Monday, June 21, 2010

Ostriches, Farming, and the Education Magic Bullet in the Poverty Fight

After Mutare, I crammed into a bus and headed to Bulawayo, the second largest city in Zimbabwe. I spent the weekend (before last) in the city center, which was surreal. The whole town was essentially empty, the streets were par for the course in Zimbabwe nowadays – badly potholed (Q: How do you tell a drunk Zimbabwean?, A: He drives straight), and there was no power for the majority of the day, which got eerie after nightfall. It felt like traveling back in time or into a zombie movie, or both.

On Monday I was finally able to get in touch with Peter Cunningham, whose name is one of the most recognizable in Zimbabwe for his family’s vast farming enterprises. My stay with the Cunninghams turned out to be interesting for more reasons than just my investigation into the land seizures of Zimbabwean farmers. Peter and his family are very strong in their Christian faith, so this was a great opportunity to bounce some thoughts off him and do some deep thinking about religion.

More importantly for this post, however, what I found interesting is how the Cunninghams are pushing education that has applicability rather than a typical elementary NGO school. Peter and his family are involved in large amounts of agriculture, poultry, and ostrich farming, which was fascinating to say the least. I also got to visit their tannery (80% of their hides go to the US, used mainly in boots). In addition to these business endeavors, they have also started two social organizations, one of which I visited called Ebenezer Agricultural Training Centre. At Ebenzer, which has been running for three years, students undergo a 2-year program in which they learn sustainable, efficient farming (for example, how to use different fertilizers, like ant hill). Each student gets three small plots where they plant things like cabbage, potatoes, and onions, to be sold on the local market as part of the business component of their curriculum. This is paired with class “room” learning (as the picture shows, Ebenezer purposely keeps the conditions very basic).

I think in at least one other post I’ve talked about how I feel education is one ofthe keys to combating poverty. As someone who has been schooled for 19 of my 23 years of existence, I’ll admit that this is probably a biased view. But it wasn’t until recently when I was reading “The Elusive Quest for Growth” by economist William Easterly that I had to revaluate this belief. The book is a pretty dry read and never fails to put me – someone who majored in econ and is interested in poverty – to sleep, but it has some good information. Calling out the World Bank and other organizations who trumpet for universal education, he explains the facts are that there is no relationship between growth in years of schooling and personal income growth, and that actually “world average growth decreased from the 1960s to the 1990s [the time of the education explosion] despite the increase in education levels.”

What Easterly is getting at, and what I think Ebenzer understands, is that there needs to be an incentive to invest in the future. What’s the point of investing in your education if the knowledge gained has no chance of being utilized? As Easterly puts it, “Creating people with high skill in countries where the only profitable activity is lobbying the government for favors is not a formula for success. Creating skills where there exists no technology to use them is not going to foster economic growth.”

Here in Zimbabwe, corruption is rifeand many if not most of the opportunities to use high levels of education have dried up, as most of the expatriates will attest. You will only invest in your education/future if you have a chance of using that education. The country still runs on agriculture (and maybe increasingly so, as industry has sadly left or shut down), and so Ebenzer’s education is very applicable for the young rural farmers who attend. It seems to me that education is a very good thing, but only under the right conditions. More things have to happen than just the education magic bullet.


  1. Was surfing the web looking for a supplier of ostrich chicks when I came across this article. I had never really looked at it the way you put it in your article. Perhaps we do indeed need to reevaluate our education system and it's relevance to our current economy.

  2. May you please kindly supply me with contact details of Mr. Peter Cunningham. I wish to consult him on ostrich farming. My name is Ncube on 0772243052, my Email address is