Wednesday, November 18, 2009

A Chicken In Every Pot, or, How Tyson Saves The World

Abel's Diner, in Garden Ridge, a suburb just up I-35 from San Antonio, is a bustling place at lunch time. It's good enough to be full throughout the middle of the day, even though it's hard to get to (you have to go a couple of miles past it on the freeway, then double back on the access road almost all the way); and good enough to draw me in, all the way from 281 and Thousand Oaks, about 15 miles away.

I was sitting there with my friend Rick, and overheard the waitress ask the man at the next table whether he wanted white or dark meat for his fried chicken. That reminded me of a report I'd heard on the radio, maybe two years ago, about how dark meat commands a premium price in Asia, the way white meat does here. And that got me to thinking about starving people in Africa.

The difficulty of life in sub-Saharan Africa has been a recurring theme in my head ever since I got a glimpse of it for myself, a year or two ago. Poverty, hunger, corruption and marauding are the Four Horsemen of their particular apocalypse, and all the mealy-mouthed good intentions of the West (and now, the East) for the past hundred years have done little to stanch the flow of misery. Prosperity, where it exists at all, seems limited to exclusive elites -- the white farmers in the Union of South Africa and Rhodesia, when those entities existed; corrupt politicians and their cronies; bureaucrats who feed on the crumbs that fall from the table of the powerful; warlords and their minions; and a few businessmen who have insinuated themselves between, on the one hand, the wealthy foreign companies who want to appear magnanimous to their home audiences, and, on the other, said corrupt politicians and warlords.

And then for some reason I thought, What would happen if somebody plopped a gigantic chicken farm down in some poor spot in Africa?

There would, of course, be some construction jobs that came from the project, but the benefits of that would be brief, and most of the benefits would likely be siphoned off to the Corrupt. A giant chicken farm à la Tyson would provide some low-skill jobs locally, but that wouldn't have a major impact. Management would probably be foreigners, at least at first, but gradually locals would acquire the skills needed for such an operation. And there would be distribution jobs to be done, getting the slaughtered, plucked, and cleaned birds to local markets; that, at least, would require a fairly large network of people, since markets in Africa are not like your HEB or Carrefour or Piggly-Wiggly; they're open-air, small-scale things like your great-grandmother went to in The Old Country: specialized, disparate, time-consuming. Since there is no electricity that can be relied on, shops can't keep quantities of goods beyond what they can sell in a day or two, and consumers can't buy more than a day or two's worth of groceries (if they can afford even that).

But imagine what would happen if suddenly economies of scale on a gigantic scale were to be applied to chicken-farming in Africa. Prices for chickens (and eggs) would drop, sometimes slowly, sometimes precipitately, as the Giant Chicken Farm entered local markets. Local farmers would be unable to compete, and while that may upset the relatively few who sell their birds, for most people it would simply mean that they would be able to buy chicken instead of raising it themselves. (Yes, the taste of the chicken would suffer just as it has done in this country, but starving people who must lay out relatively large portions of their meagre resources for protien would, I'm guessing, prefer bland-but-cheap chicken to the tasty-but-dear birds that now are available to those who can afford them; for most, it boils down to a choice between bland chicken or no chicken.) The pretty hens that are presently a sort of status symbol for the Man On the Street throughout the so-called Developing World would become less valuable, and people who now spend a great deal of precious time and money buying, raising and guarding those birds would be able to devote their attention to other things. They might start a business ... or at least form interest groups that would force governments across the continent (and elsewhere) to streamline the ridiculous rules, and remove the ridiculous obstacles that now require so much effort to start even the simplest business.
(We Americans don't know how good we've got it. You want to start a business? You call the Secretary of State and register the name, call the IRS for a tax number, open a bank account and get a telephone number, and you're in business. Maybe you need a license, if you're doing something particularly regulated, like serving food or cutting hair or trading stocks and shares, or practicing law; but generally speaking, if you want to sell cellphones or cosmetics or tourist souvenirs in this country, it takes you a day to start up. In the poor parts of the world, it takes you months.)

There would be difficulties to deal with, of course: there would be palms to cross as every government official at every level who could possibly exert any sort of pressure would expect a bribe; although the threat to move the project to a neighbouring district or country would go a long way in minimizing that.  There would be a need for reliable power, meaning the construction of a generating plant -- which in turn could provide power to the surrounding district, thereby raising the local standard of living and opening up the possibility of other power-hungry businesses in the area. There would be transportation issues, but the people I've observed over there are pretty resourceful about getting around over what passes for roads. And a boost in local prosperity would bring pressure to improve the roads, while the greater prosperity would also make some greater local resources available for that. (And I don't mean building superhighways with large earth-moving machinery; there is plenty of human labour that could use a series of good road construction project.)

I suspect that the operation would turn a profit within a year or two, and would recover its investment in the course of five or six years. I may be wrong: after all, I'm no economist. But this I believe: the people of sub-Saharan Africa would benefit far more from small local-effect investment projects like a chicken farm than they do from the large graft-inducing oil and mineral investments that are, basically, all their national governments seem to care about.

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