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The Power of a Cow

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

KUDEMELA, Malawi -- 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.

The animal divides her life into chapters. 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, providing 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.


"My livelihood is good now," Kuchawo tells me. But she has a complaint. Unluckily, the first three calves produced by her cow were males, which don't bring much at sale. The next was a female -- but the firstborn female goes back to the cooperative to be provided to another farmer. The cow is now pregnant again. "Pray for another female," Kuchawo asks, in order to increase the milk output of her farm.

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

Malawi is a distant country, but it also feels distantly familiar. The thatched huts, hyenas and baobab trees are foreign. But the dirt roads, wandering chickens and cornfields -- the talk of seed quality and prayers for rain -- would have been commonplace in America a century ago. In a rural society, the invisible props of life are visible: the rhythms of fertility, the cycle of seasons, the sudden infestation that leaves the larder empty. Those closest to the land are particularly vulnerable to its treacheries.

About 80 percent of Malawians are farmers. Their nation is one of the world's most impoverished, mainly because agricultural productivity is poor. According to UNICEF, 53 percent of Malawian children under 5 are stunted because of poor nutrition. Crop diseases such as rosette and aflatoxin take a portion of the harvest; insects and wastage during storage take even more.


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.

In Malawi, five years of good rains and government subsidies for seed and fertilizer have successfully beaten back hunger, at least for now. Malawi's isolation from world markets -- a problem when it comes to trade -- has made it relatively immune to global food price increases. But 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 avoids the need for emergency famine relief.

Yet agricultural aid programs have been dramatically defunded in the last few decades -- unfashionable in development circles and lost among other priorities. During the 1980s, a quarter of U.S. foreign assistance went to agriculture. Today it is about 1 percent. Most of Malawi's agricultural scientists were educated by the U.S. Agency for International Development. But that training has been largely abandoned, leaving few to replace a retiring generation.


The Obama administration has tried to address this imbalance, announcing Feed the Future in 2009. This program would eventually scale up agricultural efforts in around 10 target countries, supporting responsible governments such as Malawi's that adopt effective policies on income generation and child nutrition.

Feed the Future is innovative -- and besieged. The Senate budget proposal is likely to fund six or seven countries, leaving some possibility that Malawi will make the cut. The House budget would limit that number to two or three nations, leaving Malawi with no hope of participation. Part of the blame falls to the administration itself, which has given Feed the Future little public emphasis and developed few congressional advocates. Nearly two years after its announcement, the program still lacks a coordinator. It is a good idea in need of champions.

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

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