Wednesday, May 31, 2006

A Brilliant "Business" Plan

A friend just e-mailed me the following article which I find extremely thought provoking. The business idea in the article is just sheer brilliance. Take a look.

Here's a Business Plan to Fight Poverty
The social entrepreneur who pioneered 'microlending' has launched a new company. Its goal: a cell-phone in every village.

Have we got a business deal for you! Build a state-of-the-art cell-phone network in one of the world's poorest countries. And include among your target customers the country's poorest citizens -- many of whom live without running water, few of whom have ever seen a telephone. Laughable, right? Not when the entrepreneur behind this deal has spent 20 years building one of the world's most remarkable financial institutions. Not when he ranks among the leading social innovators of his generation. "This is not the first crazy thing we've done," says Muhammad Yunus.

Yunus, 57, is the founder of Grameen Bank, headquartered in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (Grameen is the Bangladeshi word for "village.") He started the bank to provide desperately needed credit to his country's desperately poor villagers. The business model he pioneered -- called "microlending" -- broke all the rules of traditional finance. Yunus focused on making loans as small as $30, just enough to get a microbusiness started. He did not ask for collateral. Instead, he required borrowers to organize into small groups and guarantee one another's loans. And he ended up lending almost exclusively to women, who account for 94% of the bank's customers.

The results have been stunning. Over the past two decades, Grameen Bank has grown to include nearly 1,100 branches, covering every corner of Bangladesh. It has made more than 2 million loans worth a combined $2 billion. It boasts a loan-repayment rate of 98%. It's become a model for similar institutions in 50 countries.

Many of Yunus's admirers see him as a social crusader. He sees something else. "I am a businessman," he says, "but it's business with a twist. I practice business with a social objective. That's what's missing from the capitalist system. We look for market solutions to social problems."

GrameenPhone Ltd. is the next twist in Muhammad Yunus's brand of capitalism. The company is a consortium of four partners: Yunus's Grameen Telecom (a 35% shareholder); Telenor AS, the main Norwegian telecommunications company (51%); Marubeni Corp. of Japan (9.5%); and New York-based Gonofone Development Corp. (4.5%). GrameenPhone opened for business last spring. It now offers service in Dhaka and in about 20 nearby villages. By the end of 1998, GrameenPhone will distribute 4,000 phones throughout the country. And it will keep adding not only phones but also services: fax, voice mail, Internet access.

Yunus and his partners recognize the risks of their venture. There are fewer than 300,000 working telephones in all of Bangladesh, a country with a population of 120 million. Four years ago the government gave an exclusive cellular license to Pacific Bangladesh Telecom. By late 1996, when authorities ended PBT's monopoly, it had sold just 4,000 cell-phone subscriptions.

Yunus's approach to a tough market? Innovate. His strategy is to keep the service cheap so he can market it to the rural poor as well as the urban elite. And he plans to use the network as an engine of economic development, not just a source of revenue. The company is offering "village phones" to rural residents. Grameen Bank lends money to individual entrepreneurs to buy the phones. These entrepreneurs then sell the service to their fellow villagers and use the income to repay the loans. Yunus's goal is to have at least one cell-phone in each of Bangladesh's 65,000 villages within six years.

The first person to make a call on the GrameenPhone network was Laili Begum, a 27-year-old woman who lives in Patira, a village of 2,500 people. Seven years ago she started a grocery store with a loan from Grameen Bank. Now she's in the cell-phone business. She borrowed $430 to buy the handset. Air time costs her 4 taka per minute (about 9 cents). She charges her customers 5 taka per minute and uses the margin to repay her loan. Once she pays it off, that 1 taka per minute will be pure profit.

Begum's new business is booming. Villagers line up outside her house to use the phone. She's even giving international interviews -- over her cell-phone, of course. "Three or four days after she got into the business, she got a call from the BBC," Yunus reports. "A week later she got a call from the Voice of America in Washington." Unfortunately, Yunus says, Begum missed the call from Washington. "I asked where she was at the time," Yunus says. "'Well, I went to bring my cow home,' she said. This is probably the first time someone missed a call from the Voice of America because she was out tending a cow."

If GrameenPhone works as a business, it will further document the power of its founder's bootstrap approach to fighting rural poverty. The logic behind Grameen Bank and GrameenPhone is to create financial and business tools that poor people can use to help themselves. Don't just offer the poor charity, Yunus argues: give them access to credit. Don't create incentives for villagers to head for the misery of the city; unleash engines of growth in the country.

When you combine access to credit with access to information, Yunus says, you change the game for the rural poor: "Poor people live at the mercy of the middleman. The middleman says, 'The price for your crop is this much. I can't do any better -- the market price in the city is so low.' Of course, he's making that up. But villagers have no connections in the city. Now, with the cell-phones, they can call up and find out the market price for themselves. We can gradually eliminate the middleman. And the more middlemen you eliminate, the more rural producers you benefit."

