We interviewed Fiza Farhan, who at the age of 28 knew she did not want to be just one more gear in the corporate machinery. Her goal: to create an impact on Pakistani society. A few years later, she has become a benchmark for women’s empowerment and social innovation thanks to her career as a co-founder and director of Buksh Foundation, an organization dedicated to develop renewable energy projects in rural and remote areas of Pakistan.
I am Fiza Farhan, a Pakistan based woman entrepreneur and development expert, featured in the US Magazine Forbes “30 Under 30 List of Social Entrepreneurs” for 2015 and again in 2016. Since January 2016, I represent Pakistan in the United Nation’s Secretary General’s first ever High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, in addition to be the Chairperson of Chief Minister Punjab’s Task Force on Women’s Empowerment and member of the National Steering Committee on Climate Change for Pakistan.
Previously, I was the co-Founder & CEO of Buksh Foundation and Director of Buksh Energy Private Limited, both companies pioneering unique and demand based renewable energy solutions for the public, private and remote off-grid sectors of Pakistan. I have near a decade of experience in leading both enterprises, I launched multiple innovative projects in the domain of access to energy through gender responsive rural renewable energy solutions, which became international best practices, creating a unique nexus between energy access and women’s economic empowerment.
In 2016, I left both of my social enterprises and evolved as an Independent Global Advisor on a national and international level in various sectors including climate change, women’s empowerment, sustainable development goals (SDG’s) and creating value adding partnerships between the public, private and development sectors.
Apart from some of my important global roles of advocacy, I continue to wear multiple hats to instigate actions through my diverse advisory engagements and project development expertise with government bodies, private sector companies, the UN agencies and other development institutions in Pakistan and globally.
Education wise, I am a graduate of Lahore University of Management Sciences and hold an MBA from Warwick Business School, UK.
Fiza, how do your initiatives work towards women’s economic empowerment and inclusive growth opportunities in Pakistan?
Well I am working on multiple levels now to create opportunities for women, not just in Pakistan but globally. I believe work is needed in both directions of advocacy and action, none of both alone would suffice. Hence, with my multiple hats as an activist, as an advisor, as a consultant- I continue to support policy making, awareness campaigns, global advocacy through the different hats I wear at the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel, and others. In addition to the same, it is equally important to translate the recommendations, the policy, the strategy into real life action, into tangible outcomes, into projects that create a tangible difference in the lives of real women and girls.
That goal I achieve through the projects in which I advise different Governments, Private Sector bodies, Development agencies and other Civil Society members on. The important thing is to create the right “balance”.
You have expertise in the energy industry. Did it help in your advocacy within the field of sustainability and social innovation in your country?
Absolutely- Pakistan is facing one of its worst energy crisis and sustainability has become not only the “right” thing to do but also the “smart” thing to do.
I must confess it was a difficult path to make people understand and believe that going green, opting for renewable energy will actually enable them to “save money”. It was not easy to convince people and businesses to invest their time, effort and money in “going green.” However, when successful demonstrations were shown, about how to deal with the worst energy crisis the country is facing, opting for renewable sources of energy could actually lead to commercial gains and profitability- it became a “no brainer”. Pakistan is currently facing around 7,000MW of shortage of electricity, however if we calculate the solar potential of the country, we can produce up to 100,000 MW of energy by solar radiations only, becoming a major exporter of energy in the region. The social innovations certainly helped in establishing successful demonstrations that are now enabling a massive scale in the renewable field in the country.
Buksh Foundation launched “Clean Energy Loans” in 2011 for the micro-entrepreneurs. Can you tell us some more about the “Lighting a Million Lives” initiative?
Indeed, Buksh Foundation pioneered Clean Energy Loans in 2011, creating an innovative social solution to provide access to clean, reliable and renewable energy to poor communities of Pakistan on affordable basis. The project was an immediate success! Following Clean Energy Loans, Buksh Foundation launched “Lighting a Million Lives”, a project extremely close to my heart as it was super innovative and fun, creating the most beautiful nexus between access to energy for rural off-grid communities, women’s economic empowerment and social uplight of the underprivileged communities in multiple ways. It was simply the perfect solution that brought together multiple development problems under one same umbrella and addressed them altogether! I believe Lighting a Million Lives till the date is an exemplary social innovation that addressed multiple SDG’s and development agendas with a simple and unique solution.
As a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, what challenges are we facing to achieve women’s economic empowerment? Why is it important for women?
