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Reach Out and Touch Bangladesh
 

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Chamurkhan, Bangladesh - Mosammat Anwara Begum has three moneymaking enterprises here in the rural hinterlands of Bangladesh: her chickens, her ducks, and now her cellular telephone.

On good days, as many as 10 or 12 of her fellow villagers wade through Anwara's flocks of poultry, rap on the door, and pay 4.60 taka per minute (about a dime) to make a local call. All told, the telephone earns Anwara up to about $3.25 a week.

If Muhammad Yunus has his way, Anwara and thousands of women like her will push Bangladesh - most of which has never been wired for telephones - into the vanguard of cellular communications.

Yunus, the legendary founder and managing director of Grameen Bank, has garnered worldwide attention for his pioneering use of microcredit, or loaning very small sums to the poorest of the poor to help them start their own businesses - an idea that's recently caught fire in economic-development circles. Now Bangladesh's most famous banker has started a new nonprofit, Grameen Telecom, to turn these same borrowers into cellular entrepreneurs and, in the process, build a telephone system for his country. His ambitious goal: to put telephones in 50,000 of the nation's 68,000 villages by the year 2006.

Anwara, 50, is among the venture's first dozen or so participants. Last April, she took out a three-year $400 loan at 20% interest to purchase a cellular phone from Grameen Phone. It made her, in effect, an independent franchisee: for every dime that callers pay, she pockets about four-and-a-half cents and hands over the difference to Grameen.

"It's been working out quite well," says Anwara's 22-year-old daughter, Sharifa Akhtar Shikha. If there's an incoming call, she says, someone in the family is sent to fetch the recipient. "Yes, even if it's late at night. It's an obligation, because we're the ones with the telephone." Most of the outgoing calls are to the capital city of Dhaka, and a few are to Singapore, where several villagers have family members working.

Yunus's idea of building a cellular network - and skipping land-based telephone lines altogether - is not new to the developing world. But his scheme for doing it is.

In a land that lacks most basic infrastructure, Yunus is piggybacking on one infrastructure Bangladesh does have: Grameen Bank's network of people. The reach of that network is astonishing. The bank's microcredit operation has a presence in more than half the nation's villages. Every seven days, all 2 million of its borrowers - 94% of whom are women - meet face-to-face with a bank officer to discuss their progress and meet repayment schedules. (Thanks in part to such innovative lending practices as requiring women who borrow to belong to "solidarity groups" made up of other Grameen borrowers, Grameen boasts a payback rate of 98%.)

Last updated: Nov 27, 1997




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