Rural Farmer Families and their Future
If you read airline magazines or international business news, you may think Ethiopia is a budding economic powerhouse full of innovation. Certainly, there are encouraging signs of progress in the unceasing construction throughout cities like Addis Ababa and Awassa, and the large factories spread throughout the countryside. Wealthy nations are investing more and more in this land rich with natural resources. Several trips a year is rather easy if you can manage the jetlag. Comfortable hotels, Western food options, and remarkably mild weather make doing ‘business’ in Ethiopia relatively smooth. On top of all that, international tourism magazines are heralding Ethiopia a top tourist destination.
Despite these positive signs, one has to wonder whether the benefits of progress are reaching the 80% of the population still living as subsistence farmers for whom time seems to have stood still 200 years ago. Don’t let the cell phones and second-hand Western clothing fool you. For most families, daily life is a brutal attempt at survival. A successful farming season is dependent on the rains and drought is always a threat, not to mention unfriendly property and land use laws. A good harvest is diminished by ancient farming techniques, and excess yield is hindered from going to market by poor roads and transportation options. Women and girls are still saddled with the daily burden of carrying water and firewood for miles (or kilometers). Men are confronted by the almost-certain future of doing the same thing they are today, as did their father, and their father’s father. Innovation appears to be a fleeting pursuit.
The changes taking place in Ethiopia’s largest cities seem a world away from life in the countryside. Countries, companies, and investors see Ethiopia’s ROI. But what about in the rural farmer family. What do they see in them? Paul Polak, founder of IDE, an organization developing affordable technologies for subsistence farmers, is one of the few, well-known international development experts that considers these communities as a worthy investment target.
Development efforts among the rural population over recent decades have tended towards paternalism. Typically, these initiatives are direct aid like food and clothing. This was true for us as we handed out eyeglasses in our early days of serving the Arsi Oromo, looking for opportunities to share about God’s love with ‘needy’ communities. On the other hand, foreign innovators often devise creative schemes to solve seemingly intractable problems that plague ‘the poor’ in places like Ethiopia, such as inadequate sanitation or farming techniques. Simply speaking, these concepts are seen as ways to provide tools or technologies that can lead people out of their destitute condition. While this gives the rural farmer a little more credit for what they are capable of, they are still considered people primarily needing help – but not help they can pay for.
These are solutions provided by intelligent and compassionate people, usually from North America or Europe, delivered for free or subsidized in some form. Products like solar energy or home water filters are common solutions. Because they are provided at no or low cost, they rely on gifts from individuals or foundations. And as experts like Polak have noted, solutions to massive problems are unlikely to be solved through donor-funded sources. Unfortunately, besides mobile communication, it seems few are trying to address these challenges by offering affordable products or services. Yet every village we’ve been to in Ethiopia has a bustling marketplace and many rural farmers are using cellphones that they paid for to conduct their business throughout the countryside. This communication required a significant infrastructure upgrade throughout the country. Could similar efforts be done to address other big challenges in the rural area, and provide considerable profits to those willing to invest? Why not? One exciting step in this direction is being taken by our partners Water is Life International. They are currently testing a bio-sand water filter that will be manufactured in Ethiopia and sold to families for personal use. WILI is working with some key partners to design a solution that works and affordable for those who need it most.
Maybe more important than the potential financial gain, treating the ‘poor’ as customers could go a long way in affirming their dignity and inherent worth. Despite the kindhearted motives of those who provide aid or technology, the recipients inevitably receive a message that they’re deficient. What is missing in the conferences and contests challenging engineers and entrepreneurs to design solutions for the ‘bottom billion’ is an understanding of the role self-worth and confidence play in motivating development at the individual and community level. Innovation and progress is hard, requiring sacrifice, discipline, and risk. The ‘poor’ must believe their lives are valuable enough to make the difficult lifestyle changes associated with progress. Treating the poor like valuable customers increases the likelihood a solution will work and be used because the company or investor is incentivized to keep making or funding better products. As well, there is a level of information and partnership gained through customer-provider relationships that is nearly impossible to obtain otherwise.
There are certain things that market-based solutions and massive infrastructure won’t solve in rural Ethiopia or elsewhere in the developing world. Discovering Light exists to inspire a movement of transformation in these rural communities, specifically in Southeast Ethiopia. We desire more than material poverty alleviation, but definitely not less. During our latest trip to Ethiopia travel from the capital to the Southeast region was faster thanks to a freeway built primarily as a trade route to Djibouti. Driving on this wide and near-empty road is mesmerizing…and the perfect example of contrast between the urban and rural development in the region. Perfectly paved roads with well landscaped medians are nestled next to traditional family farms.
Smart economists, and international development experts probably have an idea about how this all should and will flesh out in the coming years. Many say mass migration to cities is inevitable. Only God knows. Whatever the future holds, we believe rural farmer families should be the primary agents of their development. They are worthy of infrastructure and investment because they have an incalculable amount of creativity and potential to offer the world as God’s image bearers. Finally, this gives us a sense of urgency as we promote programs like savings groups and church planting. They need these kind of transformational opportunities so they may realize that potential even as their nation barrels ahead with or without them.