Saturday, January 20, 2007

I Go Off The Reservation

Some of you have asked for a little detail about my work on the book project here in Dhaka. Not much exciting to tell. During my first week, I met with Professor Yunus each day and had him talk to me about Grameen Bank in general and, in particular, about the various Grameen family companies--Grameen Health, Grameen Energy, Grameen Phone, Grameen Fisheries, and so on. Each of these is an interesting business in itself, and all have contributed, I believe, to Professor Yunus's concept of "social business," which will be the central theme of the book we are writing.

I have also interviewed several of Professor Yunus's colleagues, including Muhammad Imamus Sultan. He is managing director of Grameen Danone, a new partnership between Grameen and the famous French yogurt company. They've just finished building a factory that will produce fortified yogurt, a low-cost, healthful food that they hope will become a common part of the diet of local people, especially children.

Grameen Danone is considered the prototypical social business, since it (1) provides a concrete benefit to society, especially the poor, and (2) has been designed as a self-supporting but non-dividend-generating business. Any profits produced will be plowed back into the company, to finance expansion or the development of new products. I'm hoping to visit the factory with Mr. Sultan sometime in the next few weeks.

Meanwhile, I have a confession to make.

When planning this trip, I asked my contacts at Grameen Bank to recommend a place to stay. They suggested the Pacific Inn Guest House, which is where I am currently ensconced. The very low price quoted made me wonder about the nature of the accommodations. In response to my questions, Grameen put me in touch with another American who had stayed at the Pacific Inn, and she emailed me this message:

Grameen Bank identified The Pacific Inn for groups who are visiting GB to stay some years ago. I have stayed there a few times. It is a clean, comfortable, inexpensive guest house inn quite typical of the kind of newer places that are available to stay in Dhaka. . . . The staff and management are very accommodating. They have a couple of computers so you can check mail and phones. TV downstairs. . . . Dhaka has 3 five-star hotels. When visiting Grameen Bank one might feel uncomfortable staying in such a place of luxury and expense.
Well, my correspondent turned out to be completely accurate. The Pacific Inn is indeed clean and comfortable . . . though the standard of "comfort" is a little different from what most Western hotels might offer. (I'm talking about small things, like the fact that the desk chair I am sitting in to write this post is very hard.) The best word to describe the place is probably "Spartan"--something like the typical dorm room at an American college.

(To be fair, there have been some upgrades since the last visit by my email correspondent. I have a TV in my room, although because of the location of the cable it is positioned in such a way that I have to twist awkwardly on my side to watch it, which produces a stiff neck after about fifteen minutes. Also, it is possible to get Internet access in my room, although it is not free as I originally thought but billed at 150 taka per hour--about $2.25.)

The nature of the accommodations matches the entire Dhaka experience. Saturday being one of the two weekend days when Grameen Bank is closed, I used today for my first "touristic" program, accompanied by another guest house patron, a woman from Spain who is studying Grameen Bank as part of her work toward a doctor's degree. We took a taxi from the northern neighborhood where the guest house is located into the downtown area where the "attractions" are concentrated.

The morning was fascinating.

We walked down Shakharia Bazar (also called "Hindu Street"), a fifteen-foot-wide alleyway jammed with tiny artisans' shops, storefront temples, jewelry kiosks, holes-in-the-wall where food is prepared and sold, stone masons' quarters, and more sheer humanity per square foot than I've ever seen elsewhere.

We visited Ahsan Mancil on the bank of the dirty, crowded Buriganga River, a serene palace of pink stone that was once inhabited by the Nawabs of Dhaka and is now a museum.

We wandered into Jaggannati University College, where we were immediately surrounded by about thirty students who wanted to ask us about our countries, tell us about their school, and practice their English.

And everywhere there were crowds, noise, smells, vehicles of every imaginable and several unimaginable sorts, swirling dust, potholes, unaccountable piles of bricks or stones or rubble half blocking the streets, rivulets of water or mud, barefoot kids under foot, signs and banners and garments decorated in colors that are almost painfully vivid . . . in other words, all the usual accompaniments of Dhaka street life.

And so I gave in to temptation. After four hours of tourism, exhausted, footsore, with red, bleary eyes and a sore throat, I insisted on lunch at the nearby Sheraton, one of the upscale hotels mentioned in the email . . . a place "of luxury and expense" that simply isn't appropriate for a visitor to Grameen Bank to frequent. Surrounded by a ten-foot-high wall and equipped with thick double-glazing that keeps out the dust and noise of the streets, the Sheraton is clearly the kind of place to stay when you need to be in Dhaka but don't actually want to be in Dhaka.

And it was great.

The buffet lunch cost all of 1,100 taka, or fifteen dollars--three times as much as any other meal I've had since arriving in Bangladesh. There was a clean linen cloth on the table and no rock music blaring from cheap speakers. I even drank a cold beer--something that is available only in a few Western enclaves in this Muslim-dominated country. I enjoyed an hour of pure respite from the assault on the senses that is Dhaka.

Lunch over, it's back to my "normal" Bangladesh life. I'm here in my Spartan guest house where the towels are thin and scratchy, as is the sound on the television. But I'll be fine. I know where the Sheraton is, and I'm planning on making my way back there once a week or so for the duration of my stay.

Now I just hope Professor Yunus never hears about this.

Tags: , , ,
AddThis Social Bookmark Button

"Infused with entrepreneurial spirit and the excitement of a worthy challenge."--Publishers Weekly

Read more . . .


What do GE, Pepsi, and Toyota know that Exxon, Wal-Mart, and Hershey don't?  It's sustainability . . . the business secret of the twenty-first century.

Read more . . .