Economist Mohammad Yunus was the consummate storyteller, a fount of ideas on how to change Haiti.
Visiting from his native Bangladesh, the Nobel peace laureate poured out tale after tale Friday of how his concept of “social business” could apply to Haiti, a nation rife with woes well before last year’s punishing earthquake.
Yunus told how he started his Grameen Foundation by lending $27 each to 42 illiterate women so they could pay off their debts, how a small yogurt business lessened malnutrition in Bangladesh and about the importance of creativity.
“There’s a business world. There’s a charity world,” he told a hotel conference room crowded with college students and development workers. “Why can’t we take those ideas and try to make money and also solve (social) problems?”
It was Yunus’ first trip to Haiti, and he’s certain to make more after he leaves Sunday.
The Grameen Creative Lab based in Germany, which he founded, opened an office in Haiti last year after the earthquake. It gave an $80,000 loan to a new vocational and computer-training school to cover startup costs, and it plans to hand out four more loans before year's end to other applicants with their own social business ideas.
Yunus, a celebrity in development circles for his ideas on helping the poor, recently joined a board of more than 30 philanthropists, former presidents and executives that seeks to advise Haitian President Michel Martelly on economic matters. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, also the United Nations special envoy to Haiti, is co-chairman.
Martelly and his advisers met with Yunus on Thursday on the grounds of the National Palace, still a crumbled heap of snow-white concrete almost two years after the January 2010 earthquake.
Yunus said the “social business” idea is different from the “microcredit” industry that he pioneered in the 1980s, when he gave tiny loans to poor people to help them start small businesses.
His Grameen Creative Lab focuses on the “social business” approach. It gives out bigger loans, between $10,000 and $100,000. The interest rate and duration of the loan are set according to the risk and type of business.
Whatever profit is earned by a “social business” financed by the lab goes back into expanding the company. The aim is that creation and expansion of businesses will help a society lessen ills like hunger and unemployment.
“This is a new paradigm,” said Kesner Pharel, a Haitian economist who was among a panelists of microcredit experts at the hotel. “This guy can be on the same level as Steve Jobs ... This is a new form of capitalism. It's not only about the bottom line but about how the community is doing.”
Following the conference, Yunus dashed off to talk with students at the vocational and computer-training school that got the Grameen Creative Lab loan. He told several dozen students that they should think of themselves as job givers, not job seekers.
The ideas that Yunus brought were not without skeptics in a struggling Caribbean country where employment has long been elusive. About 72 percent of the population earns less than $2 a day.
“It’s impossible for a young entrepreneur to do social business in Haiti,” said Stanley Pierre, 25, a student at the school. “It’s not until the business is truly successful and we have taken care of families can we then turn around and help the community.”
On Saturday, Yunus and his team planned to travel to Haiti’s Central Plateau to visit an office run by Fonkoze, a microcredit bank, and Partners in Health, a nonprofit group that provides health care to the poor.
He said he wants to encourage health-related “social businesses” in the countryside.