Remembering Nazeer Aziz Ladhani: Innovative Leader of @AKDN Institutions and International Development Community

By Nazir Kassamali, former Director of Finance and Administration at the University of Central Asia


Rai Nazeer Aziz Ladhani was the former CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, former Director General of the University of Central Asia and the former Director General of the School of Media and Communication in Kenya. Nazeer passed away recently in his sleep in Nairobi on February 19, 2020 at age 72. After retiring from his latest assignment in Nairobi, Kenya in September 2019, he continued to give his time to programs focused on entrepreneurship, innovation, and education.

His obituary was published in the Globe and Mail, a prestigious Canadian newspaper and written by a well know author and reporter Ian Smillie. Nazeer’s retirement party was celebrated by the Aga Khan Foundation in Geneva, Switzerland. He was the stalwart of our AKDN Institutions and played a key role in the development of the institutions, including the Delegation of the Ismaili Imamat and the Global Centre for Pluralism. His life story exemplifies the challenges faced by many Ismailis who moved from East Africa in the 1970s and his successes and achievements deserve recognition and remembrance.

Nazeer Aziz Ladhani was born in Tanzania on August 20, 1947, growing up on the family farm at Magole and later in Morogoro’s Usangasanga Dairy Farm, about 185 kilometres west of Dar es Salaam. Following four sisters, he was the fifth of seven children. He planned to follow in his father’s footsteps, earning an agricultural diploma in animal husbandry from Egerton University in Kenya.

The Arusha Declaration in 1967 by the then President Nyerere presented the first roadblock in his career path. This was the first step towards state’s socialist policies. Just before the nationalization of real estate and personal properties was enacted in 1971, Nazeer moved to London, England and started articling in a medium size Chartered Accountancy public practice and completed Certified Accounting courses (ACCA) and obtained his certification as an associate. He then joined Imperial Oil (Esso Petroleum) as a management auditor and completed an MBA from INSEAD, the prestigious business school at Fontainebleau, just outside Paris.

In 1974, he married Gulabi Sultanali in Karachi, Pakistan. His first daughter was born in 1977 and the family moved to Canada shortly after her birth. They arrived in Calgary, and later settled in Edmonton, where Mr. Ladhani set up a business consulting firm and lectured in finance and entrepreneurship at the Northern Alberta Institute of Technology. In 1980, their second daughter, Aliya, was born.

In 1981, Mr. Ladhani spotted an ad on the South Jamaat Khana notice board. It was about a Startup job as an Executive Director of the newly established Aga Khan Foundation Canada (Head Office in Vancouver, BC).

Excerpts from the obituary found in the Globe and Mail, written by Ian Smillie:

“It was not easy introducing the freshly minted AKFC to a well-established Canadian international development community of NGOs, government departments and the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Mr. Ladhani didn’t fit anyone’s idea of an aid worker: Unlike the white establishment in Ottawa, he was an Asian from Africa, he had a business background and temperament, and English was his third language. In addition, he was a Muslim, and in a world of Birkenstocks, he always wore a suit and tie. Plus, apart from his brief encounter with piglets, he didn’t speak the development lingo.

He soon understood that while some might see the new operation as a fundraising arm for wider AKF programming in Asia and Africa, AKFC would never fly high unless it became something in its own right, adding genuine Canadian value. He observed that many Canadian NGOs, while well-intentioned, had a “helping” mindset. For Mr. Ladhani, development was about change, and change required both expertise and knowledge. More importantly, it had to be achieved by the people it was intended for. For him, development was about expanding and creating opportunities.

At first he dabbled, moving the AKFC office to Toronto in 1986 and then to Ottawa in 1994. By then AKFC had gained prominence for effective programs and research in natural resource management, micro-finance, health, gender and economic empowerment. Forging partnerships with Canadian institutions, Mr. Ladhani worked to pair McMaster University, for example, with the Aga Khan University School of Nursing in Pakistan, and what began as a simple exchange project became something transformative. In 2008, Firoz Rasul, president of the Aga Khan University (AKU) said that “Over time, the impact of this partnership has extended beyond Pakistan to other countries where AKU has a nursing presence, including Kenya Tanzania, Uganda, Afghanistan, Syria and Egypt.”

Mr. Ladhani created a volunteer-sending program providing technical, managerial and professional knowledge, tapping Canada’s Ismaili community and eventually others for expertise that could be returned to Asia and Africa. In 1989 he formed the International Development Management Fellowship. Today, with more than 500 alumni, it is the leading international professional training and career development program for young Canadians.

Mr. Ladhani had no concept of an eight-hour work day. A work colleague, Richard Phinney, said, “For Nazeer, every breakfast, every lunch, every dinner was a meeting – even smoke breaks in the parking lot at CIDA were opportunities for meetings and discussion. He always wanted to know what people thought. He soaked up information.” Ideas would churn for weeks and sometimes months. He was an excellent editor, shaping and reshaping the work of staff and consultants until he had what he wanted. “The one thing he wouldn’t tolerate,” said Ameer Esmail, a former chair of the AKFC governing body, “was mediocrity.”

