Walk through any African village and the one thing you will see in virtually every farming home is a short hoe.
They’re not there because a Western NGO distributed them. They weren’t thought up by a hotshot industrial designer in a cool loft in New York or Barcelona or Berlin. They’re mostly made by local ironsmiths using technology that would’ve been familiar to someone doing the same job 500 years ago. And yet, everybody has one.
Because the hand hoe is the Swiss Army Knife of the African farm.
The humble hoe is a vital agricultural tool that’s at the center of poor households’ livelihood strategies, it’s not hard to find places where it’s the only tool the poorest farmers actually use.
And yet a shocking proportion of the hoes you see are in very poor condition: far too heavy, poorly designed and badly made to begin with, but then also worn out or patched up to within an inch of their lives.
In a parallel universe where Development NGOs’ priorities are perfectly alligned with beneficiaries’, you wouldn’t be able to walk two blocks in a first world city without getting hit up by some sort of Hoes for Africa fundraiser, with perhaps a second tier of Hoe sharpening, Hoe design and Hoe distribution charities working the sector too.
After all, here we have a technology at the very centre of the livelihood strategies of the world’s very poorest, a technology you know they will need and will keep using long after programme support has ended, and one that could be substantially improved with just a couple of engineering tweaks.
Somehow, none of that matters. People will send almost anything you can think of to Africa. Solar panels. Used shoes. Cookstoves. Laptops. Bicycles. But a garden hoe? Nope. Not that. They might like that.
The lesson here isn’t that we need to start flooding Africa with freebie hoes – heaven forbid! – but that the disconnect between what African farmers need and what we want to send them is serious, and deep rooted.
Because it’s not hard to guess why there is no Hoes to Africa charity: you just couldn’t raise any money for it. Western people don’t use hoes on a daily basis (give or take the occasional hobby gardner). For the bulk of donors, the idea that a hand hoe could be an absolute necessity of life is just as bizarre as the idea that a solar panel could be utterly necessary to an African villager.
We’d much rather ship them medical tricorders.