Outskirts online journal

Michelle T Hackett

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About the author

Michelle Hackett is currently completing a PhD in Politics with the University of Adelaide externally, while involved with research work at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia
([email protected]).

Publication details

Volume 25, November 2011

Can social enterprise deliver gender ‘appropriate technology’ in rural Bangladesh?


Technology choices are determined by a myriad of often conflicting factors and priorities. Political interests, embedded bias and cost factors all affect which technologies are prioritised, or even recognised, above others. The literature concerning gender and technology has made considerable inroads to our understanding of how gendered assumptions and inequalities play their role in these technology choices. While our understanding has increased, however, the implementation of gender ‘appropriate technologies’ has still been a challenge for governments, NGOs (non-government organisations) and international actors in developing countries (Dutta 2003, 16-18; Foster 1999, 20). This paper will explore the difficulties faced by one development actor from Bangladesh, called Grameen Shakti. What makes this particular case study unique is that Grameen Shakti is a ‘social enterprise’.

While there are a plethora of different definitions of social enterprise in the literature, it is generally accepted that a social enterprise is an organisation which combines elements of both a business and a charitable (nonprofit) agency (Alter 2007; Barraket and Collyer 2009). Grameen Shakti is a nonprofit organisation with a business structure and a social mission. Its mission is to deliver renewable energy technologies to rural Bangladeshis via market mechanisms (Grameen Shakti 2011b). Grameen Shakti has historically had Solar Home Systems (SHS) as its primary sales product. More recently, however, it has attempted to add Improved Cook Stoves (ICS) and other cooking technologies to its repertoire. While both SHS and ICS products can be considered ‘Appropriate Technologies’, energy statistics and women’s voices show that it is the Improved Cook Stoves that are particularly needed in Bangladesh. It is the Improved Cook Stoves, however, that Grameen Shakti has had more difficulty in launching, with initial sales to rural Bangladeshi households unexpectedly low. The paper will employ a feminist analysis to explain how patriarchal norms, capitalist priorities and neoliberal development assumptions have all hindered Grameen Shakti’s transition to ICS. These findings, it will be argued, provoke fundamental questions about the ability of social enterprises, like Grameen Shakti, to address gender in technology.

The aim of the Grameen family of social enterprises is to create an ‘alternative’ capitalism in which both social and financial returns are valued (Yunus 2007, 21-23). One of Grameen Shakti’s ambitions in terms of social return (or, social mission) has been to aid the empowerment of women in Bangladesh through employment and the provision of Improved Cook Stoves (Barua 2007, 7-9). The findings in this paper, however, raise questions as to whether such aims are inherently problematic. Social enterprises like Grameen Shakti, who attempt to address gender issues and challenge the existing economic value structure, will continue to face fundamental conflicts while they are still bound within a patriarchal capitalist market system. This finding, for an energy-focused social enterprise, supports and re-enforces the concerns of authors studying microfinance, a banking-focused social enterprise (see, for example, Hunt and Kasynathan 2002, 71; Mayoux 2000, 21). It indicates that more feminist analysis of the vast array of social enterprises in developing countries is needed.

Technology in development

The definition of technology has expanded in the last few decades to include the knowledge, expertise, physical infrastructure, machinery, equipment, techniques surrounding the technology, and “the capacity to organise and use all of these” (Practical Action 2008, 6). It is the creation, transfer or adoption of technology in developing countries which is subject to particular scrutiny: What makes a technology ‘appropriate’?

Theories concerning the role of technology in development have gone through various phases according to Grieve (2004). Increasing mass unemployment in developing countries in the 1960s “raised issues of technology choice and the ‘appropriateness’ of technologies to be adopted” (Grieve 2004, 173). Grieve notes two responses to this: a more conventional large-scale employment based response, and the rise of ‘Appropriate Technology’ as an alternative, decentralised development strategy. The conventional approach shifted towards a “Progressive Technological Upgrading” from the 1990s (Grieve 2004, 180), and then to the current approach of “leapfrogging”. Leapfrogging is “the introduction of advanced technology in developing countries first, or at least no later than in industrialized countries” (Saghir 2006, 2). A common criticism of the conventional approach is its continued focus on large-scale solutions to the needs of industrial and urban problems, while placing small-scale (decentralised) solutions for rural areas in the periphery (Francis and Mansell 1988, 33-35; see Grieve 2004, 176-178; Village Earth 2010).

