When I was approached by filmmaker Holly Mosher to consider reviewing her film about Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammad Yunus, it was a no-brainer. Not only is Yunus the founder of microlending pioneer, the Grameen Bank, he is also a great promoter of the “social business.” I was sure I’d learn something from the film (and Yunus). After all, that’s what documentaries do…they teach us new things. What I wasn’t expecting was to be glued to my seat for two hours, mesmerized by The Bonsai People.
As Yunus explains it, bonsai people are poor people. And just like a bonsai tree, they have all the potential to develop but do not have an adequate base from which to grow. “There is nothing wrong with their seed – society never allowed them the space to grow.” That’s where the Grameen Bank comes in, lending small amounts of money (microloans or microcredit) to help them break the cycle of poverty and unleash their potential.
Mosher takes us along for the ride as a bank manager bicycles into a small Bangladeshi village for the first time. He addresses the husbands of the village while their wives listen closely on the sidelines. He tells them he is opening a new bank that will offer the women of the village three kinds of accounts – lending, savings, and retirement – at much better rates than other village lenders. The only determinant to becoming a member of the bank is one’s level of poverty, measured by a series of questions such as: How many chickens do you have? How many chairs in your home? One woman responds that she has two chickens and one chair, no table.
Grameen takes the rules of a conventional bank and reverses them. Instead of the “rich man” being the ideal client, it is the “poor woman.” The belief is that when women are borrowers, children become the beneficiaries, because “poor in income is also poor in health.” And the theory holds true for many women who use the Grameen Bank to move from survival mode to thriving entrepreneurs.
In this particular village visited in the film, we see the impact of Grameen Bank firsthand as a loan of just $0.28 allows a woman to buy fresh vegetables to sell to her neighbours. Soon she is planting vegetables of her own to harvest and sell. Successful repayment of the first loan means she is eligible for a larger loan. Now she has a cow and fresh milk. Next she installs solar panels on her home and buys an electric rice-harvesting machine. Before long she is a member of her village council. In just two years, she moved from “darkness to daylight.”
Of course, this improvement in her standard of living doesn’t just impact her. Her whole family and extended network benefit from better food, better health, a safer living environment. One of her sons will soon graduate from university as an engineer. The fact that it all started with a 28-cent loan is almost too hard to believe. And yet that is what Grameen is doing on a daily basis, with half of their 7 million borrowers worldwide being women. In this particular area of Northern Bangladesh, the life expectancy rate has increased by ten years since the introduction of the Grameen Bank, and the birth rate has been cut in half, from six children to three.
But Yunus and his colleagues aren’t content to stop there. As he says in the film, “Whenever I see a problem, I start a business.” Indeed, he is true to his word, with projects ranging from solar power and cell phones, to healthcare, textiles and yogurt, all carrying the Grameen name. And it goes without saying that each of these enterprises is a social business with a social bottom line. Take Grameen Danone, the yogurt project. Milk is purchased from local villagers and turned into yogurt that is fortified with essential nutrients. The yogurt is sold by local women back to members of the community, providing them with an important nutrition boost. They are even working on making a container that is edible rather than simply biodegradable.
These are real stories, compelling stories, of what is possible through social business. To say they are inspiring is a massive understatement. Seeing the dignity, courage and hard work (three principles of Grameen) of these village woman and what they have been able to achieve, proves that change – major change – is possible. And it doesn’t take millions of dollars and decades to see the change. It is happening right now all over the world, thanks to the vision of a Bangladeshi economist who believes (and has proven) that a social business can make a real and lasting difference.
I learned so much from watching this film, and that’s one very good reason to watch it for yourself. But more than that, let your senses be transported by the colours and sounds of Bangaldesh, and let your mindset be transformed by The Bonsai People.
Nicole Zummach is the co-founder of SEE Change Magazine. She has worked in the publishing industry for more than two decades, and has spent most of her career researching and writing about civil society and the nonprofit sector. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.