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Published: January 10, 2002

 
 

The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid

The same logic applies on a much larger scale in Tier 4. Consider the experience of the Grameen Bank Ltd. in Bangladesh, one of the first in the world to apply a microlending model in commercial banking. Started just over 20 years ago by Muhammad Yunus, then a professor in the Economics Department at Chittagong University, Bangladesh, Grameen Bank pioneered a lending service for the poor that has inspired thousands of microlenders, serving 25 million clients worldwide, in developing countries and wealthy nations, including the United States and Great Britain.

Grameen Bank’s program is designed to addresses the problems of extending credit to lowest-income customers — lack of collateral, high credit risk, and contractual enforcement. Ninety-five percent of its 2.3 million customers are women, who, as the traditional breadwinners and entrepreneurs in rural communities, are better credit risks than men. Candidates for loans must have their proposals thoroughly evaluated and supported by five nonfamily members of the community. The bank’s sales and service people visit the villages frequently, getting to know the women who have loans and the projects in which they are supposed to invest. In this way, lending due diligence is accomplished without the mountain of paperwork and arcane language common in the West.

With 1,170 branches, Grameen Bank today provides microcredit services in more than 40,000 villages, more than half the total number in Bangladesh. As of 1996, Grameen Bank had achieved a 95 percent repayment rate, higher than any other bank in the Indian subcontinent. However, the popularity of its services has also spawned more local competitors, which has cut into its portfolio and shrunk its profits over the past few years.

In addition, Grameen Bank’s rate of return is not easy to assess. Historically, the bank was an entirely manual, field-based operation, a structure that undercut its efficiency. Today, spin-offs such as Grameen Telecom (a provider of village phone service) and Grameen Shakti (a developer of renewable energy sources) are helping Grameen Bank build a technology infrastructure to automate its processes. As the bank develops its online business model, profitability should increase dramatically, highlighting the importance of information technology in the acceleration of the microcredit revolution.

Perhaps the most pertinent measure of Grameen Bank’s success is the global explosion of institutional interest in microlending it has stimulated around the world. In South Africa, where 73 percent of the population earns less than R5,000 ($460) per month, according to a 2001 World Bank study, retail banking services for low-income customers are becoming one of the most competitive and fast-growing mass markets. In 1994, Standard Bank of South Africa Ltd., Africa’s leading consumer bank, launched a low-cost, volume-driven e-banking business, called AutoBank E, to grow revenue by providing banking services to the poor. Through the use of 2,500 automated teller machines (ATMs) and 98 AutoBank E-centres, Standard now has the largest presence in South Africa’s townships and other under-serviced areas of any domestic bank. As of April 2001, Standard served nearly 3 million low-income customers and is adding roughly 60,000 customers per month, according to South Africa’s Sunday Times.

Standard does not require a minimum income of customers opening an AutoBank E account, although they must have some regular income. People who have never used a bank can open an account with a deposit of as little as $8. Customers are issued an ATM card and shown how to use it by staff who speak a variety of African dialects. A small flat fee is charged for each ATM transaction. An interest-bearing “savings purse” is attached to every account to encourage poor customers to save. Interest rates on deposits are low, but superior to keeping cash in a jar.  Sunday Times also reported that Standard Bank is considering a loan program for low-income clients.

 
 
 
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Resources

  1. The concepts in this article were first articulated in 1998, and have been made available for discussion in a working paper. For more information, contact the authors.
  2. Stuart Hart, “Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World,” Harvard Business Review, January–February 1997; Click here.
  3. C.K. Prahalad and Kenneth Lieberthal, “The End of Corporate Imperialism,” Harvard Business Review, July–August 1998; Click here.
  4. “Is the Digital Divide a Problem or an Opportunity?” Business Week Supplement, December 18, 2000
  5. Robert Chambers, Whose Reality Counts? Putting First Last (ITDG Publishing, 1997)
  6. Thomas L. Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1999)
  7. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
  8. Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital: Why Capitalism Triumphs in the West and Fails Everywhere Else (Basic Books, 2000)
 
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