An alternative approach to energy development comes from the field of ‘Appropriate Technology’. The term Intermediate Technology (later called Appropriate Technology), was first used by the economist Fritz Schumacher in the 1970s (Schumacher 1973). The concept was created to provide a viable alternative to the dominant technology paradigm described above, which assumed that large-scale, complex and expensive technologies were inherently superior. In response to this, the Intermediate Technology group advocated for an approach which focused more on small scale, labor-intensive techniques, drawn from grassroots observations which were primarily rurally focused (Akabue 2000; Francis and Mansell 1988, 41-44). In terms of Appropriate Technology for energy development, a myriad of renewable technologies have emerged over the last few decades, including solar technologies for lighting, biomass technologies for cooking, and mechanical pumps for irrigation (Cecelski 2000; Islam et al. 2008, 317-319; Jain 2010; Karekezi and Kithyoma 2002, 1082-1085). While some of these technologies have been very successful, improving people’s lives and spreading rapidly, some technologies have failed (Dutta 1997, 283-289; Karekezi and Kithyoma 2002, 1085); gender is increasingly recognised as a linchpin.

Gender in technology

Studies of gender in technology, by Judith Warner, Helen Henderson and Soma Dutta among others highlight both explicit gender inequalities and the implicit effects of embedded discriminatory structures (Clancy et al. 2003; Dutta 2003; Dutta 1997; Foster 1999; Warner and Henderson 1995). Explicit gender inequalities are often the result of differing power roles, such as the dominant position of men in decision-making concerning technology choices. Structural inequalities include criticisms of the capitalist structure which values male-dominated income-generating technologies over more home-based activities. These issues are particularly evident in the field of energy technology. For example, the entire process of technology transfer in some situations has been documented to be male-centric and male-controlled: From the male bureaucracies who decide which technology should be funded and male scientists who develop the technology, to the training (by male trainers) of male users, who control the purchase of the goods (Warner and Henderson 1995, 49; Karekezi and Kithyoma 2002; Dutta 1997, 286-288). This exclusion of women from technology development and uptake has consequences at a number of levels, not least of which is often the failure of the technology dissemination programme itself. In India, for example, it is now recognised that the “lack lustre performance of improved cook stoves and biogas reflect lack of women’s involvement” (Dutta 1997, 283). When women are excluded from the decision-making process, inappropriate technologies are often chosen or developed (Karekezi and Kithyoma 2002, 1085); when women are excluded from the implementation process (e.g. training men instead of women), the technologies can be misused or unused (Foster 1999, 18-20).

These examples of overt gender discrimination in technology development also resonate with a broader social feminist critique of capitalism (Gibson-Graham 2006, 33-36; Jaquette 1982, 272-279). This critique recognises that labour and decision-making is divided along gendered lines, with ‘women’s work’ being undervalued. The conventional approach to energy technology transfer in developing countries is embedded with gendered assumptions which stem from the capitalist gender divisions. In particular, the prioritisation of income generating activities ignores the role that unpaid (mostly female) labour contributes to the household, community and national economy (Dutta 1997, 285-286). As Warner and Henderson (1995, 51) argue, “The economic value of household-related technologies is not obvious, however, so those technologies associated with commercial production have received much more attention”.

The consequence of this for energy technology choices is that activities which are ‘free’, such as cooking with biomass in the home, are often not prioritised. As argued by Clancy et al. (2003, 6), “biomass in rural areas is collected at zero monetary cost, mainly by women and children, and so it falls outside national energy accounts, the result of which is that the issue renders itself invisible”. Energy technology programmes for improved cooking are often subsumed by more ‘important’ energy priorities. In Africa, for example, many national renewable and rural energy programmes have given priority to the solar photo-voltaic technology (Karekezi and Kithyoma 2002, 1082) since electricity for income-generating tasks is assumed to be more essential than improved domestic cooking techniques (see Wamukonya 2007, 6). In all, energy technology is intrinsically gendered, from the choice of which technology to develop, to the ways in which it is implemented.

Gender in social enterprise

‘Social enterprise’ is used to describe a vast array of hybrid nonprofit-business organisations, from cooperatives and enterprising charities, to socially-oriented businesses and multinational companies with CSR (corporate social responsibility) (see Alter 2007; Barraket and Collyer 2009; Hoxha and Ruli 2001; SustainAbility 2003). The social enterprise literature, consequently, is an eclectic mix of voices from often quite disparate fields. It is the entrepreneurial business community, however, which has been the most vocal in establishing a social enterprise discourse (see Nicholls and Cho 2006, 99). While addressing gender disparities does feature in this literature, it generally does so without critical feminist analysis.