Being a member of the UN Secretary General’s High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment, I realized that the problems women face around the world, especially with their economic rights, are like a “spider web”. They are so complicated, and intriguingly woven together in an extremely delicate societal fabric. To be honest it was mind-boggling! The High-Level Panel brought global leaders together around one same table including Christine Lagarde Managing Director of IMF, Jim Yong President of the World Bank, Guy Ryder Managing Director of ILO, the President of Costa Rica, the UN Secretary-General himself, Executive Director of the UN Women etc., to address the issue that are facing 50% of this world’s population and there was just so much that came our way like eye opening facts about the reality of how women struggle in their everyday lives with unique problems arising from different parts of the world. However, one thing was common: empowering women economically leads to their empowerment on multiple levels- social, legal, political etc. Economic empowerment is the most important denominator that is required to raise the bar in women’s standards of life across the tiers. The recommendations we translated into the report that was presented to the UN Secretary-General in March 2017, continues to be translated into global policies, actions and projects around the world- many of which I am proud to be associated with.
As one of Pakistan’s youngest female CEOs, what difficulties and opportunities did present to you as a social entrepreneur? What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs out there?
Indeed, I must say it was not always very easy being a young female CEO in a male dominated country like Pakistan, even less in sectors that have the lowest representation of females.
In the energy sector in Pakistan, till the date there are only 2 women in leadership positions! The road was not easy, I must admit! At first, there come many moments when you feel intimidated, when you feel weak, when you question your own abilities and ask yourself if you have the courage and the strength to go through this. When you are questioned for your age, for your gender at every stage, it does shake you at times.
For me, the perspective changed when I went on a delegation in Denmark accompanied by energy leaders from Pakistan. The delegation consisted of 10 companies from Pakistan and 10 from Denmark and I was surprised to see that I was THE ONLY woman from both sides. Those few days I spend in Denmark opened my eyes and I realized that the problem was not just related to Pakistan but in fact it was a global issue. The under-representation of women in non-conventional sectors was something that was a global phenomenon and now I had a choice: to kneel down to this global phenomenon and quit like many other women have done before me, or to keep my age and my gender aside and focus on my professional competence to emerge as a leader, so that other women could look up at me, take inspiration and follow my lead in turning the tables around.
I am proud to share that I stood by the latter and made a firm resolution with myself that no matter what from this day on, I will not let my age or my gender come in the way of my professional self- belief and I will walk in a room with 500 men with my head held high as a professional of equal stature. Believe me, the day I changed my perspective, the world around me started to change so much that the same things that I considered my weaknesses actually became my strengths!
Can you tell us some more about your work as a Chairperson to Chief Minister Punjab’s Task Force on Women Empowerment?
Serving as Chairperson to Chief Minister Punjab’s Task Force for Women’s Empowerment has indeed been one of my favorite hats as it brought together advocacy, policymaking and action on the important agenda for women’s empowerment bringing together diverse stakeholders around one same table. The Task Force was a “think tank” which brought together bureaucrats from all the key Government departments, some private sector experts, politicians, research cell and commissions on the status of women, to work together on important projects, legal frameworks, policy issues and initiatives that the Province undertook under the last Government that was recently changed in the historic elections of Pakistan in July 2018.
The Task Force demonstrated some extremely successful projects during the tenure of the former Government, that became demonstrations for not only the other provinces to follow but also for other countries to which we encouraged immense global partnerships that would enable other countries to learn from and replicate the successes of Punjab. The flagship projects of the Government were Women on Wheels, Domestic Violence Against Women Centers, Working Women Hostels, Punjab Women Business Council amongst many others. It was indeed a fantastic structure, which I am now aiming to replicate on the Federal level.
What is the future of your work towards women’s empowerment?
As an independent advisor on women’s empowerment to multiple Governments, private sector institutes, development agencies, the UN etc. since July 2016; I realized that there is so much to do within the larger “eco-system of women’s empowerment”, from economic empowerment of the women working in rural areas, enhancing the supply side of the women entering the private sector workforce, increasing the % of women in leadership and board positions that currently stand at a dismal 2% globally, enhancing the land rights and inheritance laws for women globally, accounting for un-paid care work that women do for the children and elderly, unequal pay gaps that exist all over the world, to women’s under-representation in unconventional STEM sectors… and the list goes on and on! As an empowered woman myself who has experienced the challenges that a woman faces in her entrepreneurial journey in a male dominated society, I have committed myself to the agenda of women’s empowerment and seek to work on the topic in multiple ways; through my various hats of advocacy as an advisor to the national and international Governments, as a consultant on multiple projects targeting different issues of women’s empowerment in Pakistan and the region, both on an individual and institutional level and lastly by launching my own Foundation that will work with the grassroot communities in Pakistan and the region, working with women and girls on multiple initiatives for their empowerment.
There is so much that needs to be done, and what we all need to do is to “connect the dots” and enhance the global engagements on the subject so that like-minded experts could learn one from another, and not re-invent the wheel as the problems that women around the world face are similar and so are the solutions. Let’s not break the glass ceilings that have already been broken and let’s come together and bridge our forces to create a better and more equitable tomorrow for women and girls around the world!