Winning the ITU World Information Society Award is a thrilling news of a life time. This is a global honour in an exciting area of technology. It is very inspiring. Thank you for choosing me for this award.
I do not come from technology background. I got interested in the information and communication technology (ICT) because I saw this as a powerful new technology which can help the poor people, particularly poor women, out of poverty very fast. I saw how microcredit can bridge the gap between the poor and the ICT. All you need to do is to find a business model where ICT can become an income-generating opportunity to the poor. I tried this through bringing mobile phones in the hands of the poor women in Bangladesh. It worked beautifully. Almost everybody that I shared my thoughts about getting poor women involved in mobile phone business thought this is an idea which may fit into a science fiction, but not in real situation of Bangladesh.
Poor women responded to my idea with enthusiasm. They learnt quickly how to handle the phone, and the business. Today there are 200,000 telephone-ladies in Bangladesh earning good income for their families and contributing USD 11 million a month as revenue to Grameen Phone, the mobile phone company.
Grameen Phone found the women in Grameen Bank network so reliable as business partners, that it has now launched another programme with them. This time not only poor women will sell the airtime, they’ll also sell telephone connections for new subscribers, receive money, on behalf of the company, from the subscribers for replenishment of their accounts, and replace the pre-paid card gradually. This is a case of win-win-win situation from all three sides — the mobile phone company, subscribers, and the poor women.
Grameen Bank now serves 6 million borrowers, 96 per cent women. Number of borrowers will reach 8 million by the end of this year, and 12 million by 2010. Number of telephone ladies is expected to reach 400,000 by the end of this year, and one million by 2010. All this expansion is taking place with Grameen Bank’s own deposits, which expands at a rate to support the expansion of the branch network. New Grameen Bank branches are required to operate with its own money from deposits, and come to breakeven point within the first year of operation.
Entire accounting and MIS of Grameen Bank is computerised. We are launching an experimentation in collaboration with MIT Media Lab to use $ 100 lap-top for our field staff to do all the record keeping and transmission of branch data electronically. This will reduce our cost, and improve our efficiency. We can pass on the benefit of improved efficiency to our borrowers, who are also the owners of the bank.
We have been emphasising the importance of sending the children to school since we began our work in the mid-seventies. Our social programme, known as “Sixteen Decisions” includes this. Not only 100 per cent of children of Grameen families started going to school, now many of them are going to medical schools, engineering schools, universities etc. Grameen Bank provides them with student loans. Now there 10,000 students at the higher level of education who are financed by Grameen Banks education loans.
We are in the process of setting up a technology promotion fund in collaboration with Mr. Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel of Saudi Arabia, to provide financing to innovative adaptation of already designed technology, provide venture capital and loans to produce and market these technologies. I am expecting that ICT will be an area of technology which the innovators will give high priority.
Beggars Can Turn Into Business
Two years back Grameen Bank launched a special programme to give loans to beggars. We did not impose any of our existing rules on them. Loans are interest-free. They can pay whatever amount they wish whenever they want to pay. When the first loan is repaid, they can take the second loan, usually a bigger loan. With this money they turn themselves into door to door sales persons. It is upto them to decide when they should give up begging. We now have 70,000 beggars in this programme. It will reach 100,000 by the end of the year.
Ownership of asset plays a very critical role in generating income. We see how Grameen Bank helps people to own income-earning assets, like, land, cows, chickens etc. From telephone-ladies we learnt how mobile phone can be an income-earning asset. We brought this experience to apply on beggars. We have given several loans to beggars to buy mobile-phones. If they cannot master the technique of operating the business we pair them a capable person who becomes her managing partner. Both share the profit.
Beggars who do not have limbs, cannot go house to house, do the begging at a fixed spot with a beggar’s bowl in front. We are inviting them to keep some soft drinks, cookies, fruits, etc. next to them, and give their patrons an option ——- to throw in a coin into the beggar’s bowl or buy something from her, or do both.
