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The Business of Changing Lives

September 23, 2010

(reprinted from September 15th edition of Streetvibes)

Grameen Bank borrowers attend a weekly centre meeting to make loan repayments.

In Bangladesh in the 1970s, Mohammad Yunus founded Grameen Bank, an organization that seeks to end poverty by extending small loans to poor people who are often excluded from commercial banks. From Grameen Bank, Yunus developed a philosophy of social business, in which, instead of building profit, the bottom line is addressing some social problem.

Social businesses are cause-driven. Similar to many businesses, investors contribute start-up money to get the business going. Once it is off the ground and turning a profit, the investors begin to regain their initial investments. Unlike conventional businesses, however, social businesses don’t pay dividends; all profits are reinvested back into the business to ensure sustainability and continued growth.

Grameen Bank was the first social business. As it grew and became self-sustaining, Yunus used his philosophy to address social issues such as childhood malnutrition, inadequate medical care, lack of clean water, foot-borne diseases and access to energy.

While I was in Bangladesh this summer, four social businesses and Grameen sister organizations had a particular impact on my experience. Grameen sister organizations are not social businesses per se, but work to address some social problem – often not seeking to make any revenue. The sister organizations operate more like nonprofit organizations in the United States.

Grameen Danone

Grameen Danone is a partnership between Grameen and Dannon, the French yogurt manufacturer. The mission is to bring better nutrition to poor, rural children who often suffer from nutrient deficiencies, such as vitamin A, zinc, iron and calcium. Grameen Danone yogurt, packed with these nutrients, is served in six- and eight-ounce cups. The yogurt is made from fresh milk purchased from farmers in the area, some of whom are Grameen Bank borrowers, directly benefiting the borrowers and other local farmers. Women in the village sell the yogurt door-to-door for six or eight taka (about 11 U.S. cents) per cup, depending on the size and flavor. (Mango flavor costs more).

By distributing the yogurt in this manner, one woman in the village is employed. The yogurt is also sold in Dhaka, the capital city. The cost is slightly higher in the city, with the price cheap enough that poor families can purchase it but high enough that the profit helps to cover the cost of production and distribution in the rural villages.

Grameen Fisheries

Women and children help to prepare the fish for market at Grameen Fisheries.

The Bangladeshi government loaned Grameen over 1,000 fishing ponds in the northwestern part of the country. The ponds have been for fisheries for centuries. Grameen devised a plan that would also help to alleviate poverty while turning the fisheries into a profitable business. The result was a 50/50 partnership between Grameen  and the poor families living along the fishing ponds. The families provide the labor of maintaining and fishing the ponds, and Grameen provides training, expertise and breed the fish to stock the ponds. The profits from selling the fish is split equally: 50 percent going to the fishermen, women and families and 50 percent going to Grameen Fisheries to cover overhead and operating costs.

Grameen Shakti

A Bangladeshi woman prepares food on an improved cooking stove.

Grameen Shakti is a sister organization dedicated to bringing green energy, health, income and jobs to rural Bangladesh. Grameen Shakti has four main programs: solar-energy systems, improved cooking stoves, biogas and organic fertilizer. Families purchase solar panels through a soft credit scheme, making them affordable. The panels are able to power lights and fans in a village home for several hours a day.

Most Bangladeshis do not have access to natural-gas lines to operate cooking stoves. As a result, people have to burn debris, wood and crop residues as fuel to cook food. This leads to deforestation and soil erosion as well as health problems – smoke and pollution inhalation – for women, who are often responsible for cooking.

Engineers work one-on-one with families to construct biogas plants on the villagers’ property and train families on maintenance and biogas technology. Families use the waste from their livestock to generate the biogas. Similar to the solar panels, the materials are purchased through a soft-credit program, making the plans affordable. The improved cooking stoves helps families use the biogas efficiently.

Grameen Shikkha

Grameen Shikkha is Grameen’s effort to address illiteracy and lack of educational opportunities for poor children. The mission of Grameen Shikkha is to provide slum children with a basic education to improve their work opportunities. Students receive instruction in English, Bangla, simple mathematics, social sciences and the environment. They also study Bangladeshi customs and arts.

The school, a single 10’x4’ room, has no desks or chairs but 20 smiling students and a teacher sitting on the floor with a stack of books in front of each student. The chalkboard at the front of the room had a welcome message for us visitors from the United States. The room was dimly lit, with one light bulb dangling from the ceiling. The students, ages 12 to 14, were in fifth grade.

