The brick path leads toward the darkened hamlet over an earthen berm, skirting fish ponds and rice paddies. Just as night is falling, a visitor passes under mango trees and close by the well worn backyards that children share with chickens, ducks, and water buffalo. Straw lies scattered across the way, left to dry under the banking pre-monsoon sun that tomorrow will surely bring.
Despite its timeless appearance, Sagur Dhigi Bazaar is unlike all but few of Bangladesh's other 85,000 rural settlements. The fact that no cable runs in from the main road shows that it is among the four in five villages without a link to the national power grid. But, lying half a day's journey over back roads from Dhaka, that is not what makes Shagur Dhigi any different from its neighbouring villages in Tangail district.
Suddenly an electric light blinks to life in a market still, and then another light comes on in the barbershop, and then a third in the pharmacy - all powered by electricity generated and distributed by a micro-utility. Since shopkeeper Shuntush Kumar Shaha installed his 75 watt photo-voltaic system, he has been renting out three bulbs to businessmen next-door. This is what sets Shuntush apart from the 100 million other Bangladeshis still waiting for the national power company to come to them. With the help of Grameen Bank, he went out and started his own utility.
Grameen is a pioneer institution in the field of micro-enterprise financing for the poor. Originally focused on agricultural, craft-making, and housing loans, it has lately started financing investments in solar, wind, and biogas power generation. In the next four years it hopes to have 4,000 systems in place. The bank is unafraid of big challenges. Over the past two decades, it has extended loans, each averaging about $100 but amounting cumulatively to $2.4 billion, to some 2.3 million rural Bangladeshis. More than 90 percent of borrowers are women, whom the loans help to empower through self-employment.
While experts agree that the enterpreneurship and natural self-employment is most easily tapped in traditional rural enterprises such as crafts and agriculture, Grameen is always thinking several steps ahead. "Why not go high-tech in the villages?” Muhammad Yunus the founder of Grameen Bank said. “Telecom, computers, the Internet, data processing. We are ready for it all. But first we need power”. “Technology today is different from what it was yesterday,” he continues. “It’s no longer the same inert hardware it was for first generation users. Now it’s more like malleable clay, ready to be shaped at will. PCs have been trickling into South Asia for a decade, and many people still see them as toys. But photovoltaic cells are put to serious use overnight. And they are just the tip of the high-tech iceberg.”
Not a charity
Yunus is such a believer in rural Bangladesh’s capacity for high-tech ventures that in 1996 he founded a non-profit company named Grameen Shakti–‘shakti’ means energy in Bangla to bring renewable energy to the countryside. Like Grameen’s other speciality lines of business such as fish farming and handloom textiles, this new startup relies on private sector banking principles: loan-making at financial rates of interest, full repayment, and professional service.
As Grameen Bank stakeholders, borrowers gain self-confidence and a broader world view. Being a full paying customer endows one with the right to good service and client responsiveness, things common in developed countries but often quite foreign elsewhere. “We are a bank,” insists Yunus, “not a development project. We give loans, not charity.”
Sawmill owner Muhammad Abu Hanif knows all about Grameen’s strict accounting, as well as his own accountability to the bank.. His loan for a one bulb 17 watt system came to more than $300 and required a 25 per cent down payment, the balance to be repaid in two years at 8 per cent interest. But by operating at night, he has increased profits by 500 taka a day (US $ 10) and pays his four workers an additional 100 taka each.
Dipal Chandra Barua, head of Grameen Shakti and a chief executive of bank operations, sees magic in an illuminated light bulb. “People can do with electricity what they could never do with candle wax or kerosene ,” says Barua. “Study, work make market sales – all things that sooner or later will bring them out of poverty.”
The fact that most of Bangladesh is dark and idle at night certainly does not help its national development. The country annually consumes only 17 litres of fuel oil per capita, one of the world’s lowest rates, and meets 60 per cent of its domestic energy needs by burning cow dung.
There is no need to praise the benefit of electricity to the people of Dhalapara village, not far from Shagur Dhigi Bazaar. Grameen Shakti sales manager Abdu Salam Khan sold 30 solar energy systems in just four months, and their demonstration effect is widening, demand by the day. “To light a kerosene lamp for just a few hours costs 25 cents for fuel,” he says. “Why not pay half that for electric light all night long?”
Khan is referring to the kind of micro-utilities operated by Shuntush and others like him. In Dhalapara village , Jibon Krishna Shahah rents three bulbs from a neighbour’s 75 watt system. “My wife keeps up her tailoring business and my son stays with his school books a few extra hours each night,” he says.
The availability of electricity has also improved the quality of certain kinds of work. Maneeq Mia owns an electronics repair shop in Dhalapara. His new 35 watt system allowed him to rig up a small fan to blow dust out of open casings and to exchange his kerosene heated soldering iron for an electric one . Now he takes on the more delicate jobs he once had to turn away. Other things just cannot be done at all without an electric light. “My customers were afraid to let me shave them by the shadow of kerosene lamp,” says Shagur Dhigi’s barber. “The razor is risky work. But with the bulb, I have 10 or 12 extra customers every night. Business is up 30 per cent.”
And with electricity comes access to the wider world. After buying a 48 watt system, general store owner Ashis Kumar Shahah put in the village’s only phone, which he rents out to the public at 20 Taka/minute. The lack of electricity previously precluded a link up with the Bangladesh Rural Telephone Service.
The economic benefit of renewable energy is clear-cut even to teenage Alam Hussien, who keeps shop for his mother in Petcherata Bazaar. The family used to pay 300 taka a month for kerosene to light the store until 10 at night. The new 17 watt system now powers two 6 watt bulbs and a cassette player. Their 13,000 taka investment will pay for itself in kerosene savings in just three years.
Alam shakes his head sadly when a customer steps up to buy a pair of ‘D’ cell batteries for 26 taka. He will have to throw them away in just a week or two,” he says, “while our system will be working for another 20 years.”
The residents of Polashpur village in Keraniganj thana are perhaps the ideal target market for the kinds of technology Grameen can deliver to the countryside.
Although just across the Buriganga River from Dhaka, Polashpur has hope neither of a link to the power grid or to a telephone line. But now, for just over $1,000, an enterprising villager could buy himself a cellular telephone and household solar system with which to charge it, both sold and financed by Grameen.
“I’ve never used a telephone, says Polashpur widow Zahir Begum, “and I have to buy a lot of batteries to record the cassettes I send my brother in Kuwait. But if I had electricity, I wouldn’t care so much about calling Kuwait or playing music. No. I’d rather have light in my house to work at night, and call Dhaka for the latest price of rice. Now we have to accept whatever the middleman offers, because here we are always in the dark.”
Extracted from People & the Planet, Volume 8, November 2