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  • The Habib Bank Limited (HBL) tower in Karachi, Pakistan, is LEED-certified. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) is a green building certification programme used worldwide.
AKDN interview with Sultan Allana: Fostering financial inclusion

Mr Sultan Ali Allana is a Director of the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) and has the oversight responsibilities for AKFED's investments in banking and insurance. With over 35 years of experience in retail, corporate and investment banking, Mr Allana is also the Chairman of Habib Bank Limited, which is the largest bank in Pakistan with over 1,650+ branches and with presence in over 15 countries around the world.  Since 1997, Mr Allana has also been serving as a Director of the Tourism Promotion Services Pakistan Limited, the owners and the operators of the Serena Hotels in Pakistan. Mr Allana holds Undergraduate and Post Graduate degrees from McGill University and the University of Wisconsin in Engineering and Management. 


Sultan Ali Allana

Why are commercial banks important to AKFED’s strategic vision?

The Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development (AKFED) seeks to invest, primarily in the emerging economies in initiatives that contribute towards creating sustainable enterprises and employment. In this context economic empowerment and access to finance is a key driver. AKFED’s portfolio of banks and insurance company trace their antecedents to the cooperative societies and insurance companies that were set up in the 1930s by Aga Khan III to financially empower the communities who had limited access to financial services in the colonial and post-colonial era. Jubilee Insurance was established in East Africa in 1930, whilst the antecedents of DCB Bank were laid in India in 1930 and the foundation of the DTB Group was laid in 1946 in East Africa. With the establishment of the credit and savings programme of the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme in 1982, the seeds of microfinance were sown in the Northern Areas of Pakistan, which evolved in to the First MicroFinanceBank in Pakistan in 2002. When AKFED was invited by the Government of Pakistan to join the privatisation process for HBL in 2003, they were continuing with their practice of helping strengthen capital markets in emerging economies like they had done in 2001 in the Kyrgyz Republic by helping establish the Kyrgyz Investment and Credit Bank (KICB) and IPDC Finance Ltd in 1981 in Bangladesh. AKFED emphasises on developing local human resources in all its institutions along with advocating best practices of corporate governance and product innovations that are focused towards improving the quality of life of people.

What does a bank like HBL have to do with development?

The Habib Bank Ltd (HBL) as the largest commercial bank in the country is embedded in the nation’s fabric, it has served 30 million customers across the country from the remotest valleys of the Karakoram to the outposts of Thar. HBL’s thought leadership has promoted development finance initiatives for financial inclusion of the underserved population associated with Agri and SME sectors. The bank has also led the development of mortgage finance as a significant asset class in Pakistan. It continues to play an important role in providing investment banking solutions to government and private sector enterprises that are focused on infrastructure projects in power, roads and manufacturing.

HBL also plays a leading role in promoting regional trade flows between the HBL network countries and G2G initiatives under the China Pakistan Economic Corridor, with its two branches in Beijing and Urumqi. The bank is a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation Interbank Association (SCO-IBA), which allows it to participate at the SCO forum level regarding advocacy for trade flows in the region.


HBL partnered with Government to deliver the Ehsaas Emergency Cash programme, the largest social safety net initiative in Pakistan and South Asia's history.

How has microfinance evolved within the AKDN context?

AKDN has been a strong proponent of microfinance over the past 20 years when a strategic decision was taken to institutionalise financial inclusion. The First Microfinance Bank in Pakistan was established in 2002 and AKDN had played a pivotal role in the drafting and the promulgation of the microfinance ordinance prior to the establishment of the bank in Pakistan in 2001. Following that a number of microfinance banks and programmes were created under the aegis of the AKDN. Since 2002, the AKDN microfinance initiatives have served over 2.8 million customers, which include over 2 million depositors and more than 750,000 borrowers, out of which 255,000 are women entrepreneurs, i.e., approx. 34%. Microfinance in AKDN is aimed at lifting people out of poverty and helping them improve their economic conditions in a sustainable manner. The larger microfinance programmes in Pakistan and Tajikistan also look at serving the “S” of the SME segment and look at developing micro-entrepreneurs.

How has digitalisation helped improve financial inclusion?

Digitalisation has helped banks reach out to those who do not have access to formal financial services in a cost effective, responsible and sustainable manner. Customers are no longer dependent on accessing physical bank locations - AKFED portfolio banks in Africa, Central and South Asia have been able to service customers through their digitally enabled touchpoints in the remotest of locations. Our banks are developing digital partnerships with merchants, suppliers, small and medium-size businesses, telecommunications and other digital companies to deliver new products and enhanced engagement for consumers. During the pandemic, our obsessive investment in technology has ensured seamless services for customers from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Kyrgyz Republic, India and Pakistan.

In Pakistan, HBL was able to partner with the Government of Pakistan in the disbursal of social safety net payments. Under the Kafalat programme, HBL disbursed payments to over 3.3 million of the most deserving women across the country. During the unprecedented COVID -19 induced lockdowns, HBL enabled the delivery of the Ehsaas Emergency Cash programme, the largest social safety net initiative in Pakistan and South Asia’s history. The programme was launched by the GoP to support the daily wagers and piece-rate workers as they saw their livelihoods destroyed due to the lockdowns. Through its multiple touchpoints across the country, the bank was able to ensure that over 12 million families received a cumulative PKR 175 Bn ($1 Bn +) over a period of two months. HBL has also developed and launched savings product for these vulnerable welfare recipients providing them the tools to build economic and financial resilience against economic shocks.

The future of financial services and financial inclusion lies in our portfolio banks and insurance companies embracing technology. We intend to leave no stone unturned to convert our institutions into centres of excellence and follow global best practices in every sphere of our current and future endeavours as we progress with confidence and optimism.