The only substantial feminist literature on gender in social enterprise is confined to one particular form of social enterprise, called microfinance (see for example Ahmed 2008; Goetz and Sen Gupta 1996; Hunt and Kasynathan 2001; Mayoux 2000). Microfinance refers to an alternative form of banking which focuses on small loans for poor women, using group social pressure and norms (rather than material possessions) as “collateral” for the loans (see Elahi and Danopoulos 2004). The dual claim of microfinance is that it can simultaneously stimulate economic growth and empower poor women (Hunt and Kasynathan 2001, 42; Mayoux 2000, 21). Within the last decade, however, there has been growing evidence that microfinance does not always offer the gendered development hoped for. A ground breaking study by Goetz and Sen Gupta (1996) of microcredit in Bangladesh, for example, found that 63% of women had ‘partial’ to ‘no’ control of their loans. Furthermore, they found that when women did control their loans, these were generally for small amounts to conduct traditional “female” jobs. These home-based jobs, argue Hunt and Kasynathan (2001, 45), do not challenge the traditional gender roles, and thus microfinance cannot be assumed to empower women. Likewise, Mayoux (2000, 28) argues that the female empowerment goals of microfinance institutes will continue to be undermined unless there is explicit commitment to addressing underlying gender issues.

While there has been a wide range of literature on gender and microfinance, other forms of social enterprise in developing countries have not received such depth of critical analysis. Some exceptions to this include the works of Gibson-Graham (2006), Gray et al. (2003), Grosser and Moon (2005) and Phillips (2005). These studies, however, predominantly focus on western or (eastern European) transitional countries rather than developing countries such as Bangladesh. Indeed, there is a general dearth of literature on the key debates surrounding those social enterprises which are initiated in developing countries (Hackett 2010). While the literature on gender and microfinance is enlightening, more critical analysis of the vast variety of social enterprises is still needed. This paper hopes to add one more piece to the puzzle by drawing out important debates which arise from an analysis of an energy technology based social enterprise called Grameen Shakti.


The central focus of this paper, concerning gendered technology choices, was based on research on Grameen Shakti and conversions with women in Bangladeshi villages in regards to their energy needs and their experiences with Grameen Shakti. Field research was undertaken in Bangladesh by the author over a three month period in 2008-2009. It involved interviews with both male and female Grameen Shakti staff, customers and other villagers. The interviews were open ended, with women in groups and individually. In total the author conducted interviews at nine Grameen Shakti field branches throughout Bangladesh, four Grameen Technology Centres, four Grameen Shakti regional branches, one Grameen Shakti divisional branch, four Grameen Bank branches, and with several senior managers at Grameen Shakti and other Grameen social enterprises in Dhaka. The paper also draws from statistical information provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics libraries and Grameen Shakti’s database in Dhaka. One of the limitations of this study was that the author was accompanied at all times by a male interpreter who was contracted through Grameen Shakti. At times, Grameen Shakti staff members were also present. While this no doubt inhibited many of the women from speaking freely, there were several women who were vocal and appeared eager to voice their opinions. Additionally, statistical information was collected from Grameen Shakti and various Bangladeshi agencies.

Grameen Shakti

Grameen Shakti, which means literally “village power”, was established in 1996 by Muhammad Yunus (2010). While its primary mission is to deliver renewable energy technologies to rural Bangladeshis, it also promotes itself as aiding in the empowerment of women (Grameen Shakti 2011c, 2011d). In its early years, when Grameen Shakti’s sole product was the Solar Home System, references to ‘women’ primarily concerned the benefits from better lighting for them and their children (Barua 2001, 209; Barua 2002, 34). In later years, however, Grameen Shakti began to address gender issues more substantially, with the introduction of female-focused technologies and a focus on non-traditional employment for women within Grameen Shakti (Barua 2007, 7-9).

