Chickens for when the rains don’t come
Sometimes, when interviewing the entrepreneurs from Pearl Microfinance, Uganda, I am startled to discover how many businesses they have. They are teachers with a few milk cows on the side, or used clothing salespeople who also keep pigs, or farmers who also raise cassava, matoke, and chickens! These ‘super entrepreneurs’ amaze me, but I am always left wondering why do they choose to have so many businesses. Wouldn’t it be better for them to focus just one? Each cycle they could inject all their loan money into one business and it would take off!
As is typical when I am making observations in a different culture, when I leave my assumptions behind and listen to the people who actually live here, they patiently show me that, of course, they know better…
A few weeks back, I met a borrower named Margaret at a group meeting. Margaret told me all about being a furniture materials saleswomen. Where she sells, where she buys, and the profits she makes. She told me that the profit she makes is enough to pay school fees for her children and grandchildren. After telling me about being a furniture materials saleswomen, she told me that with her last loan she had invested in a broiler chicken business! I was really excited for her and she seemed really proud.
After I had finished interviewing Margaret, and Florence the florist (a demonstration of how long we have to wait for the members to gather for the group pictures we post on the Kiva website!), there was still a little time before the official meeting began. Margaret asked me if I wanted to “see her business.”
I love the literal meaning of this question. She was not asking me if I wanted to see her business meaning her office building or some report about her annual returns, she means do I want to come experience her business, do I want to step into the chicken coop.
It smells a bit, which I expected, but I was startled by the amount of energy in the little room. All the chicks were hopping about and peeping at loud as they could. As she started to feed them, I noticed that either these chicks really trusted Margaret, or chicks are smarter than goats.
Goats seem to have decided that, when being fed, the best strategy is for all the goats to try to eat the same exact food at the same exact time. As soon as the farmer throws the first hand full of food, all of the goats form a rugby style scrum, pushing each other and climbing on top of each other to get the food in the middle. They completely ignore any other food that is set down unless the farmer forcibly shows one of them at which point they all pile on top of that food! This is clearly not the best of plans and inevitably, some poor goat is left on the outside of these scrums bleating and hungry! Margaret’s chicks seemed smarter… they (mostly) waited their turn.
I left this visit amused with the chicks and impressed with Margaret’s dual businesses.'
Last week I got the chance to visit Margaret again. This time I met Margaret alone, so she showed me all of her businesses. I was surprised that she had more businesses since I remembered that she had already told me about 200+ chickens and a furniture business. Little did I know…
Margaret showed me her farm, where she grows enough food to feed her family, and all any others who might come around. She has enough matoke trees (matoke are the bananas that are used to make the staple food here) on her little plot that if the rains are good, she can sometimes sell her surplus matoke in the markets. She has a number of cows that she uses for milk and a few that she fattens for the meat. She also has a few goats, a few pigs, and a few ducks.
As we stood on her farm, she explained to me that these home businesses (her farm, cows, pigs, goats, and ducks) together with her furniture business provide enough money for her daily life. She is able to feed her family, buy a few outfits of clothes (this can be a sign of middle class, as the poor often only have one outfit and the very poor may not even buy one for the smallest of their children), pay school fees, pay rent on one of the farming plots that she rents, and have a little pocket money.
If all her daily needs were met by these businesses and her existing business were clearly a huge amount of work, I wondered why she had started a new chicken business?
“The chickens are for when the rains don’t come,” Margaret explained. The rains in Uganda delayed this year. Both of her farming plots produced very little food. She was unable to feed her family and she had none left over for selling. But, she anticipated this and took a loan to start up the chicken business. Because of her profits from her new chicken business, she was able to support her family and she became a critical customer for those people who choose to put all their efforts into their farms instead of having any other businesses.
PS Look how much her chickens grew!!
~ Stephanie Koczela is in her seventh week of her posting as a Kiva Fellow at Pearl Microfinance in Uganda. Join the lending team for Pearl for more updates on the borrowers at Pearl and the organization itself! ~/>