Tag Archives: poverty

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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Is GiveDirectly Changing the NGO World?

Everyday that passes, human beings are out there trying to change the world for the better. Many of them plod on until they give up or succeed based on the goals they set from the word go.

Recently I came across the GiveDirectly organisation that was setup by Harvard and MIT graduates with the core aim of sending donations to the rural poor directly and cheaply through the Mobile Money avenue that is widely used in a number of developing countries.

I must say it is a brilliant idea because am one of those who aren’t satisfied with the large overhead costs of most Non Governmental Organisations (NGOs) that end up spending over 50% of the money collected to sustain Rock Star lifestyles. Any way of helping the poor without spending twice or thrice of what they eventually get is welcome in my view.

How do they do it? An excerpt from their website states;

  • You donate through their web page
  • They locate poor households in Kenya
  • The donation is transferred electronically to a recipient’s cell phone
  • The recipient uses the transfer to pursue his or her own goal.

However, being familiar with the African countryside and having had a chance to spend part of my life there while growing up, I see some flaws in this approach. The assumptions that they make are;

1. Money is the solution to poverty among the rural African poor
2. The rural poor are very well versed with handling finances
3. The rural poor are as empowered as any other person to make proper investment decisions
4. Giving someone money to spend on feeding even when it’s for a limited time frame is a sustainable approach to helping the poor.
5. There is prudent decision making in the home thereby guaranteeing proper use of availed funds

I’ll proceed to give my views on each of those assumptions listed;
Money is the solution to poverty: This is partially true and in most cases a wrong assumption. Most rural dwellers in Africa do have access to non monetary resources that can be utilized to drive them out of poverty. These resources do not necessarily need money initially to uplift their livelihoods. A case in point is my village in Butaleja district, Uganda. We have a lot of swamps in that area and. Rice is a crop that can be readily grown. Despite there being a big boom of rice growing, a number of households are still wallowing in poverty. This is not necessarily because they lack the land to farm or labour to till the land but in a number of cases it’s lack of a working culture, poor self belief and misplaced expectations. Give them money and they will appear to get better for a while only to be catapulted back to their poverty stricken life.
Rural Poor are well versed with handling finances: Again I say a big No to this. It’s hardly the norm in most of these settings. Children grow up being told that money is bad because it will spoil them. It’s only when they become adults that they get their first taste of freedom handling money. This means that they are likely to take a number of years or even decades understanding money. While eventually they might get accustomed to handling money, the amounts will be minimal and when you all of a sudden slap them with a couple of hundreds of dollars, they literally run mad. I recall a cousin of mine that I used to grow rice with in the Doho Rice Scheme. Whenever we harvested our rice produce and sold it, he (being hardworking) used to get large harvests and make a lot of money selling the produce. This guy would leave the market place in Mbale town and shop the fanciest things and not rest until he has spent the remaining cash buying alcohol for his village buddies as they sing his name in reverence. He went on to exhibit similar tendencies even when he eventually got a well paying Government job and only cooled down when he was sacked.
Rural Poor are well empowered to make investment decisions: This too is a skewed expectation. While there may exist a number of them prudent in this regard, most aren’t and it’s not usually due to their own making. Things like processing of their agricultural produce are hard to fathom when they have never entered a supermarket to realise that one can pack cooked beans and sell them to others. In most cases, they are likely to regurgitate already existing business ideas I. The local community and join the bandwagon of small earners in an already over supplied local/village economy.
Feeding someone is a sustainable way of helping the poor: Wrong. People need to learn how to fish instead of being given fish. Stories abound from personal experience and friends in Africa who have tried helping in this manner and almost broken their backs expecting the beneficiaries to better their lives. Like moluscs, the recipients will always expect that  golden hand to keep feeding them. So, while a well manipulated survey may show that their lives are better because they eat Meat twice a week, you will not have solved the underlying problem. If such recipients are to be fed, let it be for a while as more solid strategies are being implemented to make them manage their destinies better.
There is prudent decision making in the household: My observation of most households in rural areas is that due to the cultural practices, the Men take charge of most monetary decisions. A good section of these men usually have very good and sober plans while they are Broke and will even cooperate with their wives when planning for prosperity. However, when money landeth, the status-quo changes. These very men put on hold all the glorious planning sessions they had with their spouses and begin making adhoc decisions usually aimed at suiting their selfish desires. It is a known fact that during harvest seasons in my Butaleja district, the rate of domestic violence increases sharply due to disagreements on family finances and investments according to a community worker friend of mine Noah Birumi Wapeera of A Little Bit of HopeSo, this is another flawed assumption.

So, why should I care if someone chooses to dole out their money to the poorest of the poor for whatever reason? I do care because in most cases money that appears like Manna from heaven tends to distort the village economy so much that even services/products tend to gain artificially high values not backed up by genuine demand or production.

In most cases when people summarise all their problems in to the one sentence of “Lack of Money“, my antennas go on the alert because chances are high they have not thought through their problems well enough. I have on a number of occasions thrown money at people’s problems hoping that somehow these people will get a breakthrough but apart from short term achievements, in most cases, no lasting impact is created.

  1. Does GiveDirectly address the pain people have about NGO’s sitting on money that should be helping the needy? YES
  2. Does GiveDirectly make a working class citizen like me happy about changing the world directly? YES
  3. Does GiveDirectly offer an opportunity to the poorest of the poor to access funds? YES
  4. Does GiveDirectly enable proper decision making for the funds recipients? NO [Seems not to be their mandate]
  5. Does GiveDirectly solve longterm problems of the funds recipients? Subject to Debate 
  6. Is GiveDirectly introducing a novel approach in the world of Charity? YES

I do therefore believe that the intentions of the founders of this organisation seem to be very good but serious flaws do exist and these are probably caused by crafting solutions to rural African problems from the comfort of a MacDonald’s restaurant at Harvard. There is room for improvement and I would be interested in seeing if the issues I raise have already been looked into.

Always @wirejames on #Twitter