With the opening of Grameen Technology Centers (GTC) in mid-2000s, Grameen Shakti began a new focus on women as employees in non-traditional areas of the workforce (Grameen Shakti 2011c). The GTC stationed across Bangladesh are deliberately staffed only by female engineers who train local women to assemble various SHS components. Grameen Shakti advertises that it is particularly marginalised local women who are to be targeted for this training and future employment. According to the founding Managing Director of Grameen Shakti, Mr Dipal C. Barua, this programme is specifically designed to empower disadvantaged, local women: “Instead of passive victims, they are becoming active implementers to bring socio-economic improvement in their lives as well as the lives of others” (Barua 2007, 9). In this way, Grameen Shakti is challenging current patriarchal norms concerning the role of women in Bangladeshi society, and encouraging their ability to be part of the public, economic workforce.

In 2006, Grameen Shakti also began to move into more female-focused energy technologies. After ten years of providing only lighting and electricity for small appliance with the Solar Home System, Grameen Shakti started selling energy technologies that focused on rural cooking. The Managing Director at the time said that he felt personally motivated to improve the welfare and cooking conditions of rural women (Barua 2008). When Grameen Shakti introduced Improved Cook Stoves to the market in 2006, it had an aim of selling “at least two million ICS in the first three years of the program” (Barua 2007, 11). By the end of 2009, however, the sales of ICS had not yet reached 30,000. From 2006 to 2009, Grameen Shakti’s ICS sales were far below expectations, particularly in comparison to the 95,000 SHS sold over the same period.

Solar Home Systems were the first energy technology to be sold by Grameen Shakti, and thus it is expected that more SHS would be sold each year in the oldest branches, as they are the more established product. For the fifteen new branches that opened in 2008, however, sales data show that SHS sales still significantly outperformed the Improved Cook Stove sales. The low sales figures for the ICS technology raise questions and concerns about why Grameen Shakti had difficulties launching the new product.

Appropriate technology?

The Appropriate Technology criteria vary from author to author (Biswas 2001; Francis and Mansell 1988; VillageEarth 2010; Warner and Henderson 1995). Some of the most prominent criteria involve the technology’s necessity, its technical feasibility, its affordability, its local embeddedness (with local materials, construction and control), its environmental impact, its sustainability (in terms of maintenance and financial sustainability), and its social acceptance. We can use these criteria to briefly analyse the ‘appropriateness’ of the SHS and ICS technologies for rural Bangladesh.

In terms of feasibility, various studies have shown that solar panels are well suited to the Bangladeshi climate, with “about 300 clear sunny days per year” (Dipal 2002, 33; and see Islam et al. 2008, 315). As several female customers claimed, it takes several days of rain without sun before the battery was without charge. The Grameen Shakti design for the Improved Cook Stoves was chosen to specifically meet the Bangladeshi conditions (for example, the pot hole size) (Barua 2008). Most women I spoke to were happy with the design of the ICS, especially the chimney which removed the smoke from the kitchen. Several women with older stoves did mention, however, that they would prefer greater choice in cooking speed/size, as some meals needed to cook at lower heat for longer time periods. According to upper management in Dhaka, and as observed by the author in several other villages in 2008-2009, this problem was remedied by adding an extra pot hole in the ICS design.

In terms of affordability, Improved Cook Stoves are comparatively inexpensive (approx. $10 AUD). One group of women from a poorer village, however, were quite vocal about this cost being too high for them. As they already had functioning stoves, they could not justify such expenditure unless there were adequate credit facilities to pay the stove off slowly with minimal expense. The solar panels, also, are initially expensive for both poor and middle class villagers in Bangladesh (approx. $115 - $850 AUD). In order to address this problem, Grameen Shakti officially offers “soft credit” loans so that rural families can pay for the ICS or SHS in small instalments (Grameen Shakti 2011e). The added benefit of this is that regular collection of the payments by Grameen Shakti staff ensures that the technology is well maintained, as widely observed by the author throughout Bangladesh.

In terms of being locally embedded, Grameen Shakti has permanent branches throughout the rural areas of Bangladesh and most of the materials are sourced locally. For the ICS the main material used (from 2006-2009) was local clay, similarly to the traditional cook stoves. The solar panels are currently still produced overseas, but the components are assembled in the local Grameen Technology Centers, and there are future plans to start production of panels in Bangladesh (Yunus 2010). The use of local materials and local employees, such as the solar technicians in the GTC, simultaneous help the local economy and social acceptance of the technologies and Grameen Shakti itself.

