28 March 2006

Social Entrepreneurs: Iqbal Quadir, Using Technology to Raise the Poor

What do you get when you cross an enterprising and innovative mind, a business acumen and a desire to address social problems through practical solutions and social value creation? Well, that could very well be the definition of a social entrepreneur. They are a new breed of change agents applying their business and investment skills to the world's critical problems.

One of the most pressing global health issues is access to clean drinking water. Some 1.1 billion people are without such access, mostly the rural poor, and water-borne pathogens cause 80 percent of diseases in developing countries. It is such a huge problem that the UN has dubbed the next ten years the "Water for Life" decade. In addition, 1.6 billion are without access to electricity.

A number of innovative thinkers are trying to tackle this problem. I've featured a few in this blog. Enter social entrepreneur Iqbal Quadir, a former investment banker who first applied his considerable gifts to the social good with GrameenPhone. That venture, a microcredit program that empowered women in Bangladesh with cell phones, is now the largest telephone company in Bangladesh.

Now, he's teamed up with Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, to bring two innovations to market: the Stirling, a cow dung-powered generator to provide electricity to rural neighborhoods not connected to the grid, and a water purifier, called the "Slingshot." The devices are apparently easy to transport from village to village -- two people can carry them -- and can be used on the spot. Moreover, they can run on local fuel, thereby reducing animal waste.

"We have 200,000 rural entrepreneurs who are selling telephone services in their communities," Quadir told Business 2.0 last month. "The vision is to replicate that with electricity."

Mr. Quadir's efforts don't stop there. He's also developing, with his brother Kamal, an electronic marketplace called CellBazaar. Accessible via mobile phones, it's like a more direct, more primitive e-Bay. Quadir is using his background as a venture capitalist to invest in the social good and help rural people in his native Bangladesh and elsewhere.

"Technology," Mr. Quadir told The Economist earlier this month, "can quietly initiate novel ways of making things or trading them, potentially redistributing economic and political clout."

He is shifting power from the powerful to the once powerless, changing the equation and leveling the playing field, one issue at a time. As Quadir told Technology Review last October, "Technology allows people to rise from below."

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arild@somewherein.net said...

be skeptic to the cell bazaar: they broadly explained that "it's like a more direct, more primitive e-bay"...

after using it myself here in bangladesh, reading about the "world sensation", i find that it is nothing but a simple sms push/pull list in 5-6 steps of available products, it is no revolution at all. why was mit involved in making this and what did they contribute of innovative approach?

either smaller words should have been used and press statements limited to the local media, or, seeing the world wide attention they get, the product should have been 1000 times more advanced.

to revolutionize micro trading in bangladesh, the birth nation of micro credit, a real m-commerce "e-bay"-like community is needed. there are hardly any credit cards here, there are hardly any means of safe, electronic transactions here, but a much better system will be released somewhere in... bangladesh in short time. a system that let users set up mobile profiles of their buy & sell preferences, location and financial limitations, and which can help you find the most potential buyers/sellers close to you that matches your profile. and of course, the money transactions should be maintained through mobile balance transfer... then we are taking about something new, something that can make a difference.

in the meantime, i am going to reclaim the cost of the 50 sms messages that i sent to a system that didn't even respond in the days after launching.

the quadir brothers are excellent resources for bangladesh with their innovative concepts. just wish they had come up with something better than this to match their exposed visions.

The Green Skeptic said...

Dear "arild": I appreciate your perspective. I posed the question to Mr. Quadir and am satisfied that their efforts and intentions with CellBazaar are sincere.

There are always glitches in any soft launch. Mr. Quadir pledges "to improve services and fix glitches over time."

I suspect there are additional delays due to the limitations of technical skills available. If you have thoughts about solutions, I'm sure Mr. Quadir -- and my readers -- would appreciate hearing about them.

Meanwhile, I'm intrigued by your m-commerce eBay community idea. How can we foster further development of that concept?


Anonymous said...

I have developed a similar service called zindabazar.mobi (http://www.zindabazar.mobi)... Advertisers can advertise without sending sms... And there is no need to click x number of times.. u just search 4 what u want.. it's simple and easy to use... hoque

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