ICT can change the Fate of the Poor Dramatically
Besides Grameen Phone, we have created other ICT related companies, such as, Grameen Software (doing outsourced software development), Grameen ICT training company, ISP, Grameen Communications, etc.
Poverty Should Find Its Place Only in the Museums
I strongly feel that we can create a poverty-free world. Basic ingredient of overcoming poverty is packed inside each poor person. All we need to do is to help the person to unleash this energy and creativity. Once this can be done, poverty will disappear very fast. Only place in the world where poverty may exist will be in the poverty museums, no longer in human society.
Let US Create New Type of Business — Social Business
We need to reconceptualise the business world to make sure it contributes to the creation of a humane society, not aggravate the problems around us. We need to recognise two types of businesses and offer equal opportunities to both. These two types of business are: (a) business to make money, i.e. conventional business, and (b) business to do good to people, or social business.
Social business enterprises are a new kind of non-loss-non-dividend enterprises which aim at solving social, health, and environmental problems utilising the market mechanism. We need to give opportunities to the social business entrepreneurs similar to the institutional and policy support system that the world has built over the years for the conventional businesses. One such new institution to help the social business entrepreneurs will be the creation of “social stockmarket” to bring the social business entrepreneurs and social investors to come in contact with each other and solve the problem of finding investment money for this new type of business.
There are many other things that need to be created, such as, social venture capital, social rating agencies, methodology of evaluating successes and failures of the social business enterprises, training social MBAs, etc.
ICT Can Change the Fate of the Poor Dramatically
I strongly feel that ICT can change the fate of the poor dramatically, if we can ensure access to ICT for the poor. ICT has the wonderful capacity to empower an individual person, even the poorest.
In three major areas ICT can play an immediate role helping the poor: 1) integrating the poor into the mainstream economy by expanding their market, eliminating the middlemen in their business, and creating international job opportunities through service out-sourcing; 2) bringing information, educational programmes, skills training, and healthcare services, etc, all in a very user friendly way, even to the most remote villages; 3) empowering the poor, particularly poor women, with a stronger voice that can be heard behind the borders of their village, better access to information, and improvement in the democratic process.
ICT can be visualised as an Aladdin’s Lamp in the hand of a poor woman. Digital genie can come out of the new digital version of the Aladdin’s lamp at a voice command to give all the support to a poor woman who needs to leverage her energy and creativity to lift herself out of poverty at the fastest speed.
But is anybody actually designing this Aladdin’s Lamp ? No. None, at present. Designers are busy designing iPods and endless incarnations of mobile-phones in every size, shape, colour and combinations of camera, voice recorder, music player, PDA, note book, games, wi-fi you dare to think. Don’t get me wrong. I am not against them. I love them. I use them. But I also want ICT designers to be given the challenge and opportunities to show their talent in designing equipments and gadgets which will solve the problems of the poor. These designers will have pictures of poor women in Bangladesh or Bolivia on their desks to remind themselves who they are working for. Better still, these women may be co-opted as their co-designers through frequent video-conferencing.
International Center for ICT to Help End Poverty
To pool the energy and talents of the people who would like to devote themselves in bringing ICT to the poor, in the form and shape that they can benefit the best, I have been proposing to create an ” International Center for ICT to Help Overcome Global Poverty.” To begin with, it can start as a ” Virtual Center” — a global network of committed people and social business entrepreneurs. Later it can have its own physical locations, full time personnel, design centers, action research programmes, businesses etc. If we are serious about ending global poverty — I see this to be a strategic institution to build.
Let me conclude by expressing my deep gratitude to ITU for recognising our efforts in bringing ICT to the poor.
With the visibility and importance that you give to the ICT initiatives I hope many more such initiatives will come forth and will outdo each other in their effectiveness in and commitment to achieve MDGs, particularly reducing poverty by half by 2015. We must take bold initiatives which will make historical breakthrough in ending global poverty
I accept the honour you have given me, and thank you on behalf of all my colleagues and the owner-cum-borrowers of Grameen Bank, particularly its telephone-ladies.
Tank you very much.