In terms of necessity or need, a study by the Bangladesh Energy Network promoted both solar lighting over traditional kerosene lighting and Improved Cook Stoves over traditional cook stoves (BEN 2006, 12). However, while both technologies are potentially beneficial, it can be argued that it is the improved cooking technologies which are needed more. According to the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), rural household energy needs are dominated by biomass for cooking and heating. More than 97% of the energy needs and 74% of the energy costs in the average rural home are supplied by traditional biomass fuels, such as wood, animal dung and leaves (BIDS 2004, cited in Asaduzzaman et al. 2009, xx). This biomass is primarily used for cooking and heating, while electricity and lighting needs are marginal in comparison (Asaduzzaman et al. 2009, xx). As confirmed by the ICS owners interviewed, women in rural households do the majority of the cooking in rural Bangladesh. “Cooking and responsibility for family members occupy a major portion of a woman’s daily life [in Bangladesh]. By tradition, cooking activity is exclusively performed by women” (Alam 2010, 1955). Traditional cook stoves, however, are slow, require a large quantity of biomass, and emit a considerable amount of smoke to the kitchen (see figure 1). Traditional cook stoves have been documented to cause “acute respiratory infection, particularly pneumonia and even still-births in women” (BEN 2006, 14). As found in a survey of rural Bangladeshi women by Miah et al. (2009, 75), “all women had irritated eyes while engaged in cooking with these traditional stoves. Also, 70%, 68%, 83% and 63% of women had headaches, lung diseases, asthma and cardiovascular diseases, respectively”.

The Grameen Shakti Improved Cook Stoves, in contrast, remove most of the smoke from the cooking area via a chimney (see figure 2). Unsurprisingly, most of the female ICS owners interviewed by the author in 2008, pointed out the chimney as a particularly desirable component. The ICS also reduce the amount of fuel needed to be collected, and reduce the amount of time needed to cook the food. In contrast, the solar panels sold by Grameen Shakti are useful for supplying lighting and electricity for small appliances such as mobile phone rechargers. They cannot, however, help cook meals or provide heat, and it is for these purposes that energy in a rural home is most needed, as Miah et al. (2009, 76) argue: “In Bangladesh, there is a need to develop fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves so as to improve health and hygiene, reduce drudgery of women, reducing fuel consumption, and improve forest protection and the environment”. In summary, while it appears that both the SHS and the ICS can potentially be Appropriate Technologies, it can be argued that it is the Improved Cook Stoves (or other improved cooking technologies) which are more pressingly needed in rural Bangladesh and could make the most improvement to the daily lives of rural Bangladeshis, especially women.

On first inspection, it appears that the Improved Cook Stoves do fulfil the Appropriate Technology criteria, and they are less expensive and arguably more needed than the Solar Home Systems. Grameen Shakti however continued to preference solar technology over the cooking technology in the first years of sales. Advertisements with banners and posters in rural centres for example, were most prominent for SHS and less evident for the other Grameen Shakti technologies. Most Grameen Bank members interviewed by the author, for example, had no knowledge that the ICS existed (despite residing in a village which had a Grameen Shakti branch office). In every Grameen Shakti branch office visited by the author, sales targets and unofficial ‘rewards’ for high sales were primarily given to the staff for SHS sales. The ICS, comparatively, appeared to be considered a “secondary” technology.

Despite the enthusiasm of the Grameen Shakti Head Office to include gender appropriate technology in its social mission, and despite the considerable potential for this technology to improve the lives of Bangladeshi women, the ICS did not appear to be consistently promoted by Grameen Shakti, particularly in comparison to the SHS. In the following section, it will be argued that this reflects more than a simple transitional ‘teething-phase’ for the ICS. Instead, this seemingly inconspicuous preferencing of solar technology over improved cooking technology reveals a number of significant issues, all of which require more critical analysis in the field of social enterprise.

The impact of patriarchal norms in Bangladesh

The transition to ICS sales in 2006 proved to be more difficult than first expected by Grameen Shakti for a variety of reasons. While financial and organisational factors (explored later) will prove to be particularly pertinent, it can be argued that traditional patriarchal power structures also played a role. In Bangladesh, particularly rural areas, patriarchal norms are dominant. This affects a household’s choice of which technology to buy, especially as it is men who usually make the decisions regarding expenditure (Develtere and Huybrechts 2002, 21). In general, it is men who engage in the income-generating activities and women who do the cooking, household chores and often subsistence agricultural work (BEN 2006, 32). Technologies which assist in food preparation, then, are the domain of women. These technologies are considered of lesser import and are generally invested in less (BEN 2006, 4). Several women interviewed, for example, claimed that they could not justify the cost of an ICS, as they already had a functioning traditional cook stove. This is despite the health problems the smoky traditional stoves cause, as acknowledged by the women themselves. While this is no doubt a reflection of the households’ financial situations, it also indicates that women’s technologies and health are not so highly valued.

