Inside the family foundation fighting poverty in Pakistan

Murtaza Hashwani on how Hashoo Foundation is helping to spur economic growth in some of Pakistan’s poorest regions.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, jobs can be hard to find. The region at the northern tip of Pakistan is home to five of the world’s tallest mountains, picturesque alpine views, and much of Pakistan’s tourism ambitions – but for women in particular, wages remain low and opportunity scarce. 

In 2007, Hashoo Foundation ran up against this problem when mulling the issue of school attendance among the province’s children. Close to a third of school-age children in Gilgit-Baltistan are out of education and one in seven are in work, a symptom of the region’s poverty problem. Faced with a choice between having a child in work or sitting in a classroom, many needy parents will rationally pick the former.

Hashoo Foundation felt that if it could tackle household poverty then education would follow. Its plan was to zone in on mothers. The organisation was intent on finding them a means to earn, in a way compatible with Gilgit-Baltistan’s remote location, sparse population (just 1 per cent of Pakistan’s population lives there), and available local resources. The idea the team came up with, was honey-bee farming. 

“Our focus was: ‘How do we give the mother of the house a long-term income?’” recalls Murtaza Hashwani, chairman of Hashoo Foundation and deputy chairman of the Pakistani conglomerate Hashoo Group. “We knew the [education] problem didn't exist in isolation. You can build a school or fund a school – great. Many people do. But if you don’t get to the root cause and change the underlying issues around poverty and unemployment, it isn't a sustainable solution.”

Today, the foundation has provided training, starter kits and more than 6,500 hives to 1,300 beekeepers across Gilgit-Baltistan and the nearby town of Chitral, churning out 45,000kgs of honey and generating more than 44.2m PKR (about US$231,252) in income. The honey is stocked by clients ranging from Pakistan’s national airline to Marriott International – wins that have set a blueprint for a range of other, women-led artisanal schemes in the foundation’s portfolio.

“We’ve found that when mothers have an income, we see children in school,” explains Hashwani, who describes women's empowerment as a key pillar of the foundation's work. “It's critically important.”

Hashoo Foundation was established in 1988 by Murtaza’s father, Sadruddin Hashwani, to gather the threads of the family’s long-standing charitable giving under one banner. With funding from the family and its privately held business Hashoo Group, the foundation has since grown into a national entity with 18 offices across Pakistan and an expanding footprint in education, inclusive economic growth and – more recently – climate action. Foundation data shows it has reached more than 1.3 million beneficiaries across Pakistan to date, a number that is weighted towards women and youth.

What began in charity is today a push for sustainable philanthropy, says Hashwani, delivered through projects spanning from skills training and early-years learning, to agriculture, entrepreneurship, and community mobilisation against climate change.

“What I'd call the tradition of giving has been embedded in our family for many generations, but it was very much charity or I suppose handouts,” he explains. “Direct giving is now a very small part of what we do – I’d describe us instead as a development foundation. It's still help, but given in a sustainable way."

This ethos has bled beyond the lines of the foundation, to seep into the family business. Hashwani sees both as tools for positive impact, able to serve beneficiaries, consumers and society at large. As a result, he’s created almost a hybrid approach, where the foundation’s projects are at times delivered in parallel with Hashoo Group, helped by the conglomerate’s commercial nous, reach and access to market.

In one example, the foundation spied an opportunity to skill low-income candidates for employment in Pakistan’s rapidly growing – but understaffed – tourism and hospitality sectors. While the scheme was run by the foundation, trainees received on-the-job tuition through placements in Hashoo Group’s own portfolio of hotels, travel companies and restaurants. On graduation, many took up jobs in arms of the business, or were supported through the company’s network to find work with other industry brands.

“The foundation is the catalyst but it’s part of a whole ecosystem," Hashwani explains. “Where the foundation can benefit from the group, or the group can learn from the foundation, it does.”

For its part, the company leverages the foundation as the primary channel for its CSR efforts, and also leans on it for advice on how best to shrink its environmental footprint. (Hashoo Foundation is a member of the Climate Action Network South Asia, a coalition of over 250 civil society organisations in eight South Asian nations working to combat the threat of climate change.) The business recently pledged to go plastic-free in its hotels, and as a franchise holder for Marriott International, is also supporting the chain’s ambition of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050.

“[Climate action] is one thing we’re very committed to. We use the foundation to understand what really we should be doing and the steps that need to be taken,” he says. “I tell my team every morning that the more money you make, the more you can give back. That’s where our focus is.”

