Mike Segar/Reuters
A chicken stands in a coop as billionaire philanthropist and Microsoft's co-founder Bill Gates (unseen) speaks to the media near the coop set up on the 68th floor of the 4 World Trade Center tower in Manhattan, Thursday, while announcing that he is donating 100,000 chicks with the goal of ending extreme poverty.

Will Bill Gates's 100,000 chickens help Africans cross the road to prosperity?

Gates and Heifer International are teaming up to give African families a source of food and income.

Just about anyone living in extreme poverty would be better off with a chicken. That’s the claim of billionaire Bill Gates, who will donate more than 100,000 chickens to impoverished families, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Through a partnership with Heifer International, Gates plans to provide families a “bootstrap solution” to lifting themselves out of poverty, what he calls the easiest, cheapest way to make money and assure you have a food supply if you are poor and have some land: raising chickens.

Sub-Saharan Africa has made the least progress among all developing regions toward reducing extreme poverty since 1990, and today 41 percent of people there survive on less than $1.25 a day, according to the Pew Research Center. But African leaders set the ambitious goal of ending hunger across the continent by 2025, and Gates’s initiative seeks to be part of the solution.

Gates aims to help 30 percent of the rural families in sub-Saharan Africa to raise improved breeds of vaccinated chickens, up from the current 5 percent. He claims a flock of 40 chicks alone, which could be created only 3 months after acquiring 5 hens, could provide a farmer with a $1,000 annual income, above the extreme-poverty line of $700 a year.

“Chickens have always been a priority for Heifer International. The opportunity to work with Bill Gates raised the chicken profile,” Allison Stephens, a spokesperson for Heifer International tells The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday. She said chickens are an ideal starter-animal for farmers because they require little feed and space, and farmers can quickly be trained in their care.

“Chickens can be both a short term change in prosperity and a long term key to economic success,” Stephens says. “Eggs immediately help and then in the long term they can sell chickens for income that can be used to buy homes, send kids to school, or use those animals to then get larger animals.”

If the Gates initiative resembles typical Heifer projects, it will last three to five years and include a lot of social capital training, including working on family dynamics and entrepreneurial skills.

This initiative may only benefit some people on a small scale, Feyi Fawehinmi, a Nigerian accountant based in London told CNN. "I've spoken to a few farmers [in Nigeria] and they all tend to stop at a point as it's hard to grow any further without serious investment.”

And chickens aren't the panacea for poverty everywhere, as Bolivian officials reminded Gates when they turned down his offer.

How can he think we are living 500 years ago, in the middle of the jungle not knowing how to produce?” Bolivian Development Minister César Cocarico told journalists, according to Reuters. “Respectfully, he should stop talking about Bolivia.”

Bolivia produces 197 million chickens annually and has the capacity to export 36 million, the local poultry producing association said.

Stephen Smith, director of the Institute for International Economic Policy at George Washington University, who studies economic development strategies and fighting poverty, told The Christian Science Monitor in a phone interview Thursday that he was very happy to hear about the initiative.

“There is pretty convincing evidence from around the world that transferring an asset including farm animals can be very effective in reducing poverty,” Dr. Smith tells the Monitor, especially when paired with training in how to take care of the animal and gain the most benefit, coupled with attention to basic needs, including health care.

The International Growth Centre, a research center based at the London School of Economics, found that a livestock transfer rather than an unconditional cash transfer to an extremely poor household is more likely to increase household economic activity, because the poorest families face barriers beyond credit constraints for productive employment opportunities.

Eliminating African hunger is within reach by 2025, according to Smith.

“I think it could be within reach, yes, and this kind of program with other programs for growing better quality and improved crops could make a big difference in this regard. We have to focus on the development of the agriculture, farm, and food sectors. Even if Africa grows very, very fast, faster than China did, so many of the people are rural and the population is growing that we’ll have to have a focus on agriculture as one of the components for fighting poverty.”

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