Saturday, July 19, 2003

The Grameen Foundation Village Computing Project

The Grameen Bank in Bangla Desh was the beginning of the microbanking movement, which has loaned money to tens of millions of poor people, either to get out of debt to local loan sharks, or to start or improve some small-scale business. Loans might go to buy sewing machines, farm equiipment, or cell phones.

Placing cell phones in villages has turned out to be one of the most fruitful microbanking programs, since each phone provides a modest living to the owner, who rents it out to others in the area, and also provides economic opportunity, improved access to health care, and communications between villagers and their relatives who have gone to the city or to some other country to find work.

The obvious potential for low-cost computers in villages has led the Grameen Foundation USA Technology Center to create a Village Computing Project, pursuing many of the same ideas as Simputer partners.

The first stage of the Grameen project is the creation of information kiosks to present information in the Tamil language. Field trials in Tamil Nadu in the south of India are scheduled to begin in August with units made by Drishtee. Encore plans to get into a later round of these trials, and will work with the Grameen Technology Center on plans for future projects in telemedicine, wireless Internet, education, and so on.

Microbanking institutions have helped tens of millions of people out of dire poverty. We need only to multiply that effect by a factor of a hundred in coverage, and perhaps another hundred in income levels (since poverty in many places is defined as an income of $1 a day or less, and some developed countries have economic production in the region of $100 a day per person). The task is huge, but not impossible. Our most important tool is the law of compound interest, which produces large multiples out of modest annual percentage gains, now that we have started. We also know that a period of extremely rapid growth is possible at some point in the future, although we do not know when it will begin in any particular country.

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