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In Long-Term Development, a Cow Becomes the Gift That Keeps on Giving

By Todd Post
April 2014

Editor's note: Todd Post, Senior Editor of Bread for the World Institute’s annual Hunger Report, and Faustine Wabwire, Foreign Assistance Policy Analyst, are traveling in Rwanda to gather information and stories for the 2015 Hunger Report, which will focus on gender issues in development. While they are traveling, Post is reporting on the Institute's blog with daily posts. Below is a post that illustrates some issues that Bread for the World is focusing on, especially how food aid works and how the United States’ food-aid programs can be improved as far as the nutrition they provide. Reforming U.S. Food Aid is the theme of Bread for the World's 2014 Offering of Letters.

Some time back I went to Iowa to talk with farmers.  It was then I learned an important thing about agriculture. A farmer explained to me, "I never used to care about the price of corn and soybeans. Raising hogs was my business. I grew corn and beans to feed to my hogs."

Those are bygone days for small- to medium-sized farmers of the two biggest commodity crops in the United States. The concentration of the livestock sector has made it impossible for farmers like the ones I spoke with to compete against the handful of giants who control the market.

I knew what he was telling me was an important lesson then. On a small farm in Rwanda I relearned it and it made me think about what is the best way to help smallholder farmers in developing countries get out of poverty.

In the Kirehe District of Rwanda, I met farmers there benefiting from a program funded primarily by the Rwandan government — and to a lesser extent by the U.S. government — being implemented by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

IFAD has donated cows to a group of farmers in the program. Smallholder farmers in Rwanda are some of the poorest people on earth and would never be able to afford a cow without such support. One of the requirements of the farmers receiving a cow was to pass along a heifer to one of their neighbors. This sounds a lot like what the organization Heifer International [an organization supported by many churches that are members of Bread for the World] does, and it is, except there are several other components to the IFAD program, but the main thing I want to focus on is the livestock.

Joseline Umugwaneza, a 26-year old woman who was orphaned as a child after the 1994 genocide and has been homeless for most of her life, received a cow on Feb. 28, 2012. This was the beginning of the end of her living in extreme poverty. Joseline's cow produces 10 liters (2.6 gallons) of milk per day.  She is earning well above a dollar per day now. She has earned enough from the sale of the milk to allow her to open a tearoom and small shop.

When a smallholder farmer has a cow, she has a source of income far greater than she can ever earn from cropping. Joseline still farms, but like the U.S. farmer above, the livestock is the value-added of her enterprise. The cow eats grass predominantly. With a cow she doesn’t have to sow seed, she doesn’t have to weed, she doesn’t have to worry about the vicissitudes of the weather, and she doesn't have to endure the invariable stretches of hunger between each harvest. Cows are indifferent to the "hungry season," they go on producing their milk, providing Joseline with a source of income all the yearlong. Indeed, it is the gift that keeps on giving.

The other thing about a cow is it provides a source of nutrition for the family — especially children. Maternal and child malnutrition has become a major focus of our work at Bread for the World and Bread for the World Institute.

Thanks to new research over the last five to ten years, it is much clearer that it is not enough just to feed people, but we also need to get them nutritious foods. The name of the game in agricultural development assistance is no longer just production but also nutrition.

It may not be possible to provide every smallholder with a cow. Some just won't be able to succeed at animal husbandry. But when I see how much of a difference it has made to Joseline and other farmers like her that IFAD has helped, and in such a short time, I wonder why donors — governments, multinationals, and NGOs — don't do more programming like this. 

American farmers have been harmed by the loss of their value-added; smallholders in the developing world have barely begun to realize their value-added.

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