Abia Becomes an Asset Manager
A cow, an ambition, and an opportunity
Abia nodded as she listened to the woman who said she worked for BRAC, her face frozen in place, not showing the surprise and joy growing inside her. Up till now she had known only difficulty and misery. She had few memories of her parents, they had died when she was still an infant. She moved from relative to relative, each family struggling to feed another child. Her uncles wanted to get her married as soon as possible, they could not afford to feed her, and they could not afford to pay her dowry either. So they arranged a marriage to the one man in the village they knew would not demand payment, the man that no one else wanted their daughters to marry, a man with a mental disability.
Abia doesn’t know her birthday, so she can’t remember how old she was when she got married, only that she was still a child, younger than even the other girls in the village who got married around 12 or 13. Abia’s uncles helped her and her husband put the poles in the ground, stretch woven bamboo across them for walls, lash poles together on top and weave straw around them for a roof. And then Abia and her husband were on their own.
Abia asked her relatives for some rice to cook that night, and the next, and the next. After a while, her relatives got tired of supplying her, and Abia started going to her neighbors to ask for a handful of rice. In planting and harvest time she could work in the fields and earn some money. Sometimes her husband could too. But in the long months in between, the money and the food ran out. Abia would again go door to door, asking for food. She came to learn, after a while, that the families that had cows often had more than others in the village, and sometimes they were the most generous with her. She began to dream of what her life would be like if she could raise a cow.
Soon children came, two boys and a girl. That made Abia’s challenge even greater. For two decades the household survived on seasonal work and what Abia could get from others in the village. When her daughter reached marrying age, the elders in the village knew that Abia could not afford a dowry payment. They arranged a marriage with a boy whose parents had died. The new couple set up their hut a few yards from Abia.
But today, Abia learns that her life can be different.
The person from BRAC tells her that she has been selected to be part of BRAC’s Ultra Poor Graduation program. As a start, they will give her assets to manage, and training in how to manage them to get income. She even gets to choose which assets she would like. It didn’t take her long to respond. She could no longer suppress the smile that spread across her face as she told the young woman, “I want to raise a cow. “The only problem – Abia didn’t know much about raising cows. She had watched others raise cows, and saw how they multiplied by having calves, but she had never raised one herself. Plus, she would need some way to feed the cow, and she had trouble feeding herself and her husband.“That’s not a problem,” the young woman from BRAC explained. “We will give you training in raising the cow. We will also give you five chicks so that you can raise those. They provide income faster than cows do. And we’ll give you a stipend so that you can feed yourself, your husband and your livestock for a few months until they are generating income for you.
Assets and training provide income and a path to self sufficiency
People like Abia, who live in ultra poverty, live right on the edge of survival. When they can work, the money they earn affords only enough for the food they will need to provide them enough energy for the next day. Several times a year they go for days without any food at all. Without any surplus, they cannot accumulate enough to purchase an asset. And with irregular and unpredictable income, they cannot afford to take out a loan.
When BRAC studied the conditions of the ultra-poor, they realized that, without income generating assets, those conditions would rarely change. Because of this, the ultra-poor graduation program begins by providing participants with assets, and following that with training in how to manage them. Working in rural areas, these assets most often come in the form of livestock. In Abia’s case, a female cow and five chicks. Others receive goats and chicken, or a market stall and supplies to sell, or bamboo for weaving into mats. The participants choose which assets they want from a list of five or six options.
BRAC provides two assets to each participant, usually one with a short time horizon for generating income, another with a longer time frame but higher income potential. The two assets not only help with the timing of income, but also help to reduce vulnerability in case something happens to one of the assets. In the time before the assets begin producing income, BRAC provides a stipend to the participants so they can feed their animals and themselves. The stipends last for six to eight months, enough time for the chicks to grow and start producing eggs.
The training covers all aspects of asset management– what vaccinations to get and where to get them, what feed to provide, what sort of shelter is needed. BRAC staff follow up this training with visits every two weeks to the participants’ homes, checking on the progress of the livestock. BRAC carefully researches the market for the assets they provide, making sure that participants can generate income easily. They help the participants learn where to sell various products (milk, eggs, meat) and how much they should earn for each of them.
Growing a future
When I finished the interview with Abia, she wanted me to see her home. Although she only began with the ultra-poor graduation program last year, she proudly showed me how much had changed. Her home now had a tin roof and tin walls. She had not only a cow and chickens, but also a goat (she had sold some of the offspring of her chickens to buy the goat). She showed me where the animals stayed at night, a shelter close to her living area so it would be difficult for anyone to take them from her. Abia also has plans for what comes next. When she has more cows and goats she plans to sell some of them to buy some land where she can grow rice and vegetables. Her daughter and son-in-law can take over the cultivation when she gets too old to do the work.
Abia is still surprised by how much her life has changed, but is thankful that she can be the one now to help when someone comes to her to ask for a handful of rice.