Africa / Agriculture / Cattle / Dairying / Livelihoods / Malawi / Pro-Poor Livestock / Southern Africa / Women

A woman and her cow: Of bovine bank loans and entrepreneurship

Livestock farmer Jinny Lemson brings her cows home to stable in central Malawi

In Khulungira Village, in central Malawi, farmer Jinny Lemson, 32, started acquiring livestock with her husband ten years ago as an investment. Neither grew up with animals. First they bought chickens, then goats, then pigs, sheep, and cows. They also have ducks, cats and dogs. They grow all the feed on their farm. ‘Our life has completely changed. We used to eat meat once a month. Now we’re eating it twice a week, and eggs three times a week. The kids are healthier than before.’ Here she brings her cows in to stable.

The Washington Post has published an opinion piece by Michael Gerson that ostensibly aims to educate its readers on just how US budget cuts could impact poor people struggling to get ahead in poor countries.

To do this, Gerson tells the story of a single Malawian woman, Donata Kuchawo, and her single cow, Zoali (‘a resting place’). It is remarkable how often such a woman or a man ‘and a cow’ stories serve to tell a bigger tale, a tale emblematic of the struggles and successes of poor rural people in poor countries everywhere—and how much these people depend on their ‘livestock assets’ to make a living, and to work themselves out of poverty. Here’s Kuchawo’s story.

‘Donata Kuchawo’s cow pen is as clean as a well-tended garden. She has only one cow, but she owes it a great deal.

‘Before the cow, she scraped by on subsistence farming—exhausting, back-bending work, rewarded only by survival. Her five children spent part of each year hungry.

‘After getting the cow, she could sell its milk at the local dairy cooperative, which provided year-round income. She paid the school fees for her children and bought fertilizer to increase the yield of her maize field. She now employs four people to work her property, grows soybeans, peaches and sugar cane, and raises ducks and five pigs. . . .

‘Despite the varied frustrations of the farmer, her life is now easier than scratching dirt in a field. She named her cow Zoali, which means “a resting place”. . . .

‘About 80 percent of Malawians are farmers. Their nation is one of the world’s most impoverished, mainly because agricultural productivity is poor. . . .

‘The solutions are not complex: higher yielding, disease- and pest-resistant varieties of plants, and fertilizer to improve played-out soil. These are the elements of any green revolution. Income from higher crop productivity can be invested in the purchase of a cow—a local bank offers a three-year bovine loan.

‘A farmer producing milk can go from $300 in annual income to $1,200. . . .

‘The promotion of agriculture—funding research on improved hybrids, training local companies in seed production, providing extension services to farmers—is among the best examples of long-term, bootstrap development. It is the kind of foreign assistance that encourages enterprise and independence, and that avoids the need for emergency famine relief. . . .

‘Donata Kuchawo demonstrates the hidden entrepreneurship found even among the poorest of the poor. Sometimes it only takes a cow to unleash it.’

Read the whole article in the Washington Post: In Malawi, the toll of U.S. budget-cutting, 14 March 2011.

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