As Grameen Turns 25, Some Things Change, Some Things Stay the Same

Posted on 10/28/2022

Brent 25th copy
Brent Chism, interim President and CEO, speaking at the 25th anniversary virtual celebration on Oct. 20, 2022.

As Grameen Foundation turns 25 this October, I’ve been thinking about what has changed and what has stayed the same over that time.

Happily, the world has made remarkable progress in decreasing poverty. From 1990 to 2020 (before COVID-19), the percentage of people who survived on less than $1.90 a day fell from 36% to 9.2%. More than 1.2 billion people rose out of extreme poverty.

Three Things That Changed

First, in the late 90s and early 2000s, Grameen and similar organizations focused on microfinance institutions (MFIs), which made loans to people and communities that banks did not serve. The microfinance industry grew from serving 13 million customers in 1997 to 211 million customers in 2013. Most of Grameen’s partners were MFIs.

Since then, the number and kind of organizations serving poor communities has exploded. Today, Grameen collaborates with a wide range of partners: from off-grid solar energy providers like ENGIE in Uganda, mobile network operators like MTN in Ghana, and farmer producer cooperatives in India. Together, our combined strengths have improved our capacity to reach and serve poor communities.

A second dramatic change is the spread of technology, particularly cellular networks and smartphones. Our subsidiary, Grameen Impact Ventures (GIV), operates our network of last-mile community agents (Mittras) in India. Mittras use smartphones and biometric readers to deliver financial services to the doorsteps of their neighbors, most of whom do not have easy access to banks. Since we founded GIV in 2020, we have onboarded 2,200 Mittras who have processed more than $26 million in transactions for their client neighbors.

Development organizations have also embraced a third change that Grameen pioneered: using social enterprise business models to grow anti-poverty efforts. One shining example is Grameen's social enterprise TaroWorks, a software-as-a-service company that enables more than 60 other anti-poverty organizations to digitize their last-mile operations in more than 60 countries.

Grameen led the way on all three of these trends.

Two Things That Haven’t

At the same time, some things haven’t changed.

As the number of development players has increased, many of them have used networks of agents to serve the poor. MFIs created many of the original agent networks, but other actors like fintech companies and mobile network operators now use the same strategies.

Grameen has worked with community-based agent networks for its entire 25 years. In addition to our work to improve financial inclusion, we have used agent networks to address social issues. For example, Grameen is partnering with local organizations in Ghana to deliver gender-violence reduction resources to women through existing networks of Community Agents.

Second, it remains true that the poor know better than outsiders what they need to improve their lives. As the adage says, “Give a woman a fish and she will eat for a day. Teach a woman to fish and she’ll eat forever.” This remains true and is the philosophy behind Grameen’s mission to empower the poor. They don’t need us to do it for them, they need our help to do it for themselves.

I saw this firsthand in recent visits to Africa and India. For example, Grameen works in northern Uganda with savings groups of refugees from South Sudan. When I asked the groups what they needed, they asked for help understanding what new markets they could serve and what new products they could create to build their income. During the height of the COVID pandemic, several of the groups started producing hand sanitizer products. Their only request was help to market and distribute the products they created.

25 Years Young

In October, we gathered to celebrate Grameen’s past quarter century and the 76-year history of Freedom From Hunger, now a part of Grameen, too. During that event, we shared a video that tells the story of our founding, which you can view on our YouTube channel.

But even more importantly, we will look ahead to how Grameen can have an even greater impact over the next 25 years. Your investment in Grameen means that together, we can focus on empowering women to end poverty and hunger.

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