Peter Carbonara ( is a freelance writer based in Brookline, Massachusetts. He contributes frequently to Fast Company. Contact Grameen foundation by telephone (202-543-2636) or email (

Link to original article


Spiritual Landscape of the Post-Modern World

I am reading "Simply Christian" by N.T. Wright. He told a parable about the spiritual landscape of the post-modern world. Below is my translation of the story as appeared on the registration booklet of AFC Production Conference 2006:

後來,政府決定將整條村莊的地面鋪上厚厚的混凝土,阻止泉水隨時溢出;再安裝供水系統,讓大家可以方便地取水。大家都覺得實在很方便,不會在突然間在路中心有水冒出來了... 雖然,大家都覺得,水的味道沒有以前的好。


What can we do to purify the mud water?


Monday, May 29, 2006

When you were 19

I just read an interview of Peter Walker on the newest issue of ReadyMade magazine. Peter Walker is the landscape architect who won the competition to design the Sept 11 memorial on the grounds of the former World Trade Center. The article reminded me of my days as an architecture student.
As an architecture student, you learned by experiencing as much good building as possible. So one winter, I flied alone to Washington DC because I was about to start a project on designing a big museum, and Washington DC is probably the place where you'll find the highest concentration of large museum in North America. So for a few days, in the cold, I went to one museum after one museum, taking in as much as I can. I also bought my first digital camera for the trip, which is a Sony Mavica that used floppy disk for storage. It costed me US$700 and I still have it today.
Besides museums, the American capital also has a lot of monuments, so I also went to see those. One of the most striking ones is the Vietnam Veteran Memorials. You know how emotional Americans can get when they talk about the Vietnam war. So it is not an easy thing to design the Vietnam memorial. The memorial is a very simple black marble wall with a turn in the middle, with all the dead soldiers' names engraved on it. The experience of walking along that wall is overwhelming. It is so simple a design but so powerful.

The designer of that memorial is Maya Lin. When she won the competition to design that memorial, she was 19 years old.
What well do you understand the world you're living in (or anything) when you were 19?
And don't underestimate a 19 years old.


Saturday, May 27, 2006




Thursday, May 25, 2006

香港 (heung1 gong2)

一個小小的觀察:有人留意到鄭經翰經常將《香港》(heung1 gong2)讀成《康港》(hong1 gong2)嗎?




最近在網上流行的巴士阿叔短片, 居然哄動到連今日明報也要專題報導。明報甚至出動社論去分析事件。我不是也要批判阿叔一番,只是想用這件事,說明現今的網上媒介的威力。


Tuesday, May 23, 2006

The Real Meaning of Service

I shared from the book "Church Re-imagined" a few days ago on the topic of our physicality. There is another chapter on the book about service that I found very inspiring too.
From the beginning, life with God has been about service...

Service isn't how we act out our spirituality; it's how our spirituality gets shaped. And as such, it's not reserved for the elite of the faith... We were encaptured by this call not as a way to live out our faith but as a means into our faith. As part of our spiritual formation we wanted to answer that call and be useful religious people... The world needs people who are living religiously useful lives in and for the world... Living in the way of Jesus is not a result of a deeper devotion to the things of Jesus; it is what develops in us that deeper devotion.

Service is an obvious way for us to orient our lives around both a belief in Jesus and our efforts to live in the Kingdom of God and never separate the two or put them against each other.

To say that we are a missional community is to say that we are not the end users of the gospel... Rather, we receive these so that we may be equipped and sent into the world to love our neighbours and serve "the least of these."

It's tempting to see service primarily as a way for the well-resourced to reach out to others. But that perspective makes service a kind of condescension - drops of mercy bestowed upon the "needy" by those who are "blessed" - rather than an outgrowth of our desire to work toward making things on earth as they are in heaven.

Our yearning to be a people who love and bless the world means we understand that service extends beyond our threshold; we seek to care for those outside our immediate community with the same compassion... This way of living isn't an outgrowth of faith but rather the essential means to our spiritual formation.

The gospel commands us to love our neighbours, not to be market-driven... We try not to see our church as a means of meeting needs in order to convince people that the gospel is attractive. Our role in the world should not be limited to teaching about God or filling the felt needs of an ever-desiring culture; instead we should love God and our neighbours without having ulterior motives for either of them.

The best way to be a good neighbour... was not to do formal outreach. We concentrated on being friendly... During the course of the year we met people from the neighbourhood, and many joined us in all kinds of Kingdom of God efforts, so it wasn't exactly a stagnant year for our ministry - but it was also healing for us not to have to create a series of programs to justify our presence... people seem to be glad to have us as neighbours as we are to be there.

...we helped staff a neighbourhood festival, regularly walked around the nearby lake to pick up garbage, and ran an afternoon story time for children during the summer.

Is this how you define your service for God?


