Global Health Ideas

Finding global health solutions through innovation and technology

Unplanned Obsolescence: The Grameen Phone

A bit of diversion here, but an important one from the latest issue of Fast Company. I do not yet have an opinion on the 10 year retrospective review below, however, the numbers from Fast Company (if accurate) are dramatic. Dave Richards at “Defeating Global Poverty” has a more detailed post that you should check out and the author of “You Can Here Me Now“, Nicholas Sullivan, has published a letter countering this article (excerpts at the end of this post).

Has Grameen’s Village Phone Program Gone Obsolete? Fast Company Magazine September 2007phonegrameen.jpg
“At first, they all came…And then, one by one, each talked on Laily Begum’s wondrous new possession, a cellular telephone. A caller might come to check on money that her husband was supposed to send from his job as a day laborer in Dubai…But that was in the beginning, a decade ago; these days, cell phones are so commonplace that most visitors come only for a haircut, a shave, groceries, or a place to sleep, all of which Begum offers now. The few wireless calls are no longer made from her home but from one of her nearby shops–usually the one with the barrels, drums, and cans of motor oil out front and lining its walls. In March, when I visited her home in Patira, a stretch of dusty intersections 90 minutes northeast of Dhaka, she told me, “Hardly anyone uses my phone anymore.”

“Begum’s success has become legendary, embraced by the media and the world of economic development as an example of how microcredit and technology can help those born in poverty escape it, largely through their own entrepreneurship. The Grameen organization continues to boast that its Village Phone Program “has been incredibly successful … establishing a clear path out of the poverty cycle”…But as it turns out, the legend is far out of date…In Bangladesh today, the only one making real money on GrameenPhone’s wireless service is … GrameenPhone.”

The Village Phone Program no longer sustains its entrepreneurs — yet Grameen continues to recruit operators…” Full story

Counterpoint by Nicholas Sullivan:

“Dear FC,

Re: “Unplanned Obsolescence” (September), I wonder if you don’t miss the forest for the trees. The big story is that Bangladesh has increased its phone penetration from 1 per 500 people in the mid-‘90s to 1 per 7 people today. The phone ladies, whose income and profits are surely declining as noted, and who represent at most 3% of GrameenPhone subscribers, are not the raison d’etre of GrameenPhone; distributing tens of millions of phones throughout the country is the company’s mission and has been from the start. Utilizing Grameen Bank’s network in 60,000+ villages was merely a way to deliver phones into remote rural areas where there was and still is no reliable electricity or roads. The fact that the foreign investors behind GrameenPhone (Telenor of Norway, Marubeni of Japan, and Gonofone of New York) endorsed this strategy while also perceiving its developmental impact in lifting people out of poverty is one of the most positive business stories in recent memory.

Read the full letter here

Written by Aman

August 30, 2007 at 6:34 pm

One Response

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  1. Hey Aman – thanks for the link and for the heads up. Fascinating stuff. You have to wonder what other “winning models” may become obsolete in the next couple of years. Do you think there are any healthcare models or technologies that could “go the way of GrameenPhone” in the next few years?

    Thanks again


    September 1, 2007 at 12:04 pm

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