Alex Counts is President and CEO of Grameen Foundation, and the author of “Small Loans, Big Dreams: How Nobel Prize Winner Muhammad Yunus and Microfinance are Changing the World” (John Wiley & Sons, 2008). Below, he recounts his visits to assess the state of microfinance with Grameen Foundation partners worldwide.
I am coming to the end of my longest fall trip – it’s been a whirlwind and culminates in an emotional climax tonight.
Today, there will be a massive event to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The theme for many will be “another wall to fall,” with the focus on how poverty needs to follow the Cold War into the dustbin of history. To symbolize this, Professor Yunus will be the final speaker at the event, which will also feature many European heads of government.
My journey began in Miami, where I was attending the board meeting of Fonkoze USA, the U.S. sister organization of the largest microfinance institution in Haiti. We heard Fonkoze’s co-founders, Father Joseph Philippe and Anne Hastings, report about some positive trends in the their organization and also some troubling developments in Haiti, including the fall of the government (i.e., the Prime Minister was forced out by the President) the day before we arrived in Miami – something that could set back many recently announced humanitarian projects, some of which Fonkoze would stand to benefit from. With Haiti, even at the best of times it seems like two steps forward, one and half steps back – but Fonkoze battles on. The board of directors of Fonkoze elected me their Chairman, in part due to the great support that they have gotten over the years from Grameen Foundation. I was honored and humbled.
Next I went to Hong Kong, where I met some expatriate and local Chinese donors who have been backing our work in what has become our Asian regional hub. Our Asia CEO Jennifer Meehan took me around for these meetings before we left for Jakarta. There, we met up with about 30 Grameen Foundation colleagues, including several highly skilled full-time volunteers who are working out of our Hong Kong office these days. We broke into groups and did field visits to learn about the progress of our latest “village phone” project where we enable poor women to start a business selling use of her phone to local people who cannot afford their own phone, and also reselling airtime minutes (in Indonesia and in much of the world, airtime is pre-paid rather than post-paid as it is in much of the United States).
I met three women whose husbands were doing anything from occasional day labor to a regular factory job and earning up to $2 per day to support families ranging in size from five to nine members. Each woman reported that the phone business was growing, and the one I met who had been going the longest – since July – reported net profits of $2 per day, exactly what her husband earned when he could find work. The need for both micro-franchise opportunities, which is to say pre-packaged business solutions like village phone that designed for a poor entrepreneur, and the credit to make these businesses viable, was very clear to all of us who collectively interviewed about 15 women. By March, there will be 1,200 village phone businesses in operation in Indonesia thanks to GF’s local team and our grant from Qualcomm.