Cook stoves, furthermore, being mainly used by women in the home arena, do not have the prestige of solar panels. The consequences of this is an apparent masculinising and feminising of the technologies, which can be seen to influence the actions and attitudes of Grameen Shakti staff, who are pre-dominantly men. In Grameen Shakti, while attention has been given to promoting women’s empowerment and involvement, the vast majority of the decision-makers are men. The primary decision-makers, including the founding Chairman Dr Muhammad Yunus, the founding Managing Director Mr Dipal Barua, the current CEO Mr Abser Kamal and the divisional and regional managers, are all men. Similarly, of the branches visited by the author in 2008-2009, over 90% of the branch sales staff were men. As noted by one of the GTC (female) staff members, while women were not discouraged from becoming branch field staff, they were often restricted by Bangladeshi norms against women travelling alone from house to house for Grameen Shakti sales. The main area where women are encouraged to work is in the GTC, though there is an expectation that the GTC female engineers will resign once they are married. As of 2009, there did not appear to be any plans to address these gender divisions. For example, out of a class of approximately 100 new recruits in training in Dhaka (in January 2009), only young men were observed to be present.

The male staff over-representation, in the Grameen Shakti field branches in particular, has consequences for which technologies are most promoted and marketed. Talking to various (male) branch staff and managers, I received the impression that solar panels were thought of as “high tech”, “magic-like” and prestigious. I was told by several of the sales staff that they felt more inclined to promote solar panels, than the cheap, “low tech”, “dirty/messy” Improved Cook Stoves. Cooking, it appeared, was not generally considered an energy priority by young men in Bangladesh. The lack of incentives for ICS sales, compared to sales targets and bonuses given for the sale of SHS, appeared to compound this attitude.

The impact of neoliberal development priorities

Grameen Shakti has complex relationships with international actors, the most influential of which is the World Bank. In terms of energy development in Bangladesh overall, the World Bank has given its largest loans, firstly, for the Siddhirganj natural gas project to supply electricity to the national grid (World Bank 2008); secondly, for infrastructure to scale-up rural grid electricity connections (World Bank 2002); and finally, for organisations like Grameen Shakti to sell renewable energy in the form of solar electricity (World Bank 2009). It could be argued that this theme of electricity production and distribution is a reflection of the Bank’s broader neoliberal energy development agenda. Neoliberal development preferences market mechanisms, including income generation, over other development initiatives (see Jacobson 2007, 145-6). Several authors have argued that this is reflected in a prioritising of rural electrification over other forms of energy (Jacobson 2007, 146; Karekezi and Kithyoma 2002, 1082; Wamukonya 2007, 6). Electricity, according to a conventional energy development approach, is considered to be the “top of the ladder” (Reddy 2000, 45). It is promoted as essential for economic growth, promising income generation and modernisation (Barnes and Floor 1996, 497-501; Saghir 2006; World Bank 2008).

Despite the potential impact of improved biomass energy technology in Bangladesh, the only significant funding by the World Bank has gone to electric based energy. The consequences of this for Grameen Shakti are that, over the last decade, the World Bank has provided support (that is, grants and loan interest loans) for Grameen Shakti’s SHS program, but not for its cooking technology initiatives. As the World Bank loans are a primary financier for Grameen Shakti and its continued ability to ‘break-even’ (senior Grameen Shakti finance officer, personal communications 2009), it could be assumed that the World Bank’s development goals would have both a theoretical and tangible influence on Grameen Shakti’s priorities. In the most direct sense, the World Bank’s prioritising of solar electricity meant that SHS products dominate Grameen Shakti from 2002 to 2009. More fundamentally, though, the World Bank’s neoliberal ideology may have been an influence in Grameen’s own approach to development.