Huguette Labelle, a former president of CIDA, said, “He wasn’t looking for personal recognition. He had an exceptional capacity to build constructive and lasting relationships, and there was always a sense that if someone needed help, Nazeer would be there.”

“He was a very sensitive individual with a heart of gold,” recalled Feroz Kassam another past chair of the governing body, “but he hid it behind the smokescreen of his professionalism.” None of what he did was easy, and he had to deal with a myriad of sensitive institutional issues. “He never let personal slights get in the way,” Mr. Kassam said, “and once he respected you, you couldn’t find a better or more loyal friend.”

His successor in Ottawa, Khalil Shariff, said, “Nazeer’s fingerprints are all over AKFC, the broader development community in Canada, and all the new institutions and initiatives we have developed over the years. His ambition, standards, mischievous energy, and extraordinary ingenuity are going to be so missed.” That mischievous energy didn’t always sit well with Ismaili ideas of propriety, but he often told his daughters, “If I had followed the rules, I would still be in Morogoro.”

Eager for new challenges, in 2004, Mr. Ladhani accepted the post of director general of the University of Central Asia, recently established by the Aga Khan Development Network in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, aimed at introducing modern liberal arts education to three newly independent, former Soviet republics. In 2009, Mr. Ladhani moved back to East Africa to lead planning for a series of graduate professional schools for the Aga Khan University.

Mr. Ladhani’s greatest pride was his two daughters, whose education and independence he championed both as father and mentor. If he had an unfulfilled ambition, it was to be a teacher himself in some sort of classroom setting. In a sense, though, he was a teacher from the moment he took on the AKFC position in 1981. Everything he did was about enabling people to learn.

“He was skeptical of the charity approach,” Mr. Phinney said. “He believed in supporting the capacity of people and organizations to widen their own horizons. He was such a strong Canadian – he believed in this country, and in the corny idea that the world can be a better place if Canadians are involved. He made a difference internationally in a way that strengthened Canada.””

Former Prime Minister of Canada, Joe Clark was heard mentioning “Nazeer is one giant of a man!”. This was after his international tour (with Nazeer and other senior delegates) of development projects with CIDA and AKFC.

Marta Gruber, Executive Assistant to Nazeer Ladhani for over 18 years writes “I learned so much from working with Nazeer, and I will always be grateful to him for the opportunities he provided for me to learn and grow. I am glad that you are writing this about the accomplishments of the Nazeer we knew so well”.

Nazir Kassamali who joined Nazeer’s UCA management team as the Director of Finance and Administration writes:

“During his assignment as the Director General of the University of Central Asia (UCA), a unique, internationally chartered higher university focused on the development of mountain societies, with purpose-built world class residential campuses in Naryn, Kyrgyzstan, and Khorog, Tajikistan and (future) Tekeli in Kazakhstan, Nazeer accomplished significant progress which is explained below.

In a meeting in New York in 2003, discussion came up about the slow progress of the of University subsequent to the signing of the Agreement in 2000 with the respective governments, namely, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There were significant issues that were not being addressed to meet the vision of the newly created University. Hazar Imam, His Highness the Aga Khan asked Nazeer to takeover the management of the University and address the issues and provide solutions so that the three campuses and core curricula are built on a solid foundation.

Under Nazeer’s leadership and guidance, UCA team achieved:

  • Protocols following the agreements were approved and ratified by the acts of Parliaments of the three countries. This gave recognition equivalent to that of International NGOs such as United Nations which included Diplomatic status of the University, diplomatic license plates for the vehicles, ease of movements of the University employees across the three campuses and trilateral work permits. Government departments and senior employees were educated of the status of the University of Central Asia. This recognition of the UCA status made it easier to work with the Government officials of the three countries.
  • Three Schools of Continuing Education and vocational training (SPCE) were built and opened. Full enrollments were accepted across the three campuses during Nazeer’s tenure and first cohorts graduated during the Golden Jubilee of Hazar Imam.
  • Administrative and support staff were hired and trained.
  • Financial, Human Resources and Campus enrollment Systems, business processes and procedures were implemented.
  • Campus designs of the three Campuses were completed with the Japanese Architects, Arata Sasaki.
  • Cadastral surveying of the University lands allocated by the three governments were completed and delivered.
  • For Khorog Campus in GBAO, Tajikistan, alternative land and compensations were allocated to the families who were residing inside the University boundary. This took a lot of persuasion and working with the local leaders and the three layers of Governments.
  • Vocational schools to train brick layers, plasterers, carpenters and painters were established with the grant from US Aid which Nazeer was instrumental in acquiring.

It takes over three to four decades for a University to achieve the Global standards of recognition and Nazeer made an outstanding contribution to give it a solid foundation.”

Kurban Meghani who had worked closely with Nazeer Ladhani as the Controller of AKFC for 18 years in Ottawa writes:

“This offered me a long memorable opportunity to experience first-hand the nature and depth of his personal and professional leadership. To describe how his life had a great impact on the organization’s culture and achievements within the AKDN’s network, would require a separate book.