The students rise at 6 a.m. and begin work, many of them sewing beads and embellishments on saris to be worn by brides. They work until 9 a.m., taking a break until 2 p.m. School is from 2 to 5 p.m. Students then return to their homes, where they work until 10 p.m. This doesn’t leave much time to play or study, but their families are in desperate need of the money the children can earn. It takes about one week to sew all of the beads and embellishments on a wedding sari. One child makes 900 taka a week (less than $13 U.S.); another, a girl, makes about 250 taka (less than $4).

We asked the children what they want to be when they grew up. It seemed too easy to wonder why we would even ask this type of question – these children are “grown up.” They work eight hours a day and have school three hours a day. Their lives seem to parallel that of a working American graduate student. But even if I were discouraged by the barriers stacked against them, the students were full of hope: they want to be teachers, doctors, pilots, businessmen. They are determined to improve their lives and leave the slums, and Grameen Shikkha is determined to help them achieve their goals.

One might wonder what three hours of classroom instruction would do, but the goal of Grameen Shikkha is to provide what little education they can to children who would otherwise work for 12 or more hours a day. Fighting child labor in Bangladesh is difficult: So many people are struggling to make it day-to-day. Convincing families to give up some of that potential income is difficult. But Grameen Shikkha keeps going back to the families because they know the parents want to provide a better life for their children.

The instruction in primary school could lead to scholarships to go on to high school and help the children improve their lives. Grameen Shikkha has launched a new scholarship program that will help students’ families pay for high school and perhaps earn scholarships to university.

A month learning about all of the different ways that Grameen is working to address poverty in Bangladesh wasn’t nearly enough to completely understand all of the issues that contribute to the level of poverty in Bangladesh, but it was enough time to learn the impact that a social business can have on one family’s life.
Cincinnati has several social businesses that aim to help the community overcome poverty. Streetvibes provides entrepreneurial opportunities and an income to homeless people. Venice on Vine is a pizza restaurant and catering service that teaches job skills to low-income Cincinnatians. Building Value salvages reusable materials for sale while providing people who have workforce disadvantages an opportunity to gain valuable experience and transition into construction and retail careers.


Bangladesh in the News

September 8, 2010

A minaret in the Mirpur, Dhaka, Bangladesh.

A five-part multimedia series on mass urbanization focused on Dhaka, Bangladesh. The United Nations estimates that Dhaka’s population will reach 20 million by year 2025.

Part 1: Dhaka, Bangladesh: Fastest Growing City in the World

Part 2: The Dreams of Dhaka’s Garment Girls

Part 3: Disasters Drive Mass Migration to Dhaka

Part 4: Looking on the Bright Side of Earth’s Growing Slums

Part 5: Who Can Solve a Problem Like Dhaka?

Some Favorite Photographs

August 28, 2010

Well I’ve been back in the U.S. for a few weeks now. I think I am finally readjusted and back to life as usual. It’s very weird because while I was in Bangladesh, I didn’t realize how much my daily habits had changed.

I must say I really miss Bangladesh and all of its beauty but I came home with some Bangladeshi tea, photographs and wonderful memories. I thought I would share some of my favorite photographs on shutterfly. I hope you enjoy.

Click here to see my favorite photographs.

Visit Bangladesh – before it becomes a tourist trap

August 6, 2010

During our first week in Bangladesh, we came across a poster that said – “Visit Bangladesh before the tourists come.” We all thought that it was amusing then, but as this trip is over and I have returned home, I realize the truth the poster holds.

As I reflect on my experience, I am grateful, humbled, excited and a little bit sad that it was so short (yet so long at times). Bangladesh is a developing country. They gained their independence from Pakistan in 1971 – making it less than 40 years old as an independent nation. The Bangladeshi people fought for more than just the right to be their own country – they fought for their language, for their culture, for their lives. They fought to exist. They persevered through massacres by the Pakistani Army to be in their own country. Millions were lost in the Bangladeshi fight for freedom.

As a foreigner in Bangladesh, I had to adapt to many situations which I did not expect: the constant Bangladeshi followers and stares, the rolling blackouts, the impossible (read: impassable) traffic, the child beggars that tap on car windows, the constant heat with little access to air conditioning, squat toilets, half-paved roads, and half-paved and uneven sidewalks.

