“It never got weird enough for me.”

     – Hunter S. Thompson

Development and finance are increasingly intertwined, and both fields have over time produced their share of strange but successful, but also many odd and failed ideas. Here are a few recent bits of news from the weird world of finance and development.

#    Since February, East African villagers can buy themselves carbon-efficient stoves to replace their tradtional fireplaces, financed via microcredit. This contribution to reducing global warming then pays off for them via carbon-offsetting credits which they can claim via mobile phone SMS.

The father of this brainchild, Carbon Manna Unlimited, estimates that in this way, an African family can save around 3 tonnes of CO2 per year, earning them between 20 and 30 US Dollars worth of carbon credits on European markets…

Carbon efficiency, mobile banking and emissions trading applied to African cooking – it sounds adventurous, to say the least. But I was also wondering whether, sociologically speaking, is this an immense act of pragmatic creativity or rather simply one mimetic behaviour? After all, emissions trading, mobile technology and carbon footprint reduction are recieved wisdom at the moment in the north.

On another sociological note, the project’s name, Carbon Manna (TM) Xchange, has a both distinctly religious and capitalistic ring to it – what would Weber say?

#    Wal-Mart is becoming an important player in finance. Many retail chains have produced their own credit cards for years, but since 2007, the Arkansas giant also offers a pre-paid debit account. Now, with over 2 million card-holders and more than 2 billion US Dollars in deposits, Wal-Mart is slashing fees and seeking to attract cardholers’ paychecks directly into the account.

Since millions of Americans are still excluded from formal banking services (many can’t even afford an account), this opens the door to a whole new class of finance users at the bottom of the pyramid. If you forget for a second that Wal-Mart certainly has ulterior business motives, you could wonder: isn’t this sort of thing precisely what microfinance is all about, extending financial services to the unserved? If Sam Walton were still alive, might he get the Nobel Prize?

#    Talking about the Nobel Prize, 35 years ago most experts might have called Mohammad Yunus insane for lending tiny sums to Bangladeshi villagers and expecting them back. Today he is a Nobel Peace Prize winner, poised to become a Hollywood celebrity. Italian director Marco Amenta plans to begin shooting a film named “Banker” based on Yunus’ bestselling autobiography “Banker to the Poor”.

Apparently, the project was inspired by “Slumdog Millionaire” – the 2008 Bollywood/Britwood film about three poor children from Mumbai which creamed off eight Oscars, but proved rather controversial in India. When one film copies another’s storytelling angle, isn’t that cinematographic isomorphism?

By the way, “Slumdog…”  is worth seeing for its beautiful cinematography, if not so much for its rather simple rags-to-riches story poorly adapted from a prize-winning book.

#    Finally, the Global Microfinance Investment Congress will take place in New York this May 19th and 20th. I would have been interested in attending for research purposes, but conference and workshop attendance alone are more than 2000 US Dollars per person. Presumably, people in the microfinance industry have enough money to justify this price.

But, just for a moment, assume that only 400 people will travel to the conference, and they all travel from Cologne, how much CO2 would they produce? Their flights alone would emit 502 tonnes of CO2. That’s 168 times what one of the new African stoves would offset for an entire family – not including of course conference attendees’ food, taxi ride, air-conditioning, lighting, bottled water from France, etc…

Maybe, if I attend next year, I could take out a micro-loan on a sailboat and sell the emissions which I’m offsetting while crossing the Atlantic.