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Karachi changemakers, mapped

Biya Shadab

Pakistan ranks amongst the top ten most affected countries in the world by the impact of climate change. Germanwatch has placed it at number 8 on the long-term Global Climate Risk Index, because of the quantitative impact of extreme weather results and the fatalities and economic losses it has sustained over the last two decades.  

Pakistan’s geographical location makes it prone to extreme weather events such as heavy rainfalls during monsoon season, causing flooding as a result. This vulnerability is compounded by the low coping capacity of low-income countries like Pakistan leading to loss of life, personal hardships and existential threats.  

Pakistan is amongst the fastest urbanising countries in South Asia. Karachi, a port city and the economic hub of the country with an estimated population of over 16 million, is increasingly burdened by migration from both rural and coastal communities in due to climate change and otherwise.

However, Karachi ranks 136th out of 140 in terms of vulnerability and liveability. 50 percent of the population lives in informal and squatter settlements. As the city expands without a plan, the surging population exacerbates already existing structural inequalities. This has compounded the challenges of waste disposal, water supply and drainage. As most institutions responsible for this infrastructure are inefficient and bankrupt, the damage is amplified.  

The city is already witnessing urban flooding, heat waves and water shortages. By some predictions, extreme storms that typically occur once per century could increase in frequency to once a year in coastal cities by 2050. The compromised resilience, poor emergency response system, lack of infrastructure, rising sea levels can make poor and marginalised population of Karachi even more vulnerable and may lead to urban violence.  

The government and world community are slow to respond to the growing crisis. As the threat is rising, however, so is the resolve and response of some of the city's innovators, entrepreneurs and activists.

Hira Wajahat Malik

As a business consultant, Hira Wajahat Malik founder of Cleantech Republik, had worked aligning sustainability in organisations, in terms of people, processes and impact. “My understanding of sustainability comes from the practical exposure I had to the businesses and industries I was working with.” Her background in evaluating value chains and problem solving for businesses made her realise that, in the long-term, often what makes better business sense also makes better sense for the environment.

With that in mind she started approaching local universities to tap into their talent pool to find local sustainable solutions for local business challenges: they would bring the technical expertise and she would bring in the money and the business sense.  

As she started looking for seed money in 2018, she started coming across climate focused funds and competitions abroad. Realising there are no such initiatives in Pakistan, she reached out to them and ended up partnering with Climate Launchpad, run by Climate-KIC in Europe. The Climate Launchpad is a competition that helps clean-tech start-ups refine their business models and, using the Climate Impact Forecast tool, helps the businesses with a lifecycle analysis i.e. a comprehensive assessment of what impact their product or service would have on the environment.

In the first cycle in 2019, Wajahat received 100 applications, 50 percent of which were from women. She realised that she may be on to something. “I realised that the young people need more help than they are getting. I thought, how can I help?” She threw herself into researching incubation, acceleration programs and understanding climate-specific clean technology, mitigation and adaptation.  She has now completed the 3rd cycle of the competition in Pakistan and helped 60 start-ups in 3-day bootcamps, developing business models and evaluating their viability and climate impact.  

Amongst her favourite start-ups is Fruges, an agri-startup that makes organic, algae based bio-pesticides. The entrepreneurs had an interesting journey. The founders, while conducting field research in an agricultural community, were served tea- sans sugar. Upon inquiry they were told that sugar wasn’t stocked in the vicinity for miles because the community was extremely diabetes prone. The reason? Liver damage sustained from consuming pesticide contaminated water. This got them asking themselves if there was a way to substitute the harmful chemical pesticide with something safer?  

After months of labor, they created a bio-alternative to the fertiliser in the shape of a tablet. All it would take were four tablets per acre of farmland. But their challenge wasn’t over. The tablets required eight days to work, while farmers were used to faster results. They went back to the lab and eventually coated the seeds with the bio-pesticides. The resulting seed doesn’t require extra time for the bio-pesticide to work, reduces water consumption for the fields by 40 percent- imperative for a water constrained country like Pakistan- and reduces the cost and carbon footprint of transportation of the pesticide itself!

Other clean- tech start-ups Wajahat has mentored include Aabshar which produces water optimiser nozzles that reduce water wastage up to 98 percent and also cuts down on electricity consumption and the carbon footprint of expensive water tankers that citizens of Karachi often have to rely upon. Other ventures vary from biodegradable sanitary napkins that employ a circular model by providing their customers composting services once their product is used, to contrail free aeroengines designed by a young woman engineer.  

Although she’s made headway, it hasn’t been an easy task developing a new model of innovation without a roadmap and dedicated resources. Learnings from European or high-income countries don’t necessarily apply and it is challenging to navigate a bureaucratic system, with political systems that are slow to understand the science and the urgency, slow to adapt and often reluctant to share information. There are also barriers to small players. Yet she feels that is time to move urgently beyond mere lip service and take action. She takes heart in the fact that the younger people are aware, willing to take action and genuinely care. Says Wajahat, “We need to nurture this asset”.  

Salman Tariq

According to some estimates, Karachi produces 15,000 tonnes of waste per day.  Salman Tariq, through his venture Davaam, wants to manage and repurpose it. Working in the circular economy sector, Davaam, is hitting back at waste both at the point of consumption and post consumption.  

