After a delicious Bengali breakfast of vegetables and paratha, I began a field trip that would ultimately bring me to Kholshi, where I did most of the research for my book Small Loans, Big Dreams. But first I asked to see a Grameen Bank center meeting, to see how the process has evolved. Abdul Malek, the manager, took me to Narandia, a village where there was a borrower meeting that day – this is where loan payments are made, new loans vetted, and other business conducted on a weekly basis.
Malek is still fairly new to this branch, and to driving a motorbike, so our trip through rice fields and the occasional dirt road was a bit of an adventure. I had visited Narandia a couple of times in the 1990s. Then as now the dominant force in this center – a federation of ten groups composed of fifty women clients – was Shaheeda Begum. She was making payments on her two current loans that totaled about $1,000. Only two other women in the center were able to borrow and invest amounts that large. To a much greater extent than was true a decade ago, loans are made on the basis of investment capability, and can vary a lot from client to client. Shaheeda was one of the most savvy businesswomen in the village. But as she would explain to me over the course of an hour, when she began borrowing from Grameen in 1987 her conditions were much humbler than today.
“Back then, I lived in a rotting thatch hut, like everyone else here. Now, in this part of the village alone, there are 29 sturdy tin houses,” she said loudly, almost shouting. Back before she joined Grameen, her son had dropped out of school after completing the eighth grade, and had appealed to go to Dhaka for an apprenticeship in the book binding (publishing) business since there was no money to pay for any more schooling, and hardly enough for food. Shaheeda reluctantly agreed.
After she took out and repaid a loan of $80 for raising chickens, she borrowed more and combined that with her profits from the poultry farm to finance her son to start his own printing business. Today, he has 17 employees and looks after his mother while she continues with various income-generating activities in her village, where she feels much more comfortable than in Dhaka.
From there we went to Kholshi. I saw some of the original borrowers, such as Devi Rani Haldar, Nonibala Ghosh, and of course the mother hen of the group – Shandha Rani Haldar. I asked about her son. I had learned on my last visit that he had benefitted from a Grameen Bank higher education loan of $1,100. and as a result was studying at Dhaka University, the country’s most prestigious. She explained that he had completed his M.A. in economics and was now pursuing an M.B.A. Not missing a beat, she whipped out her mobile phone (!) and called her son so that Malek (the manager) and I could talk to him. Why miss a chance to network and set her son up with a possible job upon graduation?
The area covered by this branch is very dilapidated, due to poor infrastructure, isolation from major centers of commerce, and relatively unproductive farmland. Yet, women like Shaheeda and Shandha are thriving, and setting an example for others. Of course, not every borrower does as well as they have. Some do not make much progress at all. But at least they had the chance.
I was impressed to learn that even in such a depressed area, the Shaymganj branch had made a profit of roughly $9,000 in the first half of 2009, and is projected to make $19,000 profit over the course of the full year. Some would look at a backward area like this one and wonder how a bank branch could stay afloat. Grameen is able to make a modest profit despite many challenges. Furthermore, it mobilizes more in savings – about $700,000 – than it has in loans outstanding ($400,000), meaning that the Shaymganj branch rather improbably helps finance economic development in other Grameen branches around the country.