By Tom Allen
Originally Published in the Huffington Post on 12/15/11
By the time I arrived, the purported road had dwindled to something less than a goat trail. To say I was off the beaten track in rural Rwanda, some 90 kilometers outside of Kigali, would merely state the obvious. I was going where no sane person would go on four wheels instead of two feet.
Yet it was here, at the end of the road, where I encountered an extraordinary creature: a real live piggy bank that in all its porcine glory captured the essence of grassroots entrepreneurship and development at the base of the socioeconomic pyramid. Here was an animal that represented financial security for a family, which could have made roast suckling pig out of him long before the initial investment paid off. In order to maximize the return, however, this family would have to be patient; in other words, buy and hold.
Before the pig, however, there was the egg — or rather, many dozens of them. The purpose of my excursion was to deliver eggs for the One Egg Preschool Program, which seeks to enhance nutrition for children by increasing the amount of protein in their diets. I proceeded along this road (again, I use this term very loosely) because I had the erroneous preconception that others before me had driven this route for the weekly egg delivery. They had not; I later learned that they always hiked the eggs in.
Twice I drove within a gnat’s eyelash of losing the truck over a cliff, or at least it slid in that direction, out of control. Ultimately, my Rwandan companions and I got stuck and stranded for a very long time, one wheel over the edge, and all to the great amusement of the villagers. But the trek and the truck were only the prelude to a much bigger awakening that brings us back to the pig — and the purpose.
First, the pig. Along this road that wasn’t really a road lives a woman who like many rural Rwandans supports her family on a postage stamp piece of land, growing staple crops such as maize and beans. What made her even more interesting was her pig.
As always, I asked many questions, which she graciously answered for me (thanks to a friend who translated from Kinyarwanda into English):
Me: What do you feed this pig (a question only a city slicker could ask)?
Woman: Anything and everything.
Me: Will you butcher this pig for your family and friends to eat? (I knew that the lack of refrigeration would require the entire pig to be consumed within a day or two, and that no single family would enjoy this much meat in an entire year.)
Woman: No, of course not. I will sell it.
Me: How much did you pay for it as a piglet?
Woman: 15,000 Rwandan francs (about $25).
Me: How much will you sell it for?
Woman: It depends on how big it is.
Me: What about right now?
Woman: 30,000 Rwandan francs ($50).
Me: What if the pig grew to an enormous size?
Woman: 150,000 to 200,000 Rwandan francs ($250 to $333).
Me: How long will you keep the pig before you sell it?
Woman: We will keep and grow the pig until we have a problem that requires us to sell it.
Then I understood the true meaning of the term “piggy bank.” Wilbur, here, was indeed “some pig” that embodied the family’s financial security. This remarkable pig was quite literally the safety net for the harsh economic reality of poverty. And so I found myself nose to snout with a lesson in free market economics, where buy and hold means far more than the forgotten mutual fund in a 401(k) account. This investment on the hoof will forage and feed as it produces a sizeable return. Then when a family problem arises, this not-so-little piggy goes to market.
Yet my wishful thinking caused me to imagine a scenario in which the family manages to keep the pig until the price is right, and then sell it for a tidy profit that might one day mean two piggies in the pen — or, shall I say, the bank. Then this woman and her family can take a major step up the economic ladder, from growing only enough to eat to raising crops and livestock that reproduces and produces exponential cash profits.
Then we come to purpose, meaning mine. Not so many years ago, I spent 60 hours a week at my lawyer’s desk quarreling with people. Then I choose a different path and embraced a purpose in a place that is literally a different world, encountering those who have so much to teach me. And I am so much the richer for the experience.