Sunday, May 21, 2006

Talking to your car

Do you talk to your car?

Here are excerpt from part of a book that I recently read ("Out of the Question... Into the Mystery" by Leonard Sweet, in the chapter "The 'Things that draw us to God"):
I love certain garbage cans found at Burger King. You push open the can's door to deposit your trash. Some of the swinging doors even say "Thank You" on them, to which I responded, "You're welcome." One day I realized what I was doing... you've started talking to garbage cans!

The church could learn something from the hospitality of garbage cans.

I have a relationship... with my computer... I spend more time than I care to admit thanking God for my computer. I spend more time with it than I do with any person in my life...

...In the future, chips and radio transmitters will be inside everything - shirts, shoes, staplers, refrigerators, rough-hewn beans, toilets, hairbrushes, and hairpieces - which means everything will have an "interaction" and thus some measure of intimacy...

...I have a relationship with my car. I'm not the only one. A 2003 survey revealed that 63% of people talk to their cars, and 20% have given their cars names...

...What is different today is that the evolution of technology is so rapid that it is outpacing our social accommodations. In fact, human-to-human relationships are increasingly moderated by gizmos, implants, and other performance-enhancement devices with whom we are becoming intimate, even emotionally dependent...

Think about the implication of the above on discipleship and evangelism.




Click on image to view full size...


Saturday, May 20, 2006

Physicality of our Spirituality

I recently read the book "Church Re-imagined" by Doug Pagitt. It is a record of the spiritual formation model of a rather "avant-garde" church. One of the chapters talks about how they pay attention to the physical aspect of our faith and how spiritual formation can be achieved through physical means. Here are some quotes that I find inspiring:

"Receiving spiritual formation online or from a sermon tape in the car may be convenient, but these versions of 'church' pale in comparison to the physical act of entering a worship space with our community, seeing each other, touching each other, even being distracted by each other."
"It shouldn't be surprising... that communion is a central element of our weekly gatherings... Communion serves not only as a time of remembrance, but also as a full-body participatory experience."
"One of the most exciting aspects of this pursuit of physical expressions of faith is the use of the body as a means of prayer. It's fascinating to me that physical postures - kneeling, raising our arms, placing our palms up - can lead our thoughts into a deeper state of prayer and meditation. In this process, the mind comes under the reign of the body in a way that cannot be forced but seems to come from a genuine connectedness between what we do and what we think."
"The church has so thoroughly given up acknowledging the role of the body in spirituality that many Christians mistakenly see this as the primary difference between Christianity and the New Age. Some even assert that Christianity is about the mind and the spirit while the New Age is about the body and the spirit. What makes this so bizarre is that, when it comes to physical spirituality, the best transcendental meditation class can't hold a candle to the faith that proclaims the incarnation and bodily resurrection and the God who is One. We are a physical people when we follow Jesus."

Implications to me:
1. Rethinking about worship. Our worship now tends to be about the mind. Can we worship through our body too? Jesus installed a very bodily ritual - the Holy Communion - for us to worship him. Can we be more creative in our means to worship?
2. If our spirituality is linked to our body, health becomes an important "spiritual" issue. We cannot worship God to our best when we do not take good care of our body.

What do you think?


Friday, May 19, 2006




The changing economy (thanks to blogging)

I was listening to the new radio program hosted by 梁文道 on RTHK last night (called 思潮作動 之 文明單位). The theme for that episode is about the influence of blogging to traditional printed media. But some of the points brought out in the discussion are quite insightful to other areas as well.

They talked about how blogging is creating democracy in the realm of information. Information used to be controlled by capatalists. Those who have the money to publish and advertise have the microphone. But now, due to the accessibility of blogs, everyone can say whatever they want on the web. And these include not only personal private sharings but also useful information. For example, if you want to check whether a movie was good, you'll now check the several blogs that you subscribe to rather than the critiques published on newspaper or magazine. That's because the people writting blogs are not influenced by any commercial considerations, so their opinions are intrisically more reliable. So, everyone can become content provider now. Powerless individuals now have their voice for the first time. (Implication to ministry: now is the opportunity to influence culture through blogging...)

This also points to another important insight. The whole blogging phenomenon is not motivated by profit. People who blog don't do it for profit but for expressing themselves. Yet the blogs are in fact influencing the economy (as in the example above on movie viewing). Or better yet, should the word "economy" be redefined? We used to mean only monetary activities when we use the word "economy". But the "economic" landscape now may also includes activities about human resources, relational assets, talent assets and many other. These things form the new interconnected network of economy. We have to grasp this concept of new economy in order to strive in the 21st century. (Implication: we don't work for money anymore...)


  • 正如林一峰話齋,閱讀,也是一種 state of mind。
  • 所以不限文字,還有聲音影像一切雜崩能東西,都在涉獵反思消化乾坤大挪移之列。
  • 看重的只有一個字:Insight


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