Grameen Foundation supporter and actress Yeardley Smith (voice of “Lisa Simpson” on the popular TV show The Simpsons) and President and CEO Alex Counts traveled to Bangladesh in late July 2010. They visited Grameen Bank and some of the other enterprises Professor Yunus has launched to accelerate poverty reduction. This is Alex’s fifth and final blog post chronicling their visit.
My trip to Bangladesh with Yeardley Smith and the rest of our delegation was a terrific learning experience. It proved to be a window into a possible future for microfinance, since Grameen Bank, its affiliated companies, and other groups in Bangladesh are far ahead of the rest of the movement in many ways.
On the morning of our sixth day, we were joined by three French interns with Grameen-Danone. The original social business focused on combating malnutrition and poverty, Grameen-Danone produces fortified yogurt and engages the poor in the production and sales processes. First stop was one of four collection points where Grameen-Danone contractors test and purchase milk from local farmers, including quite a few Grameen borrowers. They set up in a convenient location and guarantee a fixed price all year round—both of which, based on random interviews I conducted, are appreciated by the local people even if they can occasionally get a higher price in local markets miles away.
Then we went to a cooling station where the daily milk collections are stored for a few hours before being sent to the Grameen-Danone plant. (Everything is transported using local rickshaw pullers and “baby taxi”—three-wheelers—drivers on contract. The time from milk collection to yogurt in a cup ready to be sold or shipped is just 36 hours!)
Finally we spent some time interviewing Chobi Rani Das, the first and most successful yogurt saleslady. She goes door to door with her insulated bag full of tasty and nutritious yogurt (packaged in biodegradable cups) to sell to villagers at Tk. 6 ($0.10) each. She told us that many of her customers were of modest means, and they gave the yogurt to their children. She and her husband sell about 2,000 cups per month. At the small production plant, it was interesting to see that a team was being trained to perform a socio-economic impact survey in the coming weeks—something that not many traditional corporations do as part of their work! Grameen-Danone is due to be profitable next year, as it grows its product from 80,000 cups per day to close to double that. (They are also planning to open a second plant to serve the profitable Dhaka metro area market.)
Lastly, we visited an eye hospital which is already profitable. The hospital charges middle class people Tk. 3,200 ($45) for a cataract surgery, half that amount to people of modest means, and a token sum to the poor. (They also perform other eye procedures on a sliding scale and sell glasses.) The doctors, nurses and administrators all seemed highly motivated and professional, and the waiting room was full. Overall, an average of 220 patients are served per day, including dozens who are pre-screened in temporary field clinics and then bused in from outlying areas at the hospital’s expense.
The ride home that afternoon was quicker than I’d expected. Yeardley and I had a lovely final dinner where we recounted our adventures and learnings and talked about the work ahead to continue to build microfinance, social business and Grameen Foundation. She is speaking at a fundraiser for us in Dallas in mid-September (among many other outreach activities); she can now add the concrete experiences seeing the Grameen “mother ship” to her extensive knowledge base built by her readings and visits to Haiti.
Yeardley has a new business venture gearing up, and she promises to use profits from it to benefit microfinance. She seems well-positioned to become one of the world’s leading spokespeople for microfinance. Given The Simpsons’ amazing following in Asia, home to the majority of the world’s poor and many newly minted millionaires and billionaires, the potential for Yeardley to assist Grameen Foundation, and inspire others to do so, seems vast.