Last week, I was in rural Punjab, Pakistan to visit one of Acumen’s investments, Nizam Bijli, a company that brings affordable solar electricity to low-income communities—and, in doing so, carries with it the promise of enormous human transformation. Imagine living as those communities have done for thousands of years, tilling the land under a scorching sun that can heat the air in summer months to over 120 degrees. Imagine returning to mud houses in this heat with neither light for reading nor a fan for moving air nor clean water to quench your thirst.
We all encounter hardships but, in Pakistan, they are of a different kind. I was reminded of a passage in Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant's Option B, a wonderful book about the capacity of the human spirit to persevere. “The sad truth is that adversity is not evenly distributed among us,” they write. “Marginalized and disenfranchised groups have more to battle and more to grieve.” And that couldn’t be truer in Pakistan, a complex, paradoxical country but also a place abounding with hope and astonishing resilience.
That day in Punjab we saw the mercury soar to about 110 degrees, without a cloud in the pale blue sky. Yet Pakistan was open for business. And everywhere I witnessed the resilience of the human spirit.
The Nizam Bijli salesforce proudly wore bright yellow T-shirts over their traditional white shalwar kameezes as we hit the road. Didn’t the snug T-shirts constrict the air and cancel the benefits of the long and loose cotton shalwars? I asked.
“We wear the shalwar kameez because it is tradition,” one of the men responded. “We wear the yellow T-shirts so that people know who we are, that they can trust us. People are tired of buying things of poor quality and they are learning that this company is serious.”
Yes, I said, but you must be very hot. The men just smiled, a nod perhaps to their embrace of a nuanced balance between upholding tradition and embracing change.
As we traveled to visit some of Nizam’s customers, I spoke with Mustafa, the company’s best salesman famous among his colleagues for riding camels to reach households on the ridges of surrounding hills. I ask him why he doesn’t go for easier sales. “Madame, I know the changes in life that electricity brings. I never imagined that I could do something to serve my country and now I am doing it. I can see those mountains at night, and now I see flickering lights.”
Seeing the lengths this team goes for their customers reminds me that we must fight to create conditions of resilience, especially for communities living at the edges. As Sheryl wrote in Option B, “even the most heroic examples of individual resilience can be inadequate in the face of poverty.”
Climate change has left Pakistan among the most vulnerable nations. Here, more frequent and intense storms have washed away many houses. We visited a man who lost his home and has since taken over an empty house with his five children. When their home was destroyed, he told me among the belongings they grabbed was their Nizam solar home system, along with the lights and fan it powered.
At 110 degrees, resilience is a fan. Most Punjab households consist of eight people sharing a room or two. The heat can be so intense as to make you question your humanity. It saps your strength.
Yet, now with Nizam Bijli, families feel the wind and air from not one but often two fans. The children sleep through the night. The mothers tell me they are better students, more so for the breeze of the fan than the late hours the light allows. If you want to see dignity made manifest, witness a family turn on a switch and experience light and the whirring of a fan in their own house. For the first time.
As I sit on the rooftop of a mud house listening to the stories of these men in their yellow T-shirts and shalwars, my mind wanders to a conversation with a friend who asked why Acumen continues to invest with a focus so squarely on the poor. “It would be so much easier if you moved upstream,” he said. “The middle class also lacks access to basic services.”
It is true that ours is a more difficult path. Customers have little income to spare. They are barraged with cheap, low-quality imports and feel no protection. Distances between them are great and the roads difficult to traverse. Yet, don’t those who have been left out for too long deserve a sustainable response to their critical needs? And what better way to learn than to be with those in the streets, in the fields, in the slums? After all, like Sheryl and Adam remind us in Option B, “What we do in our communities and companies—the public policies we put in place, the ways we help one another—can ensure that fewer people suffer.”
It will take resilience, determination and patient capital to make this endeavor profitable, but this is the kind of capitalism that will help heal our fractured world.
We are not only part of one another. We are one another. Our own resilience is strengthened when we strive for a world that includes all of us. We have an opportunity to support each other in building more resilient societies, a more resilient world.
What are we here for, if not for that?