September 30th, 2010
10:35 PM GMT
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Muhammad Yunus is a man on a mission.  He's been a banker, an economist, and a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He developed microcredit and microfinance, giving loans to entrepreneurs who are just too poor to be considered for bank financing.

You may have heard about his Grameen Bank.  Its founding was what helped him to jointly win the 2006 Nobel Prize.

His most recent book is about what he calls "social business." These are small-scale enterprises run not for profit, but to make an impact.  They are different from charities, because they do make a profit; however, that is not their primary purpose.  They are meant to be self-sustaining, tax paying, revenue generating enterprises that help fix a social problem.

While on his book tour, I had the chance to talk to him at length about the book, and the role of social business in the global economy.

He is passionate about young people.  When he speaks to them at universities he says he finds passion that you can sense he equates with his own.  "Young people are not graduating with their job offers in their hands any more.  They want to make a difference and they see that making money is not what is important. They want to change the world."

Yunus is sharp as a tack, hopeful, and brimming with enthusiasm for his work. He bristles at any suggestion that social business is too small to make an impact, that it's anti-capitalist, or that it just can't work if owners can't be motivated to take profits from the business.  He believes in changing minds.

An early venture in social business involved making fortified yogurt for areas in Bangladesh where most children are malnourished.  This small program struggled to succeed in a country without refrigeration and infrastructure to distribute the yogurt. Women were hired to sell the tubs door-to-door, but cultural barriers got in the way.  Wheat and milk prices shot up in the U.S., and that raised the price-point of the yogurt, hitting sales hard.

It took time, but the venture is now considered a small success, in a big way.

You can read more about this project and others in his book:  "Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity's Most Pressing Needs."

And check out our interview. It will make your day.

September 30th, 2010
04:39 PM GMT
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London, England – It’s like food. Some of us have too much. Some of us have too little. Now the housing market is showing the same gaping imbalances.

Take Ireland. At the root of the current banking crisis was a massive property bubble. Irish house price inflation and homebuilding trumped most of Europe in the decade to 2005. Incomes and population were going up, household size was going down. Demand for new homes was rampant. But not permanent.

We might, with some degree of irony, call this the financial version of the Greek tragedy. Inevitably (at least with hindsight) the bubble burst. Now Ireland has more than 100,000 more homes than it needs. Next stop, demolition.

But the problem is equally tragic in reverse. Cross the Irish Sea, or journey to Europe’s easternmost point and you’ll see why. Homebuilding in Britain fell to its lowest level in 87 years last year. The government admits there’s a huge gap between supply and demand, leading to overcrowding.

Over in Russia, Prime Minister Putin said this month that in order to make enough housing for everyone, the country needs to build "100,000 square meters a year."  The budget for this is nearly $14 billion.

It’s a bleak comparison. For those counting the square meters in Moscow’s Khrushchev-era apartment blocks, life in Ireland’s ghost estates might look like heaven. But many of us who are a little luckier would struggle to decide which is worse.

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Filed under: BusinessQuest Means Business

September 30th, 2010
03:54 PM GMT
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There are many theories about why Africa has been left behind economically, and the debate often degenerates into a blame game.

Colonialism is at fault, say some. A cycle of victimhood is entrenched by a culture of dependency on aid, say others.

Many say Africa has been shut out of markets and denied the means to compete on a level playing field.

The latest addition to the debate comes from a South African academic, Greg Mills, who has written a book called “Why Africa is Poor: And What Africans Can Do About It.”

He argues Africa is poor because “Africa’s leaders have made this choice.” It’s a controversial angle, but the basic premise that poor leadership has steered generations of African countries down the path to poverty is not new.

All of us who live in Africa can name leaders – from presidents to local municipal workers – who have made their communities poorer. It's not just the Mugabes or Mobutus of this continent who have shattered Africa’s promise, it is the often nameless, mid-level workers whose corrupt or incompetent actions result in schoolchildren not getting books, for example.

We interview Greg on Marketplace Africa this week, so watch the interview for more of his analysis.

However, I wanted to know from you: why do you think many parts of Africa have not realized their potential after more than 50 years of independence?

What is the secret formula? Is there one?

