An ancient proverb says, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” For Kenyan immigrants Moses and Emily Osoro, however, it’s not fish but chickens that change lives.
For the past six years, the Osoros have invested their time and resources into developing a chicken farm co-op in Moses’ home village of Mahondo, Kenya, with a goal of helping to reduce poverty in the region and encourage skill development. Remarkably, they’ve funded their vision primarily by capitalizing on something their American neighbors’ discard: recyclable cans and bottles.
Their story began in 2007, when the Osoro family settled in Sacramento after a five-year struggle for asylum. Almost immediately, the calls from Kenyan relatives and neighbors started coming: “Can you help pay my child’s school tuition?” “I can’t afford my medical bills. Can you help?”
The pleas were personal.
“In Africa, we are a big family with many aunts, cousins, and we depend on each other strongly. If you make it to America, it’s thought that everything is here; you are the only one who can help,” Moses Osoro said.
Moses and Emily began to send money back to Kenya as they were able, $100 here, $200 there. It’s a common response for immigrants who come to the United States to build a better life. According to the Pew Research Center, an estimated $625 billion flowed from immigrants to individuals in their home countries in 2017 ($41 billion to sub-saharan African nations, including Kenya). Those estimates are assumed to be low, since they only track money sent through formal channels like banks.
Collecting cans (and bottles) for a cause
For the Osoros, the frequent requests came in the midst of raising their five children on a very tight budget. Though they worked as professional accountants in Kenya, both had to re-earn college degrees in the United States to qualify for jobs. Emily earned a second accounting degree and landed a job with the State Comptroller’s Office. Moses switched careers and became a registered nurse. And still, the calls kept coming.
At one point, the couple began rising before dawn several days a week to collect cans and bottles from neighbors. The extra money earned through recycling allowed them to help more people in Kenya while making their own ends meet. Yet it still didn’t seem enough. That’s when Moses began thinking about chickens.
“I thought, ‘What could we do to help these people work together to earn some extra money to help themselves.’ And I remembered that I used to raise chickens,” he said.
The Osoros paid to have a simple mud chicken coop built on family land in Mahondo, and recruited 10 interested women to care for the first 200 chickens. The initial efforts faltered as the chickens acquired a disease and died, partially due to the inexperience of the women. Four participants quit the program and word spread that the farm was a failure, but Moses would not be deterred. He traveled back to Kenya, purchased 500 more chickens and convinced a Catholic convent that raised chickens to train the women in chicken care in exchange for keeping some of the chickens. Three months later, 350 chickens were still alive and the six remaining women felt ready to strike out on their own.
Moses and Emily examined their resources and realized they needed help to re-establish the farm in Mahondo. A veterinarian had advised that a new coop be built with wood, not mud, to provide a healthier environment. The chickens also would need vaccinations to protect from diseases. The costs would run more than $5,000, much more than their recycling income and family savings could cover.
But what if they could get more people to donate cans and bottles? In 2015, the Osoros brought this idea to their congregation at Faith Presbyterian Church, and received an overwhelming response. Not only did the church set up permanent collection bins to encourage a steady flow of recyclables, but some members stepped forward to help Moses and Emily sort and transport the cans and bottles. Others helped the Osoros establish an official 501c3 organization in 2016 to oversee the project. They named the nonprofit “One Child One Hen,” in recognition of the children that would be helped by the chickens their mothers raise. Visitors can also make a donation at their website, which says 100% of every donation goes to the Kenyan farm.
4,000 chickens and helpful income
Now three years later, the One Child One Hen farm has grown to four chicken coops with a capacity for 4,000 chickens, managed by 60 women (with more on a waiting list). The participants work in cohorts of 10, each spending four hours a week feeding and watering the chickens, cleaning coops and providing basic veterinary care, plus a few extra hours each week for a large-group meeting. The participants collect eggs – an average of 1,200 per day– and sell them at the local market, or at a discount to fellow participants. In exchange, the women receive a share of the net profit– typically anywhere from $10 to $30 a month. It’s not a living wage, acknowledges Moses, but it’s helpful supplementary income, and the women also gain valuable skills and self-confidence they can use to pursue other work or establish their own businesses.
Participant Helen Awuor, a widow with six children, said the extra income has helped supplement her work as a farmhand.
“My children can get food now. They can get soap to bathe with, or pencils for school,” she said.
Moses recently used additional donations to purchase an egg incubator and a feed machine to produce chicken feed – the last steps in making the farm economically self-sufficient. The feed machine, in particular, will cut the cost of feeding the hens by a third, while opening opportunities to manufacture feed for sale to other farms.
When they look into the future, the Osoros say they envision their community eventually filled with microenterprises run by, and employing, the same local residents who initially called them for help. They also plan to set up a community bank where residents pool their money and then offer microloans to cover short-term expenses or help launch new businesses.
“We want to create an infrastructure that builds employment and gets people out of poverty. They first learn to earn an income through hard work. Then, they learn how to save for tomorrow, how to borrow and pay it back, and how to build communal prosperity,” Moses said.
For now, the phone calls keep coming, often in the middle of the night, from those who’ve heard about the Kenyan-Americans with the successful chicken farm and generous spirit. But it’s only a matter of time, the Osoros say, until their home community is transformed by education, hard work and ingenuity, one child and one hen at a time.