The Grameen Bank has become one of the most well-known microcredit banks in the world. Its fame is well deserved. Started in 1976, the Grameen Bank today has roughly 2.3 million borrowers. Today the Bank has an assortment of programs ranging from health care to solar energy. One innovation is beginning to change the way the world views the poor: information technology.
When Muhammad Yunus proposed giving rural women access to telephones in a nation where only 0.3 percent of the population has a mainline telephone, the government resisted. Yunus recalls people saying: “You got to be crazy to think of giving cell phones to illiterate poor women in the villages who never saw a conventional telephone in their lives; she would not know how to dial a number; anyway who is she going to call?”
Today there are over 2,200 telephone ladies employed by Grameen Telecom (a branch of Grameen Phone) in Bangladesh. And the number is growing. Grameen Telecom has set a goal of creating 40,000 village phone ladies. Microcredit borrowers can take out a loan from Grameen Bank to start a telephone business. One third of these borrowers have never used a telephone in their lives. Nevertheless, a “telephone lady” earns an average of $300 per year, slightly higher than the per capita income in Bangladesh. For Yunus, microcredit and information technology are mutually reinforcing – giving dignity and self-reliance to the poor.
Grameen Bank has created numerous other programs and companies to close the digital divide. Today, Grameen CyberNet is the largest Internet company in Bangladesh. Through cyber kiosks, the organization is trying to bring the Internet to rural villages. Grameen Communications, which owns the entire Bangladeshi fiber optic network, intends to join with Hewlett-Packard to create an e-healthcare, e-banking and e-education system that will reach rural villages. Already it has begun to provide access to computers and training in some villages. Grameen Software Limited (GSL), the newest program, is working to provide access to employment opportunities. GSL will help develop the Grameen Star Education program that will train the unemployed poor in IT.
The remarkable success of Grameen Bank, now replicated in over 40 countries, is due to its innovations. Today, the Grameen Bank is closing the digital divide one person at a time, one village at a time.