalla, where the meaning of “neighbour” extended beyond just next door to establish a real sense of community.

“I wanted to recreate the feeling of the old city, where everyone knew and looked out for one another, Jawad said. The idea was to create a kind of homeowner’s association for the common man, so people could feel a sense of ownership and identity.”

Everything was in place. The demand was there. But then the deal began to fall apart. The road leading to AMC’s project was shared with a developer who had run into trouble with a local politician. The road was dismantled, leaving AMC and its customers with no way to get to the development. The only way to regain access would be to pay a bribe, but Jawad and his team refused to get caught up in Pakistan’s tangled web of corruption and greed.

“When we started AMC, we made the decision to challenge the status quo, said Jamshed Riaz Cheema, the company’s Projects Manager and also one of its first employees. “There were shortcuts available, but we refused to make any compromises. We are here to change the system, to change society. And that requires you to take the long road.”

AMC’s Projects Manager Jamshed Riaz Cheema surveys the deserted lot of AMC’s first housing project that never got off the ground.

It would be a long, hard road for AMC. Over the years, Jawad and his team struggled with one obstacle after the next — endemic corruption, bureaucratic barriers, a perpetually broken system, and finding funders who see the possibilities rather than the risks of investing in Pakistan. That first project outside Lahore remains a deserted development, a dispiriting reminder of hopes dashed and dreams unrealised. They started other developments and provided housing in collaboration with non-profits, but have yet to see their model come together from start to finish. Still Jawad and his team remained resilient. They stayed true to their vision and committed to serving the poor, even when the fate of the company seemed uncertain.

“We’re always afraid of failure, but we don’t know what’s in store for us tomorrow,” Jawad said. “When you look deeper into the future, you realise that there must be something else. It’s having faith that there’s something better in the horizon for you. You put your best foot forward, and that’s all you can do. The result is not your responsibility; the effort is your responsibility.”

They believed in what they were doing — and knew they had an innovative, financially viable solution to a problem that was only worsening throughout Pakistan. One of the fastest growing countries in the world, Pakistan is home to roughly 191 million people today and is now facing an unprecedented housing shortage of 9 million units. Jawad and his team soldiered on and stood their ground. Their patience and perseverance, however, were about to pay off. Finally, there was a break in the road.

Early in 2015, AMC attracted the attention of Homeless International, an investor in affordable housing globally, and Places for People, a property management company from the United Kingdom. They were looking for investments in Pakistan and saw potential in AMC as a model that could be replicated not just in Pakistan but globally. Early next year, Acumen will successfully exit the company, and the two entities will step in as investors and provide further capital to help AMC grow.

“This is in incredible opportunity for us, but it’s also a great opportunity to prove that social enterprises can work in Pakistan,” said Nadir Ahmed, AMC’s Chief Financial Officer. “There have always been a lot of problems in Pakistan, but there is also the chance to create major social impact. Overcoming barriers is always going to be difficult but those barriers can be overcome, and there are a lot of talented, enthusiastic people here who are trying to come up with new solutions.”

While securing the support of Homeless International and Places for People has helped validate AMC’s vision, Jawad and his team feel a deep responsibility to deliver on their promise, not only to their investors but also the millions of Pakistanis whose lives they hope to impact.

“When you talk about social enterprise, I feel success has yet to be defined in this sector quite honestly,” Jawad said. “That’s because the nature of the beast is so starkly different from anything else. Success is that we’ve managed to stay alive until today. In my mind, we haven’t even started working yet. I think all of us on the team are very clear that the journey has only just begun.”

Jawad outside of AMC’s office housed in what was once his parents’ home in Lahore.

This post originally appeared here.

Carolyn Bielfeldt

Carolyn Bielfeldt

The author is an Associate Director of Acumen, a nonprofit global venture fund changing the way the world tackles poverty by investing in companies, leaders and ideas. Based in New York, Carolyn was a former editor for Vanity Fair and has written for a number of US Publications. She tweets as (twitter.com/iamcarolynb)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

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  • Parvez

    Interesting article. Projects like this and dedicated people like those at AMC are to be found and they have to praised because the biggest hurdle they face is the ‘ government ‘ ……. and to surmount this hurdle is a Herculean task , if not an impossible one.Recommend

  • Lotus

    Great article,Superb team work!All need to be duly appreciated.I hope Jawad somehow makes a Presentation to Shahbaz Shareef who may help take this endeavour further through out Punjab.Futher,get the help of media,print specially Urdu press,and TV channels.The public will know and contribute in its own way so that Jawad’s team becomes a movement at the grass root level.Recommend

  • Monis Zaki

    Amid posts that focus mainly on household and social issues and representing their views about them, this one is both impressive and persuasive. This tells us that talking about kindness can’t make it actually happen. Instead it requires us to set aside our own luxuries and step up! This man, like a few others, has proved this very fact. It’s our duty to help such people instead of planning on switching from iPhone 6 to iPhone 6s.Recommend