St. Anthony: St. Paul student to meet her economic hero at Nobel conference

Fahmida Zaman got to go to college after the father of microlending, Muhammad Yunus, helped her family’s business in Bangladesh.

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Fahmida Zaman, at the St. Kate’s library, will meet her economic hero, Muhammad Yunus, on Friday at the Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis. Neal St. Anthony Star Tribune

Photo: Neal St. Anthony, Star Tribune

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Fahmida Zaman of Bangladesh, a foreign-exchange student this year at St. Catherine University in St. Paul, credits her enterprising mom and a $100 loan from Grameen Bank in 2000 as the seed of her opportunity to achieve a college education.

It was the first of several “microloans” that allowed her mother to diversify the family’s tiny fertilizer business and slowly build a modest enterprise that has helped educate five children.

“By the time I got out of high school most of my girlfriends were married’’ through family-arranged unions, said Zaman, 21, who is studying economics and political science. “My mother wanted me to experience college and do something for the people of my country who don’t get that chance.’’

She will return to Asian University for Women in Bangladesh to complete her degree next year. “My goal is to do something significant in my society ... to be the change I want to see,” she said.

Zaman’s economic hero is Muhammad Yunus, 72, the Bangladesh-born economist and father of the global “microlending” phenomenon.

The two will meet in Minneapolis on Friday after Yunus addresses “business day” participants at the annual three-day Nobel Peace Prize Forum in Minneapolis, hosted by Augsburg College and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota.

“This is fantastic,” Yunus said in a phone interview from Bangladesh. “I want to meet Fahmida.”

The Minneapolis conference in the only one in the world designated by Norway’s Nobel Institute, according to Maureen Reed, executive director of the Nobel Forum at Augsburg.

And the location is appropriate. Yunus, a Nobel Prize winner in 2006, will visit Augsburg, one of Minnesota’s most diverse colleges, on the bustling West Bank. That’s as global as Minnesota gets through international students, immigrants and small entrepreneurs.

“I’ve been talking about the ‘children’ of Grameen Bank for years,” Yunus said. “That’s very exciting for me to see girls completing their education. Asian University for Women is a top international university. To see this qualitatively [is proof] there is no difference between a poor child and one from a rich family. They have the same potential.”

Yunus, 72, retired from Grameen in 2011. It has lent about $7 billion to millions of small borrowers and opened branches around the globe in the 30 years since Yunus founded it.

“Grameen always had repayment rate of 96 or 97 percent,” he said. “There is no collateral. The system of small support or solidarity groups with a common purpose and small weekly repayments is why it works. They are not overwhelmed by the size of the initial loan and you build up the [borrower with larger loans over time]. Earn income. Keep the doors open. Cooperate with each other.”

Yunus, who expanded Grameen to other countries, was a professor of economics at Chittagong University in Bangladesh who received a doctorate from the Vanderbilt University.

But his prominence has little do with economic theory. It is rooted in his first experimental microloan of $27 from his own pocket in 1976 to a group of impoverished women in Jobra, not far from Chittagong. The women were making bamboo furniture, but could not afford the loans for materials made by loan sharks who charged several hundred percent.

“I had no idea this would grow into Grameen Bank,’’ he said. “I gave them $27, they paid off the loan shark and they later paid me back. I loaned them some more.”

Yunus, who said he paid himself $400 monthly at Grameen, also started several dozen social enterprises, or nonprofit businesses. He established the Yunus Centre, his speaking-and-writing platform, after he won the Nobel Prize.

“I live very modestly and my family understands that,” he said. “What made me happy was promoting social businesses that solved problems. I like a simple life. I don’t like luxury.”

An inspiration to others

Grameen has inspired similar efforts on several continents, including the Twin Cities where fledgling entrepreneurs often turn for small amounts of credit and expertise to nonprofit lenders such as the Neighborhood Development Center, the Metropolitan Consortium of Community Developers or the African Development Center. The micro businesses prove themselves there before they can gain access to a commercial lenders.

Zaman has another admirer she won’t meet until Friday at the Nobel Forum.

Chris Policinski, the CEO of Land O’Lakes, the Arden Hills-based cooperative that is a multibillion-dollar dairy enterprise. Its international division has worked for 30 years with small farmers, trying to help them band together as producers and establish profitable markets, in some of the poorest corners of the world.

Fahmida Zaman’s story is “a classic that we see over and over again, how a little bit of agricultural development can lift a family from poverty to a little bit of prosperity,” Policinski said last week. “And these ‘smallholder’ farms then will buy a little fertilizer, some more tools and then the kids are going to school and ... ultimately can make for a little better world.’’

Policinski will join Cargill Chief Operating Officer David MacLennan Friday on a panel that addresses food security, or having enough to eat, and peace. That follows the Nobel laureate address by Yunus on Friday afternoon. The conference commences at noon. Tickets are available for each of the Friday through Sunday sessions at www.nobelpeaceprizeforum.org. ($40 general admission, $10 for students)

 

Neal St. Anthony • 612-673-7144

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