18 March 2015

Finding routes to market is the way out of poverty


It wasn’t your typical setting for an entrepreneur.

I met him in northern Uganda, a good day’s drive from capital city Kampala – a drive on some of the most treacherous roads you could ever imagine.

He was tall, with a kind face and a grandfatherly air. His English was very good, and he quickly became a self-appointed guide to the Tearfund guests I had taken to visit his village.

Proudly, he showed us round his village with its schoolroom, tiny shops, dusty farms and chickens that followed us around from place to place. So far, so generic African village.

There was no electricity, you had to walk to the edge of the village to collect water from the nearest standpipe, and a long drop latrine was the height of luxury.

But when he took us to his home, his eyes lit up as he showed us his storehouse. Mine lit up too, when we saw the hut piled from floor to ceiling with neatly-stacked sacks of maize and millet. In fact, I think I let out a little shriek of excitement.

‘What are you going to do with all this?’ I asked him.

Our grandfather guide explained that he’d harvested steadily larger quantities recently, using skills he’d learnt from his local church as he’d diversified his crops to avoid over-relying on one product, rotated them in his fields to get the best out of his land and experimented with drought-resistant crops to withstand increasingly unpredictable extreme weather changes.

He’d stockpiled them in his barn, waiting to sell to wholesale traders who would travel up and down the long potholed roads, so he could sell in volume to businesses in the city rather than trying to punt them out locally to neighbours who were growing some of the same crops as he was and so didn’t need his stock.

And the reason the sacks were still there, in large quantities, was that he’d learnt to hold off selling until he could get the best price.

Hugely exciting. But, confused, I looked around at his bare home with no electricity or running water and with only the most basic sanitation, trying to find a tactful way to ask where his money had gone.

Seeing my dilemma, he smiled and nodded: ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘my son is at university’.

Routes to market are the most simple and obvious way to help some of the world’s poorest people find a way out of poverty – for their whole family.

But it’s not enough to do the old-fashioned charity thing of helping people out with a few skills. Even in the poorest of countries, there are markets of some kind or other, but they’re tricky to access without being able to produce at scale, especially if you live a long way from urban centres of business.

It takes minimal investment from NGOs to train local partners – in Tearfund’s case, usually denominations or networks of churches, because they’re already ideally placed in every local community to give trusted advice – to help people believe in their own potential and to find ways to market.

There’s still a long way to go before our friend, and the other 500 million smallholder farmers worldwide, are able to move up the value chain and access the capital and markets they need to become players at a higher level.

But he’s doing well, and his son – and the Uganda labour market – will reap the benefits in the long term.

The fact that it takes a while is in itself part of the transformation. People come to appreciate that they are playing a long game. And if they invest some of their earnings in their children’s education, it can feel like a very long game indeed.

Our guide knew that he would probably never to live to see the full fruit of his investment, but he was prepared to go without for himself in order to give his grandchildren a better opportunity than he had himself had.

Anyone who works in poverty reduction will tell you that you can’t expect to see sustainable change in people’s lives without strong families, work in every household, and access to good levels of education.

This guy had them all. His local church, and a decent route to market, had given them to him.

Katie Harrison works for Tearfund