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Seeds of Change

Seeds of Change

Issue 59 August 2009

The majority of investors might find the words ‘profitable’ and ‘Africa’ oxymoronic. Yet investing is the only way to transform sub-Saharan Africa. Naveen Raza shares her vision.

“A billion people go hungry every day – if we do not invest in agriculture, then who is going to feed them?”


Broken Rules

As we face one of the worst recessions in recent memory, many have argued that Islamic Finance is poised to pick up the pieces in the wake of the global financial crisis. However, while Islamic bankers would like to think that Shari’ah compliant banks and institutions are shielded from the credit crunch, it is naive to think that Islamic Finance is completely immune to the troubles of the global economy. Islamic equity markets have suffered in a similar way to the markets of western economies. The time has come to think outside the box.

The rules around investment that we thought we knew can no longer apply. Our world economy is broken and drastic measures are needed to fix it. We must relearn how to manage the resources that God has blessed us with.

Enter Islamic Finance

Islamic Finance by its very definition should be ethical, but is it practised that way? Investors today are increasingly concerned with the environmental and social impacts of their investments.

Principles such as equity transparency and justice transcend the religion of Islam and are commonly found in all religions. The ban on interest (riba) is found in all Abrahamic faiths. The question is: how many of us actually take the time to understand why we were asked to adhere to these principles in the first place? When times are tough economically, one of the first things we cut back on is often how much we give to charity. However it is in these times that the need is often the greatest.

As Ramadan approaches, Muslims think about those less fortunate than themselves. Islam encourages charity at all times, but never more so than in the month of fasting. It is by fasting that we can empathise with the scenario that is faced by billions of people in developing countries every day.

An African Story

As a child I lived in Africa and was fortunate to travel around the continent. Even after we left Africa and settled in London, I never forgot the poverty I had seen. Disillusioned in my day job (albeit as an Islamic banker),

I started searching for something more meaningful. I came across a company called Africa Invest Fund Management, which aims to channel funds into agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa. Africa Invest proves the case for investment over only aid or charity, which is a fundamentally Islamic principle. Investors can make a return on their investment as well as create jobs and add to food security in some of the world’s poorest countries. According to Professor Muhammad Yunus  (Nobel Peace Prize winner 2006), a charity dollar only has one life, whereas an investment dollar has multiple lives. We must start investing, not just giving; this is the only way to transform Africa. The idea  made perfect sense. After all, God gives wealth to individuals as a trust (amanah) so that they can make the best use of it, within the  limits and towards the goals set by Him.

This is the purpose for which an  ‘Islamic’ way of financing exists at all: for the betterment of society and to decrease the gap between the rich and the poor. The burden of interest actually exploits the poor and gives even more power to the  rich. Muslims have created an alternative form of banking simply to avoid interest, but we have somehow failed to see the bigger picture. A well known academic in the Islamic Finance world, Dr Chapra, wrote: “The ultimate goal of all Islamic teachings is to be a blessing for mankind.” We must ask ourselves: has society actually been better off since the inception of Islamic banking in the 1970s? The majority of investors might find the words ‘profitable’ and ‘Africa’ oxymoronic. Yet investing is the only way to transform sub-Saharan Africa.


Information Africa Invest

  • Currently have seven farms in Malawi with combined arable land of 2,600 hectares
  • Over 1,450 workers employed directly plus 5,000 smallholder families supported
  • Nearly 2,300 malnourished/ orphaned children, pre/post natal mothers and elderly fed at daily feeding programmes
  • Plan to grow 3,000 metric tonnes of staple crops in Malawi in 2009


After joining Africa Invest I flew out to Malawi to experience firsthand the difference that investment was making in the local communities. As I went from farm to farm, I reflected on the simplicity of the idea and the urgent need for it. The Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that a billion people in the world go hungry everyday – if we do not invest in agriculture, then who is going to feed them? Africa Invest does much more than just grow food. Investors’ money is used to acquire large commercial farms as well as support local farmers who have their own plots of land. Irrigation systems have been put in to enable the farms to grow food all year round, which in turn creates year round employment for local people. In addition, steps have been taken to ensure sustainable development in the local communities.

The United Nations set eight Millennium Development Goals for the world to achieve by 2015 – such as halving the number of people who go hungry – however, we are currently about 100 years behind that target. Africa Invest aims to ensure that these goals are met on time in the communities where they work by hiring international development specialists to lay out a development strategy and measure the results. As I toured the farms, I participated in the feeding programmes. Each farm caters for vulnerable people in the local area, such as children, the elderly, and AIDS victims.

Although it is understood that these handouts are not a permanent solution, it is a necessity to address the immediate problem. What struck me as I served the children nutritious porridge, was how happy something so simple made them. I knew that for the majority of them this was the only meal that they would have that day. A lady walked up to me holding a chubby little baby wearing a colourful woolly hat. This was Grace, a baby who had been found on the outskirts of the farm, her body covered in insects which had started to eat away at her skin. Thankfully, due to the care which she now received on the farm, she was a healthy and happy little baby. It broke my heart to think of her desperate parents who had no other choice but to abandon their beautiful little girl. I realised at that moment that this was by far the most Islamic investment opportunity I had come across in my career.

An Ethical Solution

In order to create Shari’ah based products, investment must be thought about from an Islamic perspective. New product development needs to be organic and from within the industry. This does not mean simply adhering to the rules and avoiding what is forbidden, but actually encouraging acts which are recommended in Islam such as giving opportunities to those less fortunate than ourselves. Islamic Finance has always been a customer driven industry and it is up to every individual consumer to demand more authentic Islamic investment products.

During this difficult period for the global economy, the time has come to go back to the roots of Islamic Finance. The world is facing challenges such as food shortages, unemployment and poverty. We need to channel capital from the Islamic as well as the western world to help alleviate these problems rather than letting the wealth circulate between the same few richer nations. Society is looking for answers which I believe Islamic Finance can provide, but only if we stick to the true nature and ethos of Islamic principles. 



  • £57 is the average annual income in Malawi. It is the 12th poorest country in the world
  • 8th largest lake in the world is on Malawi’s border with Mozambique. Malawi is a landlocked country, so irrigation is vital to grow crops
  • 76% of people in Malawi live on less than $2 a day, and about 40% on less than $1 a day

Naveen Raza is a UK based Islamic Finance Specialist. After graduating from UCL in Statistics with Economics, she was the first on the HSBC Amanah Graduate Programme. Naveen is currently independently consulting with Africa Invest as well as other Islamic Finance Institutions. She has presented at many Islamic Finance forums all over the world.


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