Arif Khan

Ashoka Fellow
Illustration of a person's face depicting a fellow
Fellow since 2008
This description of Arif Khan's work was prepared when Arif Khan was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.


Arif Khan is empowering women artisans and craft makers in tribal Pakistan by leveraging their hand-made products to a marketable level and selling them under a label associated with high quality and authenticity.

The New Idea

Arif is seeking to improve the social and economic status of households living in rural and tribal regions of Pakistan. He has opened avenues for tribal women to be gainfully and stably employed and to contribute towards the education of their children and improvements in family health and hygiene. By establishing design and quality control to traditional handiwork, Arif is modernizing the handicraft industry and mainstreaming its products into the designers’ fashion world as exclusive items. Arif creates master craftswomen and helps them organize other women into groups which are trained in producing new designs and sturdier products. His organization, Mashal, provides women them with raw materials they need and then helps market their products under the label Zarlasht. Women who work with Mashal go through an initial training period after which point they are encouraged to venture on their own or in small groups of entrepreneurs. With improved skills, sturdier products, better knowledge of the demand for their products, and an ability to market them effectively, rural women artisans are empowered to grow their mini businesses in ways that provide more income—and more stable income—over the long term. Such improvements subsequently lead to a variety of other improvements within families and rural communities, including better access to education and basic family health needs. With the support of citizen organizations, government, and private entrepreneurs, Arif has begun expanding his work to other tribes and areas in Pakistan’s mountain regions. To facilitate replication, craftswomen at Mashal spend time in new regions to train and establish quality standards over a six-month period. Only after that point can products be sold under the “Zarlasht” label. Participation in national and international exhibitions helps secure contracts with designers and increases the overall visibility and marketability of artisan products from tribal Pakistan.

The Problem

Men and women in tribal Pakistan are illiterate and live in very poor conditions. They have few or no marketable skills and are generally employed as daily wage labors earning less than US$1 per day. An increasing number commute to, or settle temporarily in, small towns and cities in search of work. Here they tend to be underpaid and exploited, and thus still cannot earn enough of a living to provide education or basic health care for their children. Such conditions perpetuate a cycle of poverty and hopelessness that particularly afflict rural communities in mountainous Pakistan, and that make those populations more susceptible to religious extremism and anti-social or even criminal activities.

Arif recognizes that women and children in such communities have learned traditional arts and crafts passed down for generations, but because of poor materials and complete isolation from markets, are unable to translate such skills into sustainable incomes that can dramatically improve their livelihoods. Slight improvements in quality of product, combined with strong links to demand for such products, would make all the difference.

The Strategy

Arif’s work began with a family of maidservants who worked with beads, making simple household items in addition to some artisanal crafts. Arif found that with little innovation the beads could be easily transformed into jewellery, stone ornaments, dress accessories and home décor objects. With Arif’s wife leading the design and training program for the maidservants, a women production workshop was born. From day one, Arif kept the principle of bringing improvements to the existing skills rather than bringing in new skills. Initially Arif sold the items to his friends and relatives and then began reaching out more broadly through exhibitions. Women immediately began earning better income. As the number of work orders grew, the number of production workshops grew accordingly, and his initiative became more promising.

To formalize the initiative, both in terms of production and sales, Arif founded Mashal. Mashal started with Rs.2700 investment and has grown into an operation with Rs.250M annual turnover with nine workshops in Abbotabad and one each in three other districts, all together providing employment to over 800 women. Arif has also created a second organization called Zarlasht as a not-for-profit company to market the products and promote the brand internationally. Arif plans to use the company to open up retail chain across the Pakistan and to provide entrepreneurs within the community a way to market their products.

Arif has built each production workshop systematically, opening it first as a school for a group of women learners. Each group is trained by a craftswoman about quality materials and design, and once the group goes into full fledge production, the trainer becomes a quality supervisor. Materials are provided by Arif, which is purchased in bulk to control costs. Women are paid on a piece rate basis agreed upon contractually.

The handmade products are stored in Mashal’s office and from there packaged and sent to suppliers or reserved for exhibitions. Arif sees the handicraft industry as a multi billion dollar market that can absorb the production of women workers. His marketing strategy is based on identifying designs that add value to the existing work done by the women to bring them to an ‘exclusive’ quality and which are made of materials that demonstrate quality and taste. Through exhibitions, Arif is not only selling the produce but identifying distributors for the handicraft items.

Arif has made it a condition to train and give work to only those women who are ready to send their children to school and practice preventive health care. Mashal employs a senior director for the purpose of monitoring social development in the communities and the supervisors also work as community mobilizers. In this way, his workshops are meant not only as a way to generate stable incomes, but as a foundation for empowering women to address to poverty and social ills that plague their communities.

Arif is expanding his work by mobilizing government and citizen organizations. Over the next three years he plans to create team of designers—17 of whom he has already identified to respond to the increasing demand among the tribal women. At the same time he breaking into new markets and setting up distribution channels that directly link entrepreneurs with distributors. He proposes to open the national domestic market for the women workers directly while capturing the international market for Mashal and Zarlasht with Zarlasht’s commercial venture subsidizing Mashal’s training, research and workshop establishing work. As the initiative becomes self-sustaining and self-managed, Arif plans to move into a more directing role rather than be an implementer.

The Person

Arif comes from a tribal family himself and understands tribal values and culture. He grew up seeing his grandmothers create wonderful handicrafts for the family. Visiting friends always admired the local handicraft and often requested to buy them. He joined the armed forces as a part of tribal honor but was disenchanted and gave up the post to join an international company as a security expert. However his wife’s illness brought him back to Pakistan and he settled near Abbotabad. Together with his wife—a designer—Arif founded Mashal to create a channel for women to earn from handicrafts using his wife’s designing skills to create new products and uses out of the traditional skills of Pakistani mountain women.