September 30th, 2010
12:05 PM GMT
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September 30th, 2010
05:48 AM GMT
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September 30th, 2010
03:36 AM GMT
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East Cork, Ireland (CNN) – The issue of ghost estates in Ireland is more than empty houses. It's a symbol of the country's descent from the Celtic Tiger leading the European charge of prosperity to a broken state, crippled by what most would agree was a universal greed: greed of consumers, developers and those who Irish people blame the most, the banks.

I moved to England from Ireland 10 years ago, just as the building boom was really taking off. I left a small coastal community of just over 5,000 people, and on each return visit I was amazed and somewhat aghast at new developments nestled within the town.

The old fairground and amusement center made way for a block of brightly colored apartments. The field where my friends and I used to hang out as children was freshly paved with a new development. Even the building which used to house our convent school was rumored to be next in line for conversion into seafront apartments.

This money never came and the building now lies unoccupied. One look and it's visible that the grounds remain unattended, with grass shoots sprouting from some parts of the roof.

It's this overindulgence –- this viewpoint that property equaled money –- that drove the Irish property market. Cian O'Callaghan, one of the authors of the only official reports into ghost estates, told me that during the boom the few voices that questioned this flood of housing were systematically accused of “standing in the way of progress.”

In other words, the Irish people seemed to view this building trend as a means of traveling to modernity. Rows of bright shiny houses with two bathrooms, front and rear gardens and a garage would show the world that Ireland was no longer the poor man of Europe. Ireland was taking its place amongst the developed world and its people would benefit from the fruits of its success.

People now living in ghost estates were, not surprisingly, reluctant to talk about the experience of living in a half-finished development. But I met an interesting character who shed more light on an already tragic situation. This man was a council tenant on a ghost estate where the council had taken over about a dozen empty homes.

He takes care of his severely disabled daughter in a two-story house. Moving his daughter up and down the stairs was proving difficult and he pleaded with the council authorities to rehouse him into a bungalow.

“It's a disgrace,” he kept saying. “Not five miles down the road there are rows of empty houses, all unoccupied and with all the thousands of unoccupied houses in the country, the council tells me there are no bungalows available.”

I traveled to the estate he told me about in a neighboring village and sure enough, there was a fenced part of an existing estate with rows of bungalows and signs threatening: “Danger. Keep out.”

In a radius of 10 miles from the town of Middleton, which is featured in my report, I must have counted at least a dozen ghost estates. In some, there were a few rows of houses occupied. One entire estate of 78 houses, which appeared almost ready for occupancy, was now fenced off. The developer had gone bust. Roads and lighting had not been finished. However, advertising signs of future planned developments next to ghost estates remain: A sign that had not the money run dry, the appetite for development would have continued. Now the land earmarked for future building lies empty and overgrown.

The question is, will Ireland ever be at a point to resurrect these plans on its quest for progression?

September 29th, 2010
07:50 PM GMT
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It's been customary of late for Mercedes Benz to kick off the Paris Motor Show (sorry Renault) the night before the doors open to the press.

Mercedes throws a little party at its Champs-Elysees showroom and on Wednesday night it was filled with guests and media.

The highlight for those of us still working is a quick interview - much quicker this time - with Daimler Chairman Dieter Zetsche who is in a buoyant mood and smiling broadly under his signature white handlebar mustache.

And why not? Mercedes sales and revenue have rebounded this year.

Zetsche admits luxury sales have been better than he could have hoped this year and says that Mercedes is increasing its market share within the segment.

At last year's show the luxury and super luxury makers were all cautiously optimistic.

After all, the high end of the auto market is not usually hurt by recession, given the rich don't suffer as much.

But like the airline industry, car makers have seen welcome sales increases, in part due to government support no doubt.

Zetsche notes that Mercedes, like Ford, cut costs enormously during the economic crisis, making it that much easier to post profits when sales increased.

This show is also about the electric car.

We will see mass produced models that are ready to hit the showroom rather than the concept electric cars that have been a staple at these shows for years.

The question is, will you the consumer buy one?

Zetsche told me it would be "optimistic" to say that Mercedes could see even five percent of it sales coming from its electric offerings by 2015, even though it plans to offer an electric version of most models.

Electric cars and electric batteries will be the talk here in Paris. It's not clear if enough buyers will want them though.

September 29th, 2010
01:13 PM GMT
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September 29th, 2010
01:11 PM GMT
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September 29th, 2010
01:10 PM GMT
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