These are all things that I (we) do not have to live with in the United States. Please do not read this as complaining – I’m not, I accepted these things as part of the trip and learned to adapt, even learned to appreciate. By the end, the heat didn’t bother me so much (but it felt amazing when we walked into a place that had decent a/c), squat toilets were nothing to get upset or be uncomfortable about, the half-paved roads made the van trips more fun, the uneven sidewalks gave you a little bit more exercise and, well, the following and the stares, you just learned to live with – I never felt threatened by people following us, it was just something that happened because they were curious. In fact, we even succumbed to the curiosity when we had lunch one day at a western restaurant and other western people walked in and we stared at them!

The only thing I never really got used to seeing were the children begging in the streets. Begging in Bangladesh is nothing like panhandling in the United States.  Americans complain about a man with a sign sitting on the sidewalk, the children on the streets of Dhaka would grab hold of your hand and motion that they want food or in broken English ask for two taka, five taka (that comes to between 3 and 7 cents in the United States). If you are in a car, they come out in traffic and tap on the windows – in moving, fast, dangerous traffic – there are children no older than five or six running in the streets barefoot with only a pair of shorts on, begging at cars, CNGs, rickshaws, vans, bikes, hoping to get a few taka to take home to their families. I can’t imagine this being acceptable in the United States or in another western country.

But I wouldn’t trade these experiences, because as we drove down the half-paved road back to Dhaka from Sylhet, I realized that in ten years, when the westerners realize the untapped beauty of Bangladesh, that that single lane road with beautiful farm land of rice, jute, bamboo, pineapple and tea will be a four lane highway with a McDonalds, Holiday Inn Express and Starbucks on the corners. The little family-owned shops that line the street in the center of town will not be constructed out of bamboo and tin but of brick and mortar with proper doors and air conditioning – all catering to the tourists.

In the city, the children begging in the streets would not be visible and would likely be run off by security guards or police. In general there is an acceptance of beggars in the street and a general idea of helping others out by providing what little taka they could or food, or whatever they can to help the beggar. There was some running off of beggars at the few touristy areas of Dhaka, but in general, no one ran the beggars off.

All of these western amenities will take away some of the beauty of Bangladesh. On the six hour drives through the country, there were only once or twice that I pulled out my iPod and book, because the scenery was far too beautiful to miss. I went a month without seeing a McDonalds, Starbucks or Holiday Inn.

Tourism is a good industry for Bangladesh and will help them develop further, but at what cost? Will it become so hyper-westernized that traveling to Bangladesh will be like traveling to Europe? Will the charm, beauty and simplicity of the village be lost? Will the Bangladeshi countryside be missed because tourists will not be able to see beyond the western implants?

I hope that the Bangladeshi countryside will still be accessible and alive well into the future. Agriculture is what the Bangladeshi economy today is built on, it is what sustains families, homes, lives – and it is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen.

So as I close out this blog, if you ever have the opportunity to visit Bangladesh, do it. But do it with an open mind, an open heart and have the adventurous spirit to move past the touristy areas and into the vast beautiful countryside. Embrace the people, the culture, the language (as best as you can). Soak up the simplicity of the village life, the tragedy of the poverty, the perseverance of the people.


Snake Charmers

August 6, 2010

On the last day in Dhaka city, we went to a nearby village to see a snake charmer. When we arrived, per usual, we drew a large crowd. Children, women, men all gathering around our car as our interpreter negotiated the price for us. When we got out of the car to watch the snake charmers, the crowd stayed and watched as well.

At first they brought out just one cobra snake that was long, but not large. Then they brought out two other snakes that were not cobras. Then at the end, they brought out a huge cobra snake that was very very upset. It was hissing and lunging at the charmer!

The several people in the crowd started to communicate to us that they were all snake charmers. They earn money by going door-to-door and perform snake charming shows.

Here are some pictures.


The Bangladeshi Tea Estates

August 6, 2010

Madhabkunda Waterfall

The last week in Bangladesh, we took an overnight trip to Srimangal – a city in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh. Unlike most of Bangladesh which is flat, this is a hilly region and tea plants are grown on the hills intermixed with beautiful trees because tea plants need diffused light.