“No one is born an environmentalist or activist”, says Tariq. His journey to climate activism has been over a decade long. As a fresh grad he worked for a private utility company and assigned to a waste to energy project in Karachi’s Bhains Colony where the cattle that produces 70 percent of the city’s milk supply, create about 3,000 tonnes of waste every day. This waste is directly deposited into the sea. This is where he learned the value of turning waste into something valuable. He fell in love with the idea, eventually studying it further and landing on his feet as an entrepreneur.  

After four years of trying on different ideas, Davaam has the go ahead from the concerned municipalities and stakeholders- and have the technology partners and investors on board- to establish a waste sorting facility. They will be working to repurpose 70 percent of the waste before it makes it to a landfill.

Davaam wants to go further than that. They want to limit waste at the point of consumption.  “Climate change is complex. To address it, we need to tap into the entrepreneurial network and find localised solutions. It will take not just the government and NGO's- consumers are part of the solution.”  

Consumers, however, are not choosing to create the landfills says Tariq. They have to be provided better options and then incentivised- and the better options need to be made more convenient. With this in mind, Davaam has come up with the idea of refill stations for every day products such as toiletries and kitchen supplies. The idea is that consumers purchase, say, a bottle of shampoo and use it. Once it is finished, instead of throwing it in the trash, they bring it to a refill station at a neighbourhood store and have the bottle refilled, and pay less than they would for a brand new bottle with the same amount of product.

Davaam pitched the idea of refill stations to large brands and retailers. Approaching large brands has many reasons. Firstly, the brands are incentivised by their global mandates to be more sustainable.  They also have the financial incentive in terms of  saving on costly packaging and transportation. The brand can then pass on the savings to the consumer in terms of discounts at the filling station. Tariq believes banning doesn’t necessarily work- incentivising does. If the customer can pay 15-20 percent less for the product at a refill station conveniently located at their neighbourhood store, why wouldn’t they?  

On the ground people lack awareness of the critical timeline we are dealing with in terms of climate action. He finds that the biggest challenge is changing mindsets. While pitching the refill stations to a brand he remembers being asked, ‘What’s the sustainability of the sustainability sector?” Therefore he puts at the forefront that any sustainable venture needs to make financial sense. The refill station is highly profitable for the brands in the long term. “They save on bottling, packaging, transportation- that's why the brands are speaking to us.”  Additionally, large brands have the PR and reach to change consumer behaviour.

The first brand to Davaam’s filling station has signed on.  Tariq wants to start with communities like student hostels. He believes young people are quicker to take up change.


Shahzad Qureshi

Shahzad Qureshi set out on his path as a climate activist when a severe heatwave struck the city of Karachi in 2015, leading to an unprecedented loss of life. It got him reflecting upon the lack of tree cover in the city and realising that the very infrastructure developed to support human activities and society was under threat if action was not taken quickly. “I realised we were living in a concrete jungle; we need trees and other species for shade, oxygen and a myriad of the other eco-services that these systems provide.” He did some research and decided to adopt a small patch in the nearly bare public park near his own home in Karachi. The local municipal authority allowed him to start planting trees there at his own expense.  

He adopted the principles of the Miyawaki method- a methodology for rapidly growing self-sustaining forests- planting native species in a dense forest fashion without the use of pesticides or fertiliser. Ideally, for a water starved city like Karachi where the cost of water is at a premium, he also set up a wetland channel with plants that recycle sewerage water through a natural process.

Qureshi comes from zero botany experience, learning through research that was targeted to benefit the environment. “From the beginning, everything we did was at odds with conventional wisdom...horticulturists are awarding fancy gardens and the growing of non-native species of plants, killing any bug with the liberal use of pesticides. Forest management has become all about growing species that can be cut down to be used for timber and profit making. Everything they are doing is opposing what nature wants to do. For example, I’m happy to have bugs- it's part of the natural ecosystem”.  

Although the forest started to flourish and they expanded their effort from a portion of the park to take over the entire park, the process was not without its challenges. Financial constraints slowed Qureshi down as he was dependant upon private donations- and they were thrown out of the park by the authorities despite their agreement several times, although enough citizens rallied behind his cause to save his forest every time.  

Now, six years later, plantation is almost complete, and a dense urban forest containing an upward of 65 native plant species is thriving in the very park that has become a hot spot for biodiversity. He says he’s witnessed the flourishing of varieties of lizards, bees and birds that he has never seen before as the forest serves as a habitat for them.  

More tellingly, during the devastating urban floods that caused loss of life and destruction of property and halted economic activity in Karachi in the summer of 2020, his forest absorbed the excessive water within 48 hours while other areas of the city remained flooded for over ten days, cutting off people from essential supplies and medical help.  

Qureshi says that having parks is not enough. Cities should have a combination of green recreational spaces and woodland areas. He is now advocating for the concept of ‘sponge cities’ that have dedicated areas within an urban setting that provide adequate green covers to act as buffers during extreme weather events and improve air quality.  

Qureshi wants to move from advocacy and isolated efforts towards national policy intervention. With this in mind, he has formed the Urban Forest Coalition which brings together citizens, concerned governmental authorities and private corporations. The coalition has set a target for push for 25 percent tree cover - including urban forests, parks, roads, homes and even rooftops- in Karachi as a matter of urgent priority. “The economic value of this city runs in the billions. If we don’t act fast it will be destroyed and become uninhabitable”. The present government has a strong tree plantation project, however, the coalition wants to intervene and shift their focus on plantation in the urban areas where it is urgently needed.  

Working in tandem with nature Qureshi says he has grown to cherish co-existing within the natural order growth, both the growth and the demise of things. “I’m just a facilitator for this natural process”.

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