This dual dynamic is also visible in Hashoo Foundation’s growing emphasis on social enterprise, a concept that straddles the intersection of business and philanthropy. In addition to an incubator that helps aspiring entrepreneurs put their ideas into practice, the foundation has seeded social enterprises in support of low-income communities.

One such startup, Organiks Plus, is an evolution of the foundation’s honey farming line. Buoyed by its success, the foundation branched into handmade soaps, textiles, teas, candles, and more, all created by impoverished women farmers and artisans in rural Pakistan using locally grown lavender, buckwheat and other crops.

The collection is curated, marketed and sold under the Organiks brand name, enabling the women to participate in a value chain, earn an income, and establish independence.

This is a tried-and-tested approach for the foundation, Hashwani says. “We don’t only look to business to have social impact, we look for social issues that have the potential to create a business.”

By way of example he points to the Hunza valley, a mountainous region in northern Pakistan known for its orchards of wild apricot trees. The fruit is primarily harvested and sold by smallholder farmers into local markets, but at a low return. Despite being ripe for export, farmers’ lack of cold storage and access to markets means a fraction of the perishable fruit is sold annually overseas, where margins are higher.

“So that’s an opportunity,” he explains. “If we can step in to complete the supply chain, the farmers can export – and that means community growth and a sustainable income. These are the sort of gaps we want to find and fill as a foundation.”

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Discover more: philanthropist snapshot

Name: Murtaza Hashwani
Nationality: Pakistani
Residency: Dubai, UAE
Business: Hashoo Group
Philanthropy: Hashoo Foundation, founded in 1988
Registration: UK, US, Pakistan
Primary funding sources: The Hashwani family and its privately-held business, the Hashoo Group
Geographic focus: Pakistan
Primary cause areas: Economic empowerment; education and social development; the environment and climate change

"My giving journey has been one of self-learning but the next generation, my children, are already asking the right questions. ‘What is the social impact?’"

Making inroads into poverty alleviation is not a one-agency job. This is particularly true in Pakistan, where according to World Bank estimates, over a third of the country’s 220 million-plus population lives on less than $3.2 a day. In recognition of this, Hashoo Foundation is an enthusiastic collaborator: its raft of partners span from USAID to UN agencies, to international NGOs such as Plan and World Vision, local charities and civil society actors.

These tie-ups go beyond just outward grantmaking: “Sometimes agencies will fund us to develop a project as we bring local expertise and skills; sometimes we’ll jointly fund a project, and at other times its just exchanging best practices,” says Hashwani.

The goal is impactful and sustainable growth, he adds. “As a businessman, I look at scalability.”

Partners also benefit from the foundation’s local roots and geographic spread. When Covid-19 grounded foreign NGOs, the foundation’s regional teams kept operations running. The offices have also been quick to mobilise after disasters, Hashwani says, moving money and emergency aid to crisis-afflicted communities. “We were among the first on the ground after the 2005 [Kashmir] earthquake.”

At times, Hashoo’s scale can draw in unusual projects. Last year, the foundation signed a deal with a UK-based organisation to help combat the threat of snakebites in rural Pakistan, a public health issue outside of its core focus areas.

“They’ll bring the technical know-how and we have the teams on the ground,” he explains. “If it will save lives, we’ll support it where we can.”

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Women spin wool together in a village in Pakistan's Hunza region. Photo: Tim Graham/Getty Images.

But if Hashoo Foundation has embarked on a journey from charity to development, the same may not be true for philanthropy in Pakistan more broadly. Fuelled by the Islamic emphasis on giving, more than 80 per cent of citizens donate to charity, according to the 2021 Pakistan Giving Index. However, the lion’s share of this money goes directly to individuals, bypassing nonprofit organisations. To really move the dial on the country’s biggest socioeconomic problems, philanthropy – both corporate and individual – will need to be spun into more structured channels.

Hashwani sees a two-fold solution. First, better broadcasting by the government and development agencies about the importance and impact of strategic giving. And second, time.

“We’re going to see a generational shift,” he says. “It’s coming. For me, my giving journey has been one of self-learning but the next generation, my children, are already asking the right questions. ‘What is the social impact? If I give here, what is the benefit?’”

With more and better education about philanthropy, this approach could be encouraged to take hold among both corporations and the ranks of Pakistan’s wealthy givers, he adds. And where they go, other major donors are bound to follow.

“There’s a lack of understanding in Pakistan about what social development really means, and how philanthropy can support it,” he notes. “I’m not suggesting that [donors] stop charitable giving. But you can deliver much more by giving differently. Philanthropy has to take the central role.” - PA