Hoes before Bros

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. 

8 thoughts on “Hoes before Bros”

  1. Reblogged this on The MasterBlog and commented:
    This is a New blog from the founder of Caracas Chronicles, Francisco Toro. It seems he is applying the same hard nosed, common sensical approach to this new subject, which so definitely needs it!!

  2. These are important issues to discuss, but not helped by having dead links in the brief disparaging comments about other projects. Did you mean to link to the global soap project, http://www.globalsoap.org/, for instance?

    I’d be interested in a more informed and careful analysis of this program (which I am not in any way connected with). FYI global soap does not hand out bars of Hilton soap (it’s recycled), and the logic of this program is to increase supply and demand of a product which is not widely used but which has a beneficial health impact, not something like hoes which are already in wide use. Is there room for both types of programs, or do we have to perpetuate unhelpful either/or thinking?

  3. hey! I don’t know if you just want to make a point, or are really saying that someones need to get on the hoes. 😉

    Improving on a Hoe could be a lot of fun but it may get bloated.

    1. Ha, I am actually being serious. A hoe design with an anti bloat attitude in mind can be a cool thing.

      These tools have been hardly revisited because in those places with a lot more knowledge they are simply not used. The develop world doesn’t use hoes for farming. It uses machinery. It is a tool that hasn’t been in an engineers (or craftsman) mind for years.

      I guess I just took your post literally, and went on thinking if I were to produce a hie today, how would I do it.

  4. Goes to show what I know about engineering, Rodrigo!

    I have a friend in the development sector who’s kinda serious about the Improved Hoe idea (though again how you raise money for something like this is a bit of a mystery.)

    But probably the bigger, meatier challenge isn’t really about design, it’s about training. Every biggish village in Africa has at least one blacksmith making these things cottage-industry style. The technology they’re using is often *really* basic, and their knowledge base just needs a lot of help. THAT’S a project somebody should take on: upskilling for village blacksmiths.

    Of course, the logistical challenge is totally daunting: you’re trying to reach one (or two or three) people in each of several hundred thousand villages. Yikes.

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