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Sustainable Transportation Start-Up Wants to Improve Refugees’ Lives

A busy street in Karachi June 29, 2013. AKHTAR SOOMRO / Reuters, file

A crowdfunded start-up is hoping to provide an answer to a transportation problem in refugee communities in Pakistan when it comes to accessible, reliable, and affordable means of getting around.

"People view transportation as luxury item when it comes to refugees, but it's actually a necessity," Gia Farooqi, co-founder of Roshni Rides, told NBC News. "Everyone needs to go to school, markets, and hospitals."

Roshni Rides, started by Pakistani Americans Farooqi, Hanaa Lakhani, Moneeb Mian, and Hasan Usmani, is a sustainable bus and transportation start-up aimed at easing the lives of refugees in Orangi Town, an informal settlement in Karachi, Pakistan. The four founders, who won the Hult Prize earlier this year, share a business background from Rutgers University, and said that starting Roshni Rides provided a business opportunity for them to help a community they care deeply about.

"Informal settlements are camps for people that are internally displaced," Lakhani told NBC News. "These settlements are not recognized by the government and we have a personal connection to Orangi."

The team chose Orangi for the home of their start-up after speaking with Barkat Ali, a former refugee from that town who was also related to co-founder Moneeb Mian. Ali told the founders he only made $2 a day and it took him over three hours to get to work. He said he spent a large portion of his earnings on transportation alone and, because of that, his children could not afford to go to school.

According to Roshni Rides, refugees in Orangi spend an average 30 percent of their income on transportation.

Using funding from the Hult Prize and a successful campaign with LaunchGood, a crowdfunding platform for global Muslim communities, the four co-founders started a pilot program in Orangi. The start-up also has a team of advisors, which include Rutgers professors, and the Muslim community in New Jersey. They also work with a team based in Orangi to provide Roshni Rides with more in-depth research.

"We are partnering with and seeking out different suppliers now," Lakhani said. "We want every part of this to be a sustainable and ethical process."

Roshni Rides was founded by Gia Farooqi, Hanaa Lakhani, Moneeb Mian, and Hasan Usmani. Their goal is to provide sustainable and affordable transportation to refugees in settlements around the world. Courtesy of Hanaa Lakhani

According to the United Nations, there are over 65 million displaced people globally. This does not count those who are placed in informal settlements. Approximately, 860 million people live in informal settlements.

Nowar Abudabus and Heba Shreffa — two students who live in Za'atari, a refugee camp for Syrians that is based in Jordan — told NBC News that transportation is necessary, especially when it comes to their education.

"There are bus stops at the entrance of the camp, but most people rely on walking to schools, hospitals and work," Abudabus told NBC News. "They also use bicycles and rental cars."

They do take the bus to school, but it can be expensive and it's not available at all times. Abudabus and Shreffa say they would benefit from a system like Roshni Rides.

"We'd love a change in the transportation system, so it's available in the evening and throughout the night as well," Shreffa told NBC News.

Roshni Rides' goal this summer is to start creating transit hubs in different parts of Orangi. These hubs will be along strategically planned routes, and the stations will have about 30 solar-powered rickshaws that can each hold six to eight people. An individual ride will cost $0.13.

If the pilot is successful, the team will go on to accommodate the entire settlement, which holds roughly 2.5 million people and has been cited as Asia's largest slum.

"Rutgers, our family, and our Muslim community definitely helped and inspire us. Without this team support, we wouldn't have gotten this far," Farooqi said.

Lakhani added, "Our dream is to see this project [improve] the lives of refugees all over the world."

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