Lesson from a Village Banker Who Won a Nobel Peace Prize

Published on 17th October 2006

Next time somebody uses ‘village’ to insult you think twice! Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank will share this year’s $ 1.4 million Nobel Peace prize money awarded by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. What lessons can African intellectuals draw from Mr. Yunus’ experience?

After studying in the U.S.A, Yunus was agitated by the fact that although he taught nice sounding economic theories in class, they never reduced the number of the hungry and impoverished people in Bangladesh. Alarmed by this, he and his students started an experimental project where they gave women loans of $ 27 to buy straw to make stools. The Grameen bank, which is a result of this project, has given a total of $5.72 billion over the past 30 years. It has 6.61 million borrowers and 2,226 branches. 

Africa offers a similar environment where a section of the population is generally viewed to be no only poor but  not worth receiving loans from established banks also. Yunus deliberately focused on women as a target to illustrate the liberating effect of business when it reaches the poor. He never went out to the do-gooders to ask them to donate free money to alleviate poverty, but gave loans, which means, recipients had to work or do business in order to repay! “As a bank, you have to reach poor people. That’s a big change, and banking will not be the same”, he was quoted in the Washington Post. How many of our professionals ride on arguments such as ‘poor market segment’ of the population?

By awarding Yunus a Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Committee has vindicated those of us who have been arguing against the idea of pegging Africans to the ‘less than a dollar a day.’  It has also brought to the fore the fact that, all that is needed in Africa is to get professors and their ‘yellowed notes’ out of the classroom to the field to push the 70 per cent population out of subsistence farming. The biggest lesson from this award is that business is the key to fighting poverty!

Educated Africans have many entry points to create their own multi nationals: supply quality agricultural farm inputs to improve food security and set up supply chains for fertilizer, pesticides, and herbicides that the rural market can afford. Do not wait for the government – do it for profit. Engage in popularizing the African tribal cuisines and earn millions of dollars. On the Malaria front, create a company that will engage in in-house spraying for reasonable pay and become a millionaire overnight. This will help old people sleep in peace while saving millions of children from Malaria related deaths. Get people clean water, secure African springs and you will make bottled water companies turn green with envy. Instead of complaining about our bank managers who are narrow on what they refer to as a ‘poor’ market segment, capture that segment and initiate a loan scheme.

If you are unemployed, open newspaper pages not to look for job vacancies but to get stories that can be turned into business opportunities. Consider developing anti-theft gadgets, such as a simple watch-lock that a street ‘hawk’ will not simply pull and flee. Solve the problem of rural in-accessibility by creating a network of boda-bodas (bicycles) or donkeys complete with mobile phone back-up. Do not believe that rural villagers have no money and therefore do not deserve services. Based on a study I coordinated in Ukambani, villagers can supply you with more than Ksh 2.5 billion in agricultural cereal seed and over Ksh 105 billion in animal feed requirements annually. Incase you subscribe to the argument that you ought to secure a market for subsistence farmers before you get them producing…you are on the wrong path. Think of the number of innovators in food technology you are limiting by denying them ‘raw materials’.

Send all those international NGOs packing for brainwashing Africans against the profit motive. How else will the so called poor fight poverty if somebody spends millions of dollars teaching them to hate profits? The Bangladesh village bank has literally grown to a micro-credit multinational and this proves that we in African can achieve anything we want if only we steered clear from those who do not know what it feels like to be poor. 

The biggest lesson Yunus gives each one of us is that knowledge and application are fields that create far more opportunities than one can imagine while locked up in a class room. By creating loan schemes for the poor including beggars, Yunus’ success calls for a rethink on the NGO philosophy that thrives on doling out money to the poor. The village banker has finally vindicated all those who believe that the human mind is indeed capital.

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