In 1997, the Norwegian company Telenor started a joint venture with Muhammad Yunus to set up GrameenPhone. The company gives women, through those famous micro-credits, the chance to buy cellular phones so they can set up small phone centres and earn some money for their living. At the same time, these small phone centres give the isolated rural communities a possibility to communicate with the rest of the world. Or two birds killed with only one stone.
The original plan was to obtain 250,000 customers in the course of the first ten years, but today GrameenPhone has 10 million customers, almost two thirds of the market share in Bangladesh. Actually, a fifth of those customers were acquired during the last quarter. The estimated value of GrameenPhone is 1.2 billion euros, with Telenor owning approximately 62% of the shares.
The agreement made in 1997 contains a phrase in which Telenor expresses the intention to sell out of the company in the long run. Today Telenor says this involved no obligation. Muhammad Yunus has another opinion, says Telenor is «greedy», and wants Telenor to give up the control over the company. Jon Fredrik Baksaas, CEO of Telenor, points out that it is remarkable that Muhammad Yunus did not make his claim until now: only recently the risk in GrameenPhone was reduced substantially.
I cannot make any judgments on the case, but there is the fact that Telenor is no charity organization and as such would have to explain a thing or two to its shareholders if it were to give away millions of euros to another company. On the other hand, this case shows that Muhammad Yunus is a smart businessman who wants to pick up profits when he gets the opportunity. That is of course no problem, and in fact, I think it is to his credit, but things become a bit different when he tries to use the ceremony of the Nobel Peace Prize to blackmail a business partner. He even wrote a rather threatening letter to Telenor lining out a press release that would have been damaging to the company.
A person who certainly does not mind voicing opinions without being properly informed is the former Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjørn Jagland of the social-democratic Labor Party (Ap). According to him, Telenor has «the moral obligation» to sell its GrameenPhone shares. He recognizes that without Telenor perhaps there would not have been a GrameenPhone, but it seems that if a Western company just for once sets up a charity and makes a profit out of it, the company is morally obliged to renounce that profit. In other words, the investment in GrameenPhone never was an investment, but only a donation. Making profit by abusing the Third World is wrong, but making profit on investments in the Third World is wrong too. That is, if you are a Western company, because for exactly the same thing Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank got the Nobel Peace Prize this year.