World-renowned for the succulent cherries of Pakistan, this delicious fruit from Hunza almost missed its yearly market debut. Cherry-picking in Hunza was not the same during the COVID-19 pandemic. Oftentimes, traders would book cherry trees and ensure the picking, packaging and transportation of this delicious fruit to market, compensating tree ‘owners’ accordingly. The shutdowns and lockdowns, due to COVID-19, left the cherry growers in a state of dismay, with no intermediaries to link them to market. The Aga Khan Economic Planning Board (AKEPB) stepped in to initiate a programme to impart proper techniques of cherry-picking, packaging and linking the growers directly to the market. By filling the market linkage gap, AKEPB saved the cherry growers’ annual income and the wastage of the fruit.

Empowerment is not a silver bullet that can immediately transform one’s life. Rather, it is an intrinsic state of being - equipping individuals with the tools and environment where they feel empowered to live a dignified life. Mawlana Hazar Imam, on numerous accounts, has highlighted the need to improve the quality of life of the Jamat. One way of ensuring this is through economically empowering people. Unfortunately, opportunities for social and economic growth in Pakistan are not readily accessible. For one, they are limited, to begin with, and secondly, their accessibility is often determined by literacy, context and networks.

The Jamati Institutions strive to fill this “accessibility gap” and ensure equitable access to economic resources for all segments of the Jamat. AKEPB has the mandate to explore economic opportunities and avenues that can benefit the Jamat in attaining sustainable livelihoods and to empower beneficiaries to achieve better means of income. This is done through its set of diverse portfolios: financial literacy, entrepreneurship, skills development, specialised training, poverty alleviation, agriculture, employment and job placement. The focus on women’s development is a cross-cutting theme across these portfolios.

As evident from these portfolios, AKEPB strives to cater to the Jamat’s diverse economic needs based on age, gender, literacy level and context. For example, in financial literacy, information sessions conducted by professionals inform the Jamat about savings and investment options, budgeting, understanding country tax laws and retirement planning. The entrepreneurship portfolio selects budding ideas from the seed or development phase to implementation through a process comprising of mentorship, exploring e-commerce avenues, fundraising to market breakthrough. The skills development programme offers vocational skills leading to employment as well as specialised training in hospitality, banking, the health sector and early childhood education.

Huzurman Shah from Arkari, Chitral, is one such beneficiary of AKEPB’s vocational programme.

He explains, “I did not have an educational opportunity however, with the support of AKEPB, I am receiving training in welding. Besides, I am also saving as much as I can to set up my shop in Chitral. I am thankful to the Institutions who support my children's education so I can focus on my training.”

AKEPB provides continuous support to the Jamat engaged in the agricultural sector in Gilgit-Baltistan, Chitral and interior Sindh. The support runs from agricultural inputs to attaining linkages in supply chain management. Also, the Jamat is informed of government programmes and subsidies to help them take optimal advantage of agricultural policies. AKEPB is also trying to introduce the youth to agri-industrial opportunities linked with entrepreneurship including processing, packaging and marketing of produce.

Overall, women and youth draw special attention to AKEPB programmes. According to Mr. Ahsan Ali Hussaini, Manager Operations and Programmes, the AKEPB job placement team placed approximately 300 jobs last year, of which 37% of the hires were female. Similarly, in Gahkuch Valley, AKEPB mobilised local women to start the first ladies-only market to allow women to shop with freedom.

Zarina Begum of Chipursan Valley in Gilgit-Baltistan did a beautician course from Karachi facilitated and funded by AKEPB. Upon completion of the course, she returned to Hunza and opened a beauty parlour in Aliabad where she makes sufficient income to support her family.

Furthermore, AKEPB partners with other Jamati Institutions, primarily the Aga Khan Social Welfare Board (AKSWB), as well as external partners comprising of educational institutions, government and private training programmes, subject experts and various industries. This way the neediest Jamati members are identified through the AKSWB and provided with resources to strengthen their financial status to become sustainable. Similarly, AKEPB leverages its strong partnership linkages to place Jamati members on different postings and assists in using online professional resources to strengthen career profiles to stand out in the competitive market. Through these partnerships, AKEPB was able to unleash the entrepreneurial abilities of the Jamat and help establish viable small and medium-sized enterprises.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought unprecedented challenges for the Jamat and delays in AKEPB programme delivery. Mr. Hussaini shared that many people lost their jobs so AKEPB focused on making the most of online platforms to provide continuous learning to different segments of Jamati members. Those with access to the internet had the opportunity to have a ‘productive pandemic’ by taking AKEPB’s online courses on web and graphic design to earn from home. For those who were unemployed and without internet access, AKEPB introduced the Ustaad-Shagird (teacher and apprentice) model to pair an identified Jamati member with a mentor to learn technical skills such as welding, auto technician, electrical engineering and carpentry.

“I am thankful to AKEPB to select me for the course,” expressed Amin Muhammad from Arkari who was enrolled in the Ustaad-Shagird programme. “I am learning how to make doors, windows, closets and cupboards. This training gave me new perspectives on carpentry skills.”

This pandemic reminded the Jamat of Mawlana Hazar Imam’s guidance on being prepared for market disruptions and identifying trends. AKEPB continuously strives to educate the Jamat on smart financial planning so that they can sustain themselves in times of recession and economic crisis, such as during the COVID-19 pandemic.