LONDON - The United Kingdom has a new digital platform that aims to build the waqf ecosystem and help achieve the country’s first £1 billion Islamic endowment fund.
Waqfinity is a commercial entity and wholly-owned subsidiary of One Endowment Trust (OET), a UK-based charitable foundation that launched last year and aims to become a £1 billion waqf fund by combining commercial and social investments.
The platform is an important part of actualising the OET target operating model, according to Sultan Choudhury, chairperson of Waqfinity and executive chairperson of OET.
“Waqfinity will target consumers facilitating waqf accounts for them and OET will focus on B2B relationships with co-investors such as mosques and charities,” said Choudhury. “We aim to build an entire waqf ecosystem for the UK and beyond.”
Akmal Saleem, co-founder and former CEO of Rizq, the UK-based Islamic digital challenger bank which launched last year, is the CEO of Waqfinity.
Users will be able to create their own personal, family, memorial and business waqf accounts on Waqfinity.
There is no minimum investment size but the waqf members’ entities will be active once they hit £1,000.
Donors, through their waqf account, contribute towards social projects that benefit British Muslim communities through the returns generated by the investments the donations are used for.
At some point when successful investment portfolios grow, those same donors will potentially be able to personally benefit through investing in funds that will be available through the platform.
“Waqfinity will aggregate the choices that members with waqf accounts make in relation to causes that the returns are allocated to through our impact engine and these feed into the grant giving committee to then execute and track,” Choudhury explained.
The grant-making committee is headed up by Azim Kidwai. A recruitment process to bring in experienced grant-making advisors is currently underway and will be completed before funds are available for grant-making.
“We fully intend to empower our members to have a voice in the grant-making process and the grant-making committee will ensure that members’ wishes in relation to causes is undertaken, and carry out ongoing oversight on the grant to achieve social impact,” said Choudhury.
Investments will be focused around real estate to begin with and expand into other assets such as equities, sukuk and other contained risk investments, according to CEO Akmal Saleem.
“Whilst our first objective is to achieve the target returns for the waqf in a Shariah-compliant way, where possible, our focus will be investments with additional social benefit. In addition to Shariah-compliant real estate transactions, we have a positive screen preferring social impact-based investments, where we can empower some of the more vulnerable people in the community and deliver positive returns,” said Choudhury.
Waqfinity allows users to create their own portfolios, configuring the impact they want to make within four areas.
“We have identified four key impact areas that include faith leadership, community building, strategic development and future funding,” said head of the grant-making committee Azim Kidwai.
“We chose these specific areas through our extensive research working with a number of needs analyses that have been executed in recent times, engaging with social scientists and scholars,” he explained.
INVESTMENT THROUGH OET
All funds on Waqfinity are directed into OET’s waqf funds and subsequently into commercial investments managed by industry professionals.
“The underlying donations are being invested by OET, not Waqfinity, and the returns distributed by the OET grant-giving committee. Waqfinity is providing the transparency on the waqf portion held by its membership, the returns generated and ensuring there is a mechanism to select and allocate those returns to the causes chosen by its members,” explained Akmal Saleem.
OET has set up various working governance committees for investments, partnerships, Shariah and grant-giving, whilst Waqfinity has a technology, branding and consumer experience focus.
The Shariah and investment committees are at the heart of the process, said Choudhry.
The Shariah committee comprises Shaikh Haitham Tamim, Shaikh Muhammad Ali, Mufti Faraz Adam and AAOIFI's Farrukh Raza, the Managing Director of IFAAS.
The investment committee is headed up by real estate investor Ashraf Patel and supported by a team of asset and risk managers.
Despite their ambitions, Choudhry conceded that the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and impact from Brexit is influencing their investment strategy.
“Economic volatility due to COVID and Brexit has meant we have been low-key in our fundraising thus far and therefore prudent in our investment objectives, but we think post-pandemic there will be opportunities to invest in,” he noted.
Adding to this, he said they are exploring avenues by which the private sector can invest in Waqfinity to accelerate the platform’s growth.
Waqfinity’s website went live on February 26. Currently, it is desktop-based, and will have an alpha launch just before Ramadan, which is likely to begin around April 12. The company is planning to launch an app later in the year.
The platform already has 30 pre-committed waqf members. They will be live by the end of March, noted Akmal Saleem.
Financial services tools, including an e-wallet and debit card feature, are also on the cards.
“This will be launched in 12 to 18 months as the wider ecosystem we are building starts to take shape,” said Akmal Saleem.
Waqfinity will explore different revenue streams that fill gaps in the ecosystem for socially responsible finance products that impact a consumer's lifecycle.
The service provided by the platform will generate a return and help sustain its cost.
Down the line, it aims to make fintech solutions available for organisations within the Muslim ecosystem such as charities, mosques and also commercial entities.
In addition to social and commercial investments, a key goal for Waqfinity is raising awareness of awqaf and building its ecosystem in the UK.
Whilst there are waqf funds in the UK, most are targeted by specific organisations like Islamic Relief. There are few social waqf funds focused on capacity building in society. However, this trend is starting to change.
The National Waqf Fund, which launched last summer, is focused on the charity and social aspects of Islamic endowments. Among its aims are to establish a central fund and manage awqaf on behalf of other organisations.
There is still a long way to go for waqf to become commonplace in the UK. A survey conducted by Waqfinity revealed that 40% of respondents said they knew what a waqf was, 30% said they had no idea and 30% had heard of the concept but were unsure, according to Akmal Saleem.
“In Muslim-majority countries like Malaysia and Turkey, waqfs are integrated into state economic structures,” he said. “Currently that is not something that we can achieve in the UK. [So] our private structuring of waqf is an essential part of future plans to integrate the waqf concept into state integrated initiatives.
“The first phase is about helping people understand how waqf fits into the giving ecosystem and then the second phase is helping people adopt through Waqfinity memberships.”
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