Nobel Winner Yunus: Microcredit Missionary

Economics professor Muhammad Yunus wasn't afraid to turn the rules of banking upside down

Editor's Note: Bangladesh's Muhammad Yunus and the bank he founded, Grameen Bank, which created a new category of banking by granting millions of small loans to poor people with no collateral—helping to establish the microcredit movement across the developing world—won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. On its Web site, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said it awarded the prize to Yunus, 65, and the bank "for their efforts to create economic and social benefit from below."

As a young economics professor at Chittagong University in Bangladesh in 1976, Muhammad Yunus lent $27 out of his own pocket to a group of poor craftsmen in the nearby town of Jobra. To boost the impact of that small sum, Yunus volunteered to serve as guarantor on a larger loan from a traditional bank, kindling the idea for a village-based enterprise called the Grameen Project. It never occurred to the professor that his gesture would inspire a whole category of lending and propel him to the top of a powerful financial institution.

Today, Yunus runs Bangladesh's Grameen Bank, a leading advocate for the world's poor that has lent more than $5.1 billion to 5.3 million people. The bank is built on Yunus' conviction that poor people can be both reliable borrowers and avid entrepreneurs. It even includes a project called Struggling Members Program that serves 55,000 beggars. Under Yunus, Grameen has spread the idea of microcredit throughout Bangladesh, Southern Asia, and the rest of the developing world.

"At first I didn't think that what I did had any significance in a broader context," he explains. But the mission keeps expanding in scale, and in the meantime, Yunus has grown intimately familiar with the unbearable dimensions of global poverty. As many as 1.2 billion people around the planet lack access to basic necessities, he explains, and microfinance could be their pathway out of despair. "Yunus and Grameen have taken a first step, which has inspired others to take a look at [microfinance] as a business," says John Tucker, deputy director of the microfinance unit at the U.N. Capital Development Fund.

Yunus' innovation has broad appeal. In 1997 only about 7.6 million families had been served by microcredit worldwide, according to the 2005 State of the Microcredit Summit Campaign Report. As of Dec. 31, 2004, some 3,200 microcredit institutions reported reaching more than 92 million clients, according to the report. Almost 73% of them were living in dire poverty at the time of their first loan.

When Yunus started Grameen, he wanted to turn traditional banking on its head. One of his first moves was to focus on women because they are most likely to think of the family's needs. This was a radical step in a traditional Muslim society, and it took Yunus six years to reach his initial goal of a 50-50 gender distribution among borrowers. Today, 96% of Grameen's borrowers are women. "If banks made large loans, he made small loans. If banks required paperwork, his loans were for the illiterate. Whatever banks did, he did the opposite," marvels Sam Daley-Harris, director of the Microcredit Summit Campaign. "He's a genius."

In some cases, Yunus has been able to attract private capital to fund socially driven businesses. GrameenPhone, a for-profit telecom outfit, is 51% owned by Norway's Telenor (TELN ). It works with the not-for-profit Grameen Telecom to provide bulk airtime for so-called village phones. Funded by loans to individual women, these systems -- built from simple handsets and solar chargers -- function as pay phones in many rural areas. Now the idea of a "village phone lady" is catching on, along with other low-cost, high-tech systems, in other parts of Asia and Africa. An energy enterprise, Grameen Shakti, sells around 1,500 home solar-panel systems per month throughout rural Bangladesh and is growing 15% a year without subsidies, says Yunus.

The professor's most recent innovation is still an experiment: Grameen Danone Food Co. is a proposed partnership between Grameen and France's Group Danone (DA ) to make a nutritious and inexpensive baby formula. Next on his list are low-cost eye care and rural hospitals with video-conferencing between villagers and doctors in Dhaka. "In Bangladesh, where nothing works and there's no electricity," Yunus says, "microcredit works like clockwork."

Corrections and Clarifications In "Microcredit missionary" (Voices of Innovation, Dec. 26), GrameenPhone is 51% owned by Norway's Telenor, not Nortel..

By Jeffrey Gangemi

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