Grameen’s famous Village Phone Program lifted thousands out of poverty– and helped Muhammad Yunus win the Nobel Peace Prize. The problem: It’s not working anymore.
According to Grameen Telecom, the GrameenPhone affiliate that manages the program, profits per operator have been declining for years and in 2006 averaged less than $70. “The program is not dead,” says its manager, Mazharul Hannan, chief of technical services at Grameen Telecom, “but it is no longer a way out of poverty.”
The reason is simple: Technology and GrameenPhone itself have made the village phone obsolete. Access to cell phones has expanded rapidly across Bangladesh, as in other developing nations. GrameenPhone, largest of the nation’s six cellular providers, has more than 13 million subscribers, with yearly revenues of nearly $700 million. In all, perhaps one in seven Bangladeshis owns a phone, and ownership is expected to reach as high as one in three in a year or so.
Ten years ago, Begum provided the sole telephone in Patira and the surrounding area, the only connection for nearly 10,000 people. Today, she must vie with 284 other Village Phone operators nearby, plus all the cell phones her neighbors have bought for themselves as prices have come down.
As a result, Begum’s phone rentals these days bring in monthly profits of only $22. “If I didn’t have so many other businesses,” she told me, “I couldn’t afford to be in this one.” Says her loan officer, Salim Khan, general manager of a Grameen Bank branch: “She is fortunate that she began when she did. Today, poor women who go into the phone business stay poor.” Read more.