"Think people first," Grameen Solutions CEO Kazi Islam urged his audience at the fifth United Nations' Web4Dev conference in New York last week. "I assure you that profit will follow."
When Islam says that the problems of the poor should be seen as an opportunity, not a challenge, he knows what he's talking about. He's helped Grameen build an unmatched portfolio of people-inspired innovations, each more impressive than the last.
Grameen Kalyan provides health care at an annual premium of just $2 that offers total coverage for a family of six. The outfit has 300,000 clients and is profitable.
Grameen Shakti builds home alternative energy systems that are relatively expensive - the equivalent of a year's pay for many - but has sold nearly 300,000 because it is willing to tailor individual payment plans. The firm has also provided jobs for thousands of uneducated women as maintenance and repair workers.
Grameenphone - founded by Iqbal Quadir - controls nearly half the mobile subscriber market of Bangladesh and has revolutionized the country's telecom sector. And of course there's Grameen Bank, the microfinance institution for which its founder, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize a few years ago.
"The poor are innovating all the time - they just have no means of promotion," Islam said last week. "We've noticed."
His Grameen Solutions is realizing a few new mobile technologies. Their mobile-based financial services, which will offer a virtual bank and a mobile teller, will go live soon - the idea sprouted from the practice, common among the Bangladeshi poor, of paying for car rides and medicines by transferring cell phone minutes. Grameen is developing a mobile-based education application that will, for instance, send questions for the nationalized 10th standard exam to rural students' phones via SMS. Grameen Solutions is also developing voice Internet, for which users will create their own e-commerce sites using voice commands and accessing audio versions of sites like CNN - all on their handset.
"It's never the price or the cost of the technology that's important," Islam said. "It's how you approach it - in a way that makes it a part of people's lives."
It's something aid and development professionals, policymakers and program designers might be wise to keep in mind.