Bill Gates, Bring those Chicken, But …

I first heard of Bill Gates in 1994 when I got introduced to Microsoft Windows 3.0. His name has since time immemorial been associated with Microsoft and Windows software in particular. A few years later, as a firebrand Free Software aligned techie, I loathed him and anything to do with the Windows Operating System. Microsoft had so much dominance in the IT industry then and its efforts aimed at annihilating other players only left those of us who believed in Linux and other free software systems disillusioned.

Fast forward, the year is 2016, as I browse the internet, an article crosses my path screaming “Bill Gates to donate chicken to Africa’s poor.” The title almost made me think this was another typical White Saviour Mentality gesture until I decided to quickly read through. Coming to Africa to donate Chicken may sound such a dumb thing but this guy has got his reasons as highlighted on his blog;

  • They are easy and inexpensive to take care of. Many breeds can eat whatever they find on the ground (although it’s better if you can feed them, because they’ll grow faster). Hens need some kind of shelter where they can nest, and as your flock grows, you might want some wood and wire to make a coop. Finally, chickens need a few vaccines. The one that prevents the deadly Newcastle disease costs less than 20 cents.
  • They’re a good investment. Suppose a new farmer starts with five hens. One of her neighbors owns a rooster to fertilize the hens’ eggs. After three months, she can have a flock of 40 chicks. Eventually, with a sale price of $5 per chicken—which is typical in West Africa—she can earn more than $1,000 a year, versus the extreme-poverty line of about $700 a year.
  • They help keep children healthy. Malnutrition kills more than 3.1 million children a year. Although eating more eggs—which are rich in protein and other nutrients—can help fight malnutrition, many farmers with small flocks find that it’s more economical to let the eggs hatch, sell the chicks, and use the money to buy nutritious food. But if a farmer’s flock is big enough to give her extra eggs, or if she ends up with a few broken ones, she may decide to cook them for her family.
  • They empower women. Because chickens are small and typically stay close to home, many cultures regard them as a woman’s animal, in contrast to larger livestock like goats or cows. Women who sell chickens are likely to reinvest the profits in their families.

I have spent a better part of the past two weeks trying to use some linkages to access the research report that informed his decision on this chicken venture. Unfortunately, the consultant hired to do the study has not got clearance to share the report publicly.

Nevertheless, I agree with the arguments raised by this philanthropist. As a child, I used to spend my holidays in the villages of Butaleja district (Eastern Uganda) and clearly saw how wealth accumulation could start from a mere chicken. I was once given a hen as a gift and decided not to eat it. This hen within a year had given me enough chicks to exchange for two goats (that is how we did it then). I got those two goats and ensured that they grew and sired kids. The eventual goal was to raise 5 to 7 goats and exchange for a cow. Somehow along the way, I never achieved this but others in the neighborhood did barter their goats for cows. In brief, it is true that chicken can be a source of wealth for our lot of peasants looking for a meaningful existence.

As someone who has had his entire life largely spent on the African continent, my advice to Bill Gates and his team at Heifers international is to consider the following as you go about distributing the 100,000 chicken;


My Local Chicken at home sitting on its eggs

  1. Local Breeds: Try as much as possible to ensure that you distribute local breeds in the different areas of operation for this initiative. I know the temptation might run high to purchase foreign breeds from a large international conglomerate, but their ability to survive not only the occasionally harsh weather conditions but also the low level of attention from these peasant farmers is suspect. You see, unlike in the USA where chicken are treated like new born babies, in most African villages, it’s survival for the fittest. I rear some chicken at home too but on issues to do with food, they have to take case of themselves, the most I do is offer them rent free housing.
  2. Vaccination: You rightfully point out the issue of vaccination and I agree 100% with that. However, as a caution, do not only look at the Western Style vaccines when addressing this concern. Consider tapping into indigenous knowledge and you will find a wealth of traditional practices and medicines used to protect these birds. That way, you will be creating a self sustaining system.
  3. Sensitisation: Many times we tend to plan for the rural poor and expect them to view things the way we do in the comfort of our air conditioned boardrooms. Nothing is always obvious when it comes to dealing with some sections of society. It will be very crucial to ensure that beneficiary communities are given good information about the initiative and its goals. They have to see from the word go how this will play out in favour of their family. Someone may fail to see the logic in waiting for the birds to lay eggs, hatch and raise the chicks to full maturity when they can sell the parent stock for some quick money to solve an immediate need. Others may raise the birds but expect someone to come to their home and buy from there yet depending on your location, you might have to spend some good hours standing by the roadside under sweltering heat conditions to sell off one or two chicken.
  4. Eagles: Yes, you may be wondering what this has to do with chicken but for anyone who has been raised in a rural dwelling, it is obvious that the biggest prey to chicks is the flying Eagles in the air. They have such a great eye sight, speed, are armed with tough talons and have mastered the science of trajectories. To spot and pick up a chick is something that comes naturally to these birds. I have however noticed a stark difference between my local hens and the foreign breeds when it comes to protection of their young ones. Somehow the former are more aggressive and protective than the latter. This therefore takes me back to the point I made of encouraging the distribution of local breeds. An eagle doesn’t need more than two days to rid a careless hen of 8 chicks.
  5. The money: You clearly show an estimate of an annual income at US$ 700. So many assumptions are being made about the actual income potential and I hope they are not based on a non representative study. The kind of target beneficiaries for this initiative are likely to be rural area dwellers whose access to urban areas and their consumers is very limited. To imagine that a chicken can be bought for US$ 5 from a farmer is currently not possible in many rural areas of Africa. In Uganda for example, that is the retail price of chicken in an urban market. The middle-men involved in the value chain dictate what the chicken rearer is going to earn and that is a fact we have to live with. I therefore request that you scale down your income expectations by at least 50% if all other concerns expressed are to be factored in.
  6. With Success comes the Man: Melinda Gates in her article indicates that one of the beauties of this idea is that it can be a “woman thing.” This is largely true until the money starts rolling in. Having observed as a young child growing up part time in the rural areas, for as long as a source of income in the family became significant, the man would take keen interest in controlling it. I see the same happening to this venture once it registers success. This therefore calls for sensitisation of the entire household prior to participation in the project in order to help all parties involved appreciate the ultimate goal being pursued.

Otherwise, Bill and Melinda Gates have won me over with their philanthropic pursuits. While other global billionaires are competing on who has a bigger yatch and some pea brained Ugandan wannabe rich chaps are struggling to get the most likes over their facebook photos depicting them counting illicitly acquired money, Bill and Melinda are seen interacting with the poor in rural locales as far off as Malawi. That is a much more fulfilling raison d’être to me.

To you Bill and Melinda, I may not be in favour of merely ‘giving out’ 100,000 birds from an economist’s point of view but I can only talk about that if you make public the research paper or project document you are going to base on for implementation. On the whole, your pursuit to change the lives of the deprived despite having such privileged backgrounds is very commendable.

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