Grameen Shakti Village Trip
While working for Grameen Shakti, I was assigned to travel with a news team, ETV who are covering solar home system success in Phulpur for CNN World News Report. I was picked up at noon, but arrived in Phulpur at 7:30 p.m due to the film crew's constant delays and trips to pick up forgotten items at their households. After the long, bumpy journey, we arrived at the Grameen Technology Center, where 3 female engineers and their boss Nuzneen greeted me (2 Hindu, 2 Muslim!). Their English was not that great, so when I tried to speak in Hindi she laughed at me and said I couldn't speak it. When we retired to bed, the electricity cut out several times so that the fans stopped working and I would wake up in a sticky sweat feeling little bugs on me. The next day I was covered in bug bites.
I was picked up at 9 a.m by the film crew to see a solar panel installation at a house. There, we met Nilufa, who was installing the panel in the very hot sun. The panel must be set at a 23-degree angle, and this took awhile. Monirul Alam, the reporter, requested that I make sure his English pronunciation was correct and the poor guy was so nervous that he messed up all the time. It was actually quite tiring, but this was his first CNN report, so naturally he had to be perfect in order for it to be used. I became his "editor" and told him things like say "self-reLIEnt" not "self-relEEnt". I also spoke to his CNN boss Rick on the phone, and he told me that he was quite happy I was there so I can make sure that his accent can be followed by American audiences and I reviewed the tapes to be certain. Although I'm pretty sure they will edit out the 3 seconds of Nilufa handing me a glass of water, it's still cool to see the places I visited with the film crew in the story.
After filming the installation, we went to Nilufa's home and I was surprised at how poor she was. The village itself was the poorest I have seen (although I'm sure there are worse situations) as the homes were made out of tin and her neighbor had 1 room for 8 people. The difference between poor villages and poor in the cities is huge; even though the poor in the villages had little you can notice their smiles and their happiness while the poor in the cities are consistently miserable, never smiling, always begging and exclaiming their sufferings. It is easy to know why though, life is improved significantly with friends and family always around. Everyone shares everything, animals, food, and child rearing. In the city, it is dog eat dog, and everyone is left to fend for him or herself.
The villagers were extremely friendly and curious about me. They asked if I was married, who my father is, and if I love Bangladesh. The last question was odd; obviously I do not love the country. I mean, the people are very friendly, the scenery is gorgeous, and the country is fascinating, but I did not love it there. Of course I could not explain all this to them, so I simply responded that I like Bangladesh, and they were satisfied with this response. I heard a kid laughing in the distance and the villagers all pointed at him saying, "Haha he is mental! Mental! Haha", including the adults. Then his father came out and chased him into the house, hitting him with a stick while everyone laughed. The main reason I could not say that I loved Bangladesh is the huge gender inequality gaps. For one thing, I rarely saw little girls playing outside. They were always kept inside the house, staring from the window, whereas the boys are able to swim, create mischief and run around. I asked the reporter why you never see girls, and he said it was because girls are vulnerable and should stay inside to be protected (from other men). Even when they are four years old? Rather than putting an effective punishment system in place for men who actually commit these kinds of crimes in order to deter future criminals, the society would rather punish the women by keeping them inside.
There was one significant problem however, with the village. Nilufa, the technician, had a solar home system, which was gifted to her by Grameen Shakti for her outstanding work. However, everyone else in the village used kerosene, and no one used an improved cooking stove. When I asked why, Nuzneen explained that they were too poor to afford these technologies. I asked whether they could take a Grameen Bank loan, but they could not as Grameen Bank loans are necessary for entrepreneurship, and not for household use. However, isn't improving lighting for children to continue their academic study at night an investment? Grameen Shakti has done outstanding work in promoting Solar Home Systems and other technologies, but there needs to be a way to include bottom of the pyramid consumers. It's obvious to me that the villagers share all their resources, so introducing micro-utility (where they share the solar power or stoves) so they can pool their money together for the initial down payment seems completely feasible. Is it that they do not want to pay for solar when they are used to kerosene, or that many are simply unaware of this option? Without government subsidies, it seems that Grameen Shakti will have difficulty accessing this market. In addition, the price has to increase to become sustainable, but as my supervisor explained, even smaller payments would mean visiting a household 6 times, which is costly for Grameen Shakti in terms of transportation costs. (And he is right, with the terrible village roads, it takes a really long time to get from the branch office to the village). So the problem is, how can Grameen Shakti sell their products to the poor (the people that need these products the most)?
The best way they concluded is to train the poor to service their products. Thus I will end this piece with Nilufa's story.
Nilufa is a Grameen Shakti technician with a fascinating background. She was pulled out of high school in order to get married. Her husband was essentially a loser, who came home at midnight and beat her. As a dowry, he was given Nilufa's father's pharmacy business, which he could not manage and lost. With no income, Nilufa struggled to raise her new 1-year-old son. And then one day, her husband vanished. Luckily, her in-laws took pity on her and took care of them. They found out that he was working at a garment factory in Dhaka. They took care of her son while Nilufa went to Dhaka to look for her husband. She too began working for the garment factory, sending money back to the village. But she missed her son, and went back to the village while her husband stayed in Dhaka. She returned with little income, but not much else, as she was a battered and lonely wife. Then, Nuzneen, a Grameen Technology Center worker who seeks women to train as solar technicians came to Phulpur and asked if there were any woman in need of work. She met Nilufa, and she attended a 15-day workshop where she learned how to wire mobile phone and solar panel circuit boards. She was so successful that she was selected by Nuzneen to be trained as a solar panel installer. Currently, she is the only technician in Phulpur. So what happened to her deadbeat husband? Upon hearing of her new job, he returned and became her assistant!
This trip has solidified my experience in Bangladesh, and has given me hope in providing electricity for the poor. Though problems remain, the Bangladeshi people are proactively solving them on their own turf, which is an inspiring example of what homegrown social enterprises can do for their communities.
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