A version of this article was originally published by Knowledge at Wharton
Alex Counts, president and chief executive of the Grameen Foundation, urged people to reconsider their notions of the poor as incapable of starting and running a business. Living on $1 or $2 a day hones persistence, creativity and thrift, the very skills that make for a good entrepreneur, Counts says. "Those of us who have grown up in affluence underestimate the abilities of the poor and what is learned in survival mode," he said, adding that he has never seen a "Help Wanted" ad in the world's poorest villages. The poor work for themselves or not at all.
Grameen Bank has been profitable since 1983, but it does not follow the standard advice of charging what the market will bear, according to Counts.
Counts learned about microfinance from Mohammad Yunus, who started what became Grameen Bank in 1976, believing that small loans to the world's poorest residents could lift them out of poverty. The bank inspired the Grameen Foundation, founded by Counts in 1997 with $6,000 in seed funding. The foundation and the bank are separate entities; the foundation supports a network of microfinance institutions with educational programs, capital and technology support. Grameen Bank spawned a host of similar programs that lend small amounts of money to poor people to start businesses, including selling crafts, food and services. Its loans have helped borrowers buy everything from goats in Bangladesh to hair dryers for salons in Queens, N.Y. The bank's customers borrow about $100 million monthly and pay it all back 99 percent of the time.
Counts deepened his study of microfinance by talking to thousands of borrowers. As a student at Cornell, he took Yunus' advice and learned Bengali so that he could better understand the culture and the people.
After graduating with a degree in economics in 1988, Counts was a Fulbright scholar in Bangladesh, where he went to work for Grameen Bank. He later served as the legislative director of RESULTS, an international grass-roots anti-hunger campaign, and was regional manager for CARE-Bangladesh for two years. Those experiences showed him that success comes slowly, sometimes over more than one generation.
Despite widespread praise for Grameen and for microfinance in general, Counts said the field is in its infancy: "Microfinance has come a very long way, but it's got a long way to go."
Despite increasing competition in microfinance, "the price of credit is much too high. Rates of 40 percent to 50 percent are common, if expressed as an annual percentage rate," Counts said, adding that although those rates still beat other types of small loans available to the poor, the microfinance industry must bring rates down further.
Another problem: Each institution operates on its own technology, aggravating communication between microfinance organizations. Micro-lenders also need uniform ways to measure profits. Uniform statistics also could paint a clearer picture of whether micro loans are reducing poverty, and by how much. In addition, the industry has barely begun to consider its environmental impact.
He compared the industry's status to that of the Internet in its early days. As people developed new ways of using the Internet, it grew in unpredictable and profitable ways. "This infrastructure to leverage microfinance is actually something much, much bigger than that. It represents the biggest intentional motivation of the poor in the world's history." He predicted that decades from now, people will look back at the current microfinance system and see it as "absurdly slow," just as they now consider dial-up Internet access outdated.
Counts said Grameen Shakti, a bank spinoff that is selling solar-power systems to Bangladesh's rural poor, has capitalized on the microfinance model in an innovative way. Grameen Shakti trains and employs women as technicians to maintain the systems. Initially, the energy company's founders thought they would be doing well if they installed 100 solar systems. Now 10 years old, Grameen Shakti installs several thousand systems a month. Among other benefits, the solar power reduces indoor air pollution and allows children to study at night. Grameen Shakti, like the bank, succeeded because of the ingenuity of poor villagers.
Successful microfinance often requires experimenting with business models. When Grameen Bank tried to offer health insurance to the poor for a small yearly fee plus a copay for doctor visits, "The poor weren't too happy. They said, 'Why do I have to pay for it when I'm well?' But then we said, 'OK, you have savings accounts. What if we just deduct $3 a month?"' The switch got enough people to buy the insurance, and the program is now recovering almost all of its costs.
In addition to helping poor people earn money, Grameen Bank turns them into owners. The bank's borrowers have nine of the 13 seats on its board of directors, and every borrower is a shareholder. This creates immense pride, Counts said. One borrower-shareholder who sat on the board of the bank described herself as a Nobel laureate after Yunus and the bank won that prize in 2006 for starting Grameen.
More than 90 percent of Grameen borrowers are women. When Yunus started the bank, he thought about half the borrowers should be women, to reflect their numbers in society. But over time, he noticed that women paid him back more consistently than men and that women tended to plow their earnings back into their families. Loans to women were more likely to eradicate poverty, which prompted the bank to seek them out as customers. That emphasis also has raised women's status in society. Bangladeshi women live under the threat of divorce; when their marriages fail, they usually have to return to their parents and can't remarry. But to get a loan, said Counts, the woman often must have some property in her name. Once a woman has property rights, "you can imagine that that changed some of the dynamics in the house."