The path towards initiating and sustaining one's own business can be a daunting mountain to climb, and often many individuals, even those who possess good business ideas, refrain from treading this path. To harness the spirit of entrepreneurship and promote business ownership within the community, the ‘Business Opportunity Programme’ (BOP) initiative has been launched by the Aga Khan Economic Planning Board (AKEPB) in Pakistan.

The BOP was conceived a little over three years ago by Dr Jamaluddin Husain, a distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurship at Purdue University, Indiana, USA. His strong desire to share his vast experience and knowledge with the Jamat led to the formation of a structured mentorship programme with AKEPB that offers an 18-month engagement to selected participants. Through this programme, Jamati members are provided a platform to develop their ideas for businesses and to learn from other experienced business owners in the Jamat, who act as mentors and take participants through the steps towards establishing a business.

At the heart of this programme is the commitment and dedication of the BOP mentors, many of whom are serving as TKN volunteers.

Professor Husain explained, “The Business Opportunity Programme was established to create new businesses and it depends mostly on advice from existing business owners to emerging new business owners. The fact that such a large number of new businesses have quickly been created is testimony to the motivation and dedication of Pakistan’s TKN volunteers. Two most impressive attributes of Pakistan’s TKN volunteers are: (1) almost everyone who was invited to assist agreed to help, without pre-conditions; and (2) these volunteers continue to go out of their way to help others without seeking recognition. The level of success in recruiting volunteers has been outstanding in Pakistan. Their spirit of volunteerism and their Islamic ethic of helping others is marvellous!”

Participants undergo a rigorous selection process involving interviews to form cohorts of around 20-25 participants. While the programme entails intensive training sessions, participants frequently contact the BOP mentors throughout the year for business advisory sessions where development strategies, financial planning, taxation laws, and agile management are analysed.

“The Ismaili community in Pakistan has long been business-oriented; the work of our forebears was important in the development of syndicates. However, the culture we see today is diametrically opposite. Businesses are seen as relatively obscure occupations, which is why we needed this programme,” stated Irfan Madhani, a TKN mentor associated with BOP. Speaking about the participants, he added, “We expect them to have a dash of entrepreneurial will and an understanding of the nexus of social, political and economic factors that often decide the fate of businesses. We do not set up a business for them; we simply hold their hands until their corporate model has solidified.”

Jalaluddin Morani, also a TKN volunteer who mentors BOP participants explained, “We often tell our participants that there needs to be an equilibrium between sustainability and profit. We often hear ideas that may sound lucrative but lack sustenance, and vice versa. As mentors, we help them reach that equilibrium.” He further states, “Out of the three cohorts we have facilitated, we have seen a multitude of businesses emerge - from the selling of baby products to electrical shops, from taxation consultancies to dairy farms, from home-based food deliveries to tech companies, and from sales of produce from the Northern Areas of Pakistan in retail to agricultural products being sold online. We have even witnessed an industrial engineer switch paths and set up a nursing business. The diversity within our cohort reflects the diverse nature of the enterprise they have established.”

Although the pandemic has put the economy into a tailspin, both Irfan and Jalaluddin agreed that in the post-Covid economy, smaller businesses can thrive. “While capitalised conglomerates may seem to benefit right now, it is the small businesses that will eventually flourish. Covid-19 will force an evolution of many industries as we sit at home in lockdown, reassessing and reconstructing modes of consumption, supply and communication. We already see a paradigm shift; a vendor in a local neighbourhood will now accept online orders and deliver goods,” Jalaluddin stated.

Asad Lakhani, Chairman of AKEPB Pakistan said, “BOP has been very successful thus far in its mission, and it is a programme that we are proud of. The creation of businesses is not only a means for economic upliftment for the individual, but its economic impact can be much larger as it creates employment for others. Similar programmes such as BOP that have been established around the world entail high costs to sustain. We are grateful to volunteers such as Dr Jamaluddin Husain and our team of mentors who have helped us in building a successful programme with minimal costs. We are hopeful that we will be able to expand this programme further in the years to come.”

This exceptional commitment of TKN volunteers continues to produce positive results through the Business Opportunity Programme. It has resulted in the creation of 64 new businesses that have added to the earning capacities of numerous Jamati households in Pakistan.