Often when the history of civilisation is written, it is the names of the elite who make it as heroes. The rich and the middle class make the news, and the poor who stood in the advance of harsh weather – well nobody cares about the poor anyway. Which is why @ceezeks’s article on Low Hanging Fruits (LHF) interested me so much.
I’m a self confessed existentialist, who drank up St. Thomas Aquinas’s thesis and declared it the gospel of development. As such I tend to stay suspicious of superlatively lofty ideas which seem rooted in the sky. I love big thinking. In fact “big thinking” is one part of my company’s three-legged mantra – and I currently live and breath as the product of big dreams.
So why do I disagree with the assertion that chasing the low hanging fruits will inspire mediocrity?
I once wrote a blog on how governments can directly put money in the pockets of unemployed youths in local communities. I also have the privilege of seeing the difference simple infrastructure can make in the lives of local communities.
My grandmother is from a small Eniong community in Odukpani LGA, Cross River State. The community is small in population size, but blessed with arable land. Every year, during the rainy season, the farms are flooded, bringing fresh humus to the soil, which allows the people to farm every year on the same spots and record good yields. They mostly cultivate what European chefs call ‘gourmet vegetables’, and boy, those peppers and garden eggs taste amazing. The same floods also bring tons and tons of fish into the flooded forests.
At the end of the flood season, the locals would have constructed huge dams across the rivers, catching most of the large fish coming back out of the floods. When the farm lands dry out, the farmers return.
This amazing cycle continues year after year. Tons of produce come from the farms, millions worth of fish is caught. Yet the people are mostly poor, for a very simple reason: because they can’t store their farm produce or fish, they have to sell way below the market value, hence they are stuck in subsistence.
As far back as I can remember, the every incoming government had promised a road to that community, and never built it. A road would have made the market more competitive, and cut short the two hour journey by boat to the market at Itu in Akwa Ibom. Better still, a road would have allowed the community site their market in their own community, which would bring the buyers in there, and expand the economy. The people of the community would have had a chance to monetize their famous hospitality by building small restaurants and motels, since the travellers would need places to stay and eat too.
Now imagine if the electricity project I heard has finally started came through, and someone went and setup a storage facility and unionised the farmers, so they can opt to either sell their fresh produce, or store them. That ability alone would increase the value of their goods by over 25%. Simple things like roads and electricity really can provide quick wins, and unlock billions in revenue.
Consider on the opposite side of the river, where farmers in Akwa Ibom have recently been smiling a lot more, because Godswill had happened to them, and their governor had taken a big hoe into the state, and built roads all over the place. The argument about the size of state revenue vs. the development is for another day. The point here, is in the contrast between the two states, as regards infrastructure. I’m not sure Akwa Ibom has a quarter of Cross River’s agricultural potential, yet Akwa Ibom is likely to dwarf her sister state in actual revenues, simply because the farmers in Akwa Ibom have a choice of markets to take their produce to.
Low hanging fruits are evil, huh?
Remember when the world economy tanked? Guess what the US and German governments did? The started building more roads (and other infrastructure). By putting money in construction, they were able to stimulate the economy along the entire construction supply chain.
It’s important to build the base of development by providing the basic infrastructure and social services: roads, water, power, healthcare and schools. Do the basics, make those basics accessible to the poor and get out of the way, so businesses can do what they do best – make more money to create more jobs to more people.
LHF as a concept is great, I belief. It often builds sustainable systems, since the people who benefit from LHF projects often see the near term benefits. Local appreciation is a key stone in building the foundations of sustainability. History doesn’t need to remember the poor, it just has to ensure they are taken care of.
But I sign off by agreeing with Chuba Ezekwesili here. A governor building a much needed road, and throwing a party to celebrate it is insane. The people are celebrating in their hearts already, so there is no need for a party. They are celebrating as they whistle to the market with more produce than before; they are celebrating as they wave their hands in the wind as they are driven past their friends’ villages; they are celebrating as they thank the Governor who built the road in their kitchens at dinner.
Again, while I praise roads and other low hanging fruits, it’s no excuse for any overfunded governor to do same. I don’t expect to be praised for doing my job at the office everyday, and you are only doing your job. Shut up and carry on.