Fast Company magazine writes an interesting article, Unplanned Obsolescence “exposing” the decreasing attractiveness of being a village “phone lady” in Bangladesh. FC is following up on a story they wrote almost 10 years ago when they first wrote about Grameen Phone, a wireless mobile service, and interviewed Laili Begum, the first woman to receive a loan to buy a mobile phone. Begum rented out her mobile phone on a per minute basis to others in her village at a mark-up over her per-minute cost. She became the first of now more than 280,000 phone ladies who are now almost ubiquitous in Bangladesh villages.
Initially, Begum was able to earn upwards of $800 profit per month which is more than 24 times what the current average Bangladeshi earns. Today she earns about $22/month profit from her mobile phone due to competition from almost 300 other close-by phone ladies plus the decreased cost for individuals to own their own mobile phone (about $30.) Overall, phone ladies now are typically earning about $60-100 of net profits per month after paying financing for phone and cost of air time.
So Begum and other phone ladies are having to operate additional business ventures to earn sufficient income. Here a summary of her status:
A decade later, instead of begging on the streets and sleeping with cattle as she once had done, Begum shares a two-room brick house with her husband, two sons, a daughter, a television set, and a refrigerator. Next door, she has built a barn, shops, and temporary housing that she rents to five poor families. Today, her banker estimates her net worth at $145,000, which may be more than everyone else in her village combined.
All I can say is “wow!” Begum was able to jump start her business with a lucrative new microfranchising business opportunity and then she took the profits and diversified into additional businesses. Very smart, indeed.
The article chooses to focus on lamenting about the lower margins available to phone ladies today as somehow pointing out the the Grameen Phone program is a failure in helping women earn their way out of poverty.
I take away a very different message and learning. Here are a few thoughts:
- As with every business, high margin businesses are always going to attract more capital and competitors, so (a) take advantage of them while you can, (b) build barriers to entry where you can; and (c) particularly if (b) is difficult, start diversifying into other businesses with which have more sustainable margin. Begum did this like a pro!
- So often, micro-borrowers are very uncreative with their business choices. The vast majority of them just do more of what they’ve always done or someone else is doing which can result in low or modest margins, but rarely high margins. This is why I think that there is such a huge new opportunity for microfranchise businesses … essentially one-person pre-packaged businesses which provide an attractive product/service which is differentiated and can result in higher margins. Grameen Phone used to be this.
- Cash loans are so much better than specific business programs. Think if Begum had gone down the path of building her future purely around the Grameen Phone program. She would have been locked into a declining business model. Instead, she had a loan from Grameen Bank, a bank for the working poor, and she could choose over time which business ventures she wanted to invest in.
I’m going to write more about microfranchising in the future. Here are a few resources to get started with: