Royston and I spent the first few hours on Monday back in the Grameen Complex in Dhaka. The most exciting meeting was with two retired Grameen Bank officials — Fazley Rabbi and, briefly, Abser Kamal – both of whom now work with Grameen Shakti (Energy). Shakti, a sister company of Grameen Bank set up by Dr. Yunus in the early 1990s and that had been led until recently by Dipal Barua, has become a world leader in bringing renewable energy to rural households. We heard how they had passed 300,000 solar home systems installed, and how they do it profitably and at a rate of 13,000 per month at present. (The second most successful program of this kind has reached just over 100,000 installations.)
As always with Grameen, there was more. They are ramping up a biogas program that turns cow and chicken manure into natural gas for cooking and, as a by-product, organic fertilizer that can be sold to farmers. In a country where fertilizer is in great demand, and where the subsidies for it are so expensive for the government, some consider fertilizer to be the main product of this process, and the natural gas a by-product. Already, there have been 8,000 mini-biogas plants installed and many more are in the pipeline.
Furthermore, Shakti has created 45 “Grameen Technology Centers” where young women with at least an eighth grade education (which is increasingly common in this country) are trained to become skilled in manufacturing and servicing batteries and other equipment used in generating, storing and distributing clean energy. After training, they are able to earn $90-$110 per month – not bad in a country where the average annual income is about $400. The alternative for these young women would be almost certain unemployment.
The next frontiers for Shakti? Harnessing wind energy, developing and deploying solar-driven irrigation systems (the prototype is ready to go), and penetrating the urban market for solar energy. The financing source for their rural solar program is not available for urban installations, so Royston had some promising ideas for generating financing for their urban plans using carbon trading system now coming into the mainstream. Follow up discussions are planned.
Royston and I parted midday, and I spent the rest of the day travelling with my old friend Golam Morshed Mohammad to the branch where I had done the research for my book Small Loans, Big Dreams (Wiley, 2008). (Royston suffered through a 21 hour delay getting back to Mumbai!) En route to the Shaymganj branch, I meet with Mohammad Tayebur Rahman, the zonal manager who overseas some 60 branches (each serving about 3,000 families), and the area manager Goutom Bishash. It was during these discussions that I realized that my spoken Bengali was still fairly good, so I was able to get a grasp of the current status of one of Grameen’s oldest and most successful regional operations.
After the final leg of my journey – a 45 minute ride on the back of a motorcycle – I arrived at the branch I had gotten to know best during my six years in Bangladesh. It was after sundown when I arrived, but the market was lit up, which surprised me since there was never any electricity there when during my many visits in 1993-5, and even when I returned in 2004.
It was not until the next day that I noticed that we had driven by a newly opened office for Grameen Shakti as we approached the Grameen Bank office – which as before we housed in an unused room in the local high school. The signboard had been replaced with a fresh one that include “Recipient of the Nobel Prize” (in Bengali) under the words Grameen Bank. How appropriate to remind the people of this community that their country had contributed microfinance to benefit the world’s poverty reduction efforts, and that this contribution had been recognized with its most prestigious prize!