Grameen Shakti has always appeared to focus, for example, on the income-generating potential of its technologies. “The emphasis of Shakti's program has been on promoting and marketing of PV systems for rural electrification and for generation of income of the rural households” (Barua 2001, 206). With the introduction of improved cooking technologies in 2006, however, Grameen Shakti has appeared to extend beyond a conventional rural electrification development ideology. However, the focus on income generation was, and is, still evident (Barua 2007, 1-3, 6-12; Yunus 2010). The consequence of this is that SHS, which are the more income-generating technology, may be considered by Grameen Shakti to be more effective in poverty alleviation than the ICS and given a higher priority. Grameen Shakti does not appear to question the neoliberal concept of development in its publications. In fact, Dr Muhammad Yunus incorporates market-based poverty alleviation into his conception of a social enterprise (Yunus 2007, 113-114). As I argue, however, this focus on income generation in the market place has a potentially confounding effect on Grameen’s ability to engage with its social mission.

Grameen Shakti’s dependence on the capitalist market system

One of the hallmarks of a social enterprise is its double bottom line, with both social and financial objectives. Grameen Shakti’s primary social motivation for introducing the ICS was to improve women’s health and reduce environmental degradation (Barua 2007, 11). In terms of financial bottom-line, Grameen Shakti depends on international funding and product sales. The sale of Solar Home Systems, as the more expensive item, brings a much greater financial return to Grameen Shakti than the markedly cheaper Improved Cook Stoves. It could be argued, then, that Grameen Shakti’s continued reliance on profit from the Solar Home Systems is an additional primary influence in their technology prioritisation.

This argument is supported by the recent change in Grameen Shakti’s approach towards ICS dissemination. From 2006 to 2009, Grameen Shakti sold both the SHS and the ICS products in its branches. These branches were generally located in areas which were best suited to the SHS market, rather than the ICS market (e.g. in terms of village wealth). Similarly, the branch staff were more familiar with and disposed to selling SHS over the ICS. In 2010, Head Office spear-headed a new approach to ICS sales: new ICS-dedicated Grameen Shakti field branches were opened, ICS-specific staff were trained, and Grameen Shakti invested in research to find a more reliable and cost efficient ICS manufacture technique (Kamal 2011). The consequence of this investment was a boom in ICS sales, from 46,000 total ICS sold by the end of 2009, to 147,000 ICS sold in 2010 alone (Grameen Shakti 2011a). Grameen Shakti’s initial difficulties with promoting the ICS appeared to have disappeared.

According to senior management (Kamal 2011), this transition is attributed to the ICS acquiring Clean Development Mechanism (CDM) accreditation (UNFCCC 2009). The daily use of ICS, rather than inefficient traditional cook stoves, decreases the amount of green house gases entering the atmosphere. A market for these “carbon credits” has recently emerged, with J P Morgan now paying Grameen Shakti for each ICS sold (Kamal 2011). Thus while senior Grameen Shakti management did seem to genuinely want the ICS to succeed in its early years (Barua 2008), it appears that the CDM funding provided the catalyst needed to make this happen.

One of the claims of the Grameen social enterprises is that they encourage an alternative capitalism, where both profit and social capital are valued (Yunus 2007, 21-23). Grameen Shakti, however, relies on the sale of its products to keep financially solvent. Thus it is still contingent on existing capitalist markets. In Bangladesh, cooking technology is not given high status, and most households cannot justify paying a high cost. Several branch managers, for example, said that construction of the ICS was not worth (in monetary terms) the money and time it cost for them to build it. Grameen Shakti could not afford to charge the customers the full price of the ICS (in terms of construction hours etc.) because people were not willing to pay a high price for a cook stove. This again reflects the undervaluing of traditionally ‘female’ technology. Before the CDM came into effect in 2010, Grameen Shakti was effectively losing money from the ICS sales (despite limited funding from the German foreign aid organisation (GTZ 2008)). This helps explain the change in Grameen Shakti’s approach to the ICS in 2010 when the CDM scheme began to fund the ICS sales.

It appears that Grameen Shakti’s technology prioritises have been more influenced by financial concerns than by its social mission concerning women’s emancipation. Due to the inadequate valuing of this ‘female’ technology in the patriarchal environment of rural Bangladesh, Grameen Shakti could not make sufficient profit on the ICS sales pre-2010. Ironically, though, it is Grameen Shakti’s mission, as a social enterprise, to challenge this system, rather than be directed by it. This case exemplifies the classic social enterprise paradox: Can a social enterprise properly balance a double bottom line? While Grameen Shakti, like other social enterprises, has a vision of changing the capitalist system it is undoubtedly difficult to do so while its continued operation is reliant on existing market systems.


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