On our way to the tea estates, we stopped at an orchid plantation, which was beautiful. Then we went to the tea estate guesthouse – a vacation-type resort operated by the Bangladeshi government. The bungalow we stayed in was nice and met our needs. Next was a stop at Lawacharra National Park. We took a 30-mintue hike through the forest which took more like an hour because we took a side trail to a small tribal village that had just been modernized less than six years ago. This village existed completely disconnected from the rest of the world. We also looked for some of the animals that can be seen in this part of Bangladesh including several types of monkeys, the spotted, barking deer and giant spiders. We did not come across any deer. We saw several monkeys but not for long enough to get a good picture, but the spiders were plentiful.

The next day was full of excitement. Our first stop was to Madhabkunda Waterfall.  It was a rainy day so the waterfall was heavy and it made for a good trip. Viyellatex – the garment factory we toured earlier in the trip – also owns a new tea estate (Ruthna Tea Estates) in Sylhet. They just planted their first tea plants this year and hope to begin harvesting in a year. They invited us to their recently rehabbed guest house for tea. The views from this guesthouse were magnificent.

After Ruthna Tea Estate we stopped at a tea processing plant to learn how my new favorite beverage is made.

Women pick the tea in the fields.

After wilting, the tea goes to the CTC room - crush, tear, curl - a special process used in black tea production.

After CTC, the tea is dried.

Then the tea is sorted and is ready for packaging.


Bangladeshi Hospitality

July 29, 2010

Tori Ames, Lynne Ausman and Melissa Dobbins out sightseeing.

As this adventure in Bangladesh beings to wind down, I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss the hospitality we have received in this country. (By “wind down” I mean we have less than a week left). Anyways, back to the hospitality.

It started the minute we arrived, Dr. Ahmed’s brother-in-law made customs a breeze and had vehicles arranged for us right at baggage claim. Even before we were through customs, Dr. Ahmed’s sons, Rashikh and Adeed, had collected all of our luggage for us. Upon arriving at the hotel, the staff quickly gathered our bags and delivered them to our rooms. We were originally in a room right next to the kitchen – it was loud and smelled of Indian/Chinese/Thai food – we requested a room change and the hotel was happy to accommodate our request.

Our first big trip outside of the hotel we took a day trip to a village just outside of Dhaka. In the village, everywhere we went, we were offered chairs, hand fans and tea and cookies/crackers. Then our translator took time out of his day to so us the National Martyrs Memorial and took us to a restaurant for lunch (we paid). When we met Dr. Mohammad Yunus, Grameen Bank was focused on ensuring that Northern Kentucky University students had had the first photographs and opportunity to meet Yunus.

Dr. Ahmed’s family invited us to a coming-of-age party they were throwing for her nephew. Her brother-in-law even went out of his way to obtain special permission for us to attend because the party was on the Bangladesh Air Force Base.

Our week in the village and at Grameen Fisheries was full of hospitality. The messenger purchased our food and water (not to mention cleaning up the bird that lost its life in our ceiling fan). The bank manager and staff that lived at the bank gave up two of their rooms to give us proper sleeping quarters. The cook made us delicious meals of exactly what we requested – mostly rice and fresh fruit for lunch and fried eggs and nan for breakfast. The village children would teach us words in Bangla and the local school invited us for a visit. When we were in the field, the Grameen borrowers would make sure we all had a seat, even if they had to stand or sit on the floor. Tea was served to us at every chance.

Our interpreters, Russell, Younus and Fuad, were instrumental in our learning and our getting around. They do so much more than just translate for us: they arrange transportation, make sure our accommodations are good, ensure our safety and are there if we get sick and need a doctor. At the Fisheries, Younus arranged for CNG’s to take us on a tour of the beautiful countryside. Since we have returned from the village, they have taken us sightseeing and shopping, invited us to their homes, arranged for American Burger to be delivered to our hotel, brought us delicious sweets… the list goes on and on.

On Wednesday (7/28/10), Dr. Ahmed invited us to her husband’s family vacation house in Utrail, south of Dhaka on the Ganges River. We took a ferry to the village and then spent the day relaxing at their vacation home. They cooked wonderful food for us – all very fresh. The chicken had been slaughtered and the tilapia caught just that day. After lunch we took a walk through the village that ended in a boat ride across the flooded area where the village used to sit.

And the hospitality continues, tomorrow we are going to the Tea Estates – about a 3-hour drive away – for an overnight stay. Dr. Ahmed and her family have made all of the arrangements…

I’ll write about the Tea Estates when we return.