Below is a very brief description of the impact and achievements.

  1. Personal mission:

His life was a total and personal commitment to the Imamat institutions and doing so he succeeded in leaving an impact on the quality of life of vulnerable communities in developing countries. For him, his corporate life and personal mission was not separate from personal worship. At times, I personally witnessed him singing Ismaili Ginans whilst engaging in deeper corporate reflections.

  1. Reputation of AKFC and AKDN Institutions as International organizations

Nazeer’s ability to articulate and to tell a story from the heart about AKDN’s mandate and its significant achievements in development work, earned him personal trust and special relationships amongst senior government leaders  (including-Former Prime Ministers) and international  development professionals. One of the unique corporate initiatives he introduced at AKFC was his travel missions with external dignitaries to the developing countries where AKDN had projects. He was able to demonstrate the impact on communities in the respective countries. This resulted in solid reputation and understanding of AKDN initiatives and self-sustaining projects in the developing countries. This further enhanced public private partnership with governmental agencies and other NGOs.

  1. Organizational achievements within AKFC:

In the first two decades of AKFC his significant contributions were:

  • Building the most significant partnership with Canadian Aid agency (CIDA/ Department of Foreign Affairs) that helped to mobilize financial and human resources which supported more than 60 projects spread across 15 countries.
  • Nurturing institutional and individual relationships with Canadian government, agencies and other NGOs to establish an image as a non-denominational economic agency. A dramatic change of public and government’s initial impression as a religious foundation.
  • Establishing and building Canadian based programs like Canadian exhibition of development engagement, Fellowships in international development, World Partnership Walks across the country and fund raising Golf tournaments targeting the Canadian development community, Canadian Corporations and Ismaili Community. The walk had become one the largest fundraising campaign which has been replicated in United Kingdom and United States.
  • Building and inspiring a strong team of more than 800 volunteers and a small professional staff of less than 20 at AKFC. Within the volunteer teams he would inspire and pay special attention to encourage them to undertake larger and fulfilling responsibilities within and beyond network. Experienced gained by these volunteers have moved on to become CFOs and CEOs in other organizations.
  1. Leadership attributes
  • Visionary: His personal abilities to grasp the emerging trends of broad vision and proximity to our Hazar Imam aided him to envision a bright and ambitious future for AKFC.
  • Searching and Venturing: His pursuit to serve the vulnerable societies enabled the search for opportunities for new projects in new countries. In some cases, it landed in extremely difficult and hostile environments. AKFC was instrumental in bringing the first external agency aid to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Northern areas of Pakistan.
  • Understanding of different cultures: With his extensive travel to more than 60 projects in 15 countries, he developed a deep understanding of different cultures, in addition to his own personal roots in East Africa.
  • Innovation: During his time new ground-breaking institutional partnerships such as PAKSID, research projects and linkages between Canada and Pakistan, Institutional linkages between AKU and McMaster University and other higher education institutions were put in place.
  • Service as a personal worship: He always said- Service to humanity is the ethic which is equal to own personal worship and he devoted perhaps more time to service as that brought him true happiness.

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

5 thoughts

  1. I met him in Nairobi.He was my best friend,s cousin and would come from Egerton college Whenever he had holidays.
    We followed vastly different pathways but our paths crossed in Vancouver. He had started his career with AKFC and I was a physician at UBC. He was always like he had been as a young student. Keen,ambititious,inspiring and always serving humanity.I always admired him for being such a dedicated human being and true friend


  2. Nazir Kassamali,
    Thank you for an excellent insight into the life & achievements of Nazeer Ladhani. An amazing leader with exceptional vision and dedication. Family, friends & colleagues should be happy & proud to have shared life experiences with such an amazing personality. Rest in peace, Nazeer😊


  3. Very pleased indeed to see such a detailed Obituary of Late Rai Nazeer Ladhani, I believe it will do justice to this true amazing leader of our time. I am reproducing my comments on the earlier posting and continue to pray that may Allah rest his soul in eternal peace. Ameen.

    “Kamrudin A. Rashid
    March 5, 2020 @ 11:56 pm
    Late Nazeer Ladhani was originally from Morogoro, Tanzania and I had known him since he was was studying at the Egerton College in Njoro near Nakuru, Kenya. I was then involved with the Aga Khan Department of Education for Tanzania and had the opportunity to visit Egerton College twice. Many Tanzanian and East African students were sponsored for their studies at Njoro. I was also in touch with Late Nazeer when he was the CEO of the Aga Khan Foundation Canada. He was an intellectual individual and he will be missed by many family members and friends around the world. Pray that may his soul rest in eternal peace.”


  4. Nazeer and Gulabi were our close friends during the year at INSEAD in Fontainebleau. We have known them as very kind and serious class mates and friends. My wife Catherine remembers well of Gulabi … they were meeting quite often during the day when we were attending lectures.
    Have a good journey, my friend Nazeer, with favourable winds !


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