Heifer International: Empowering Rural Poor to Become Entrepreneurs


If you’re like me, you first learned of Heifer International by seeing a commercial, probably around Christmastime, urging you to give a gift of a farm animal to help a family and to end world hunger. What you may not know is that the farm animal wasn’t meant to end hunger literally by being eaten. That gift is meant to supply a steady source of income, and possibly food, for impoverished women and families by empowering rural poor to become entrepreneurs.

heifer logoWhat is Heifer International?

Heifer International was founded in 1942 by Dan West, an American farmer who had been working abroad doing mission work in Spain. Frustrated by the lack of food aid, and the procedures for distributing it, West founded Heifers for Relief to provide livestock as both food aid and a source of economic freedom. Based on the “give a man a fish” proverb, West believed that the key to eradicating world hunger was a combination of a gift of livestock, basic agricultural training and the expectation that recipients would share the wealth by passing on at least one female offspring to others in their community.

In 1944, the first shipment of 17 heifers made the voyage from Pennsylvania to Puerto Rico. Since that time, Heifer International has helped more than 9.5 million people in 128 countries around the world.

heifer camelWhat Does Heifer Do?

Heifer is different from other aid programs because they specifically emphasize community and sustainability. This means focusing on change, not charity, which they accomplish by teaching people how to use their animals to provide both short-term food and long-term income.

12 basic cornerstones guide the Heifer program, including: training and education, improving the environment, sustainability and self-reliance and accountability. The one cornerstone that is nonnegotiable is the “pass it on” principle. Heifer provides a breeding animal along with each gift so that it can produce offspring. Recipients of livestock are required to pass on at least one female offspring of their gift to another member of their community that has received Heifer training.

Heifer focuses on providing animals with the seven Ms: meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. Recipients are trained in how to take care of and breed the animals as well as how to use them to obtain each of the seven Ms.

Uganda familyHeifer Empowering Women

Heifer recognizes that three out of four of the world’s poor are women. Additionally, women produce 80% of the world’s food yet own less than 1% of the land. With their Women in Livestock and Development (WiLD) program and their gender and family focus, Heifer International is working to change that.

Heifer established WiLD in 1988 to help women care for themselves and their families. In order to be most effective, and reach the greatest number of women, WiLD is coordinated in conjunction with local women’s community groups.

After a cyclone decimated 80% of their livestock and the livestock of their village, the women of the Bhodal Milk Cooperative Society in India turned to WiLD to help them regroup. The women, who had a history of women’s organizing, created a livestock plan for their village, this time choosing to raise goats and poultry. The goats provide meat for their families and assist in environmental sustainability because the goats feed on scraps that would normally be used as trash. The women in the cooperative sell goats milk and goat products at the market, using the wages to boost their family’s income and send their children to school.

heifer womanRekha Jena is another Indian woman who received livestock and training from Heifer to make a better life for her family. Jena raised chickens in her small yard. In addition to making sure her children ate one egg each day, she earned $200 in one year from selling eggs. She used the money to send her children to school. With leadership training she received from Heifer, the formerly timid Jena also obtained a position as secretary of the local women’s group. She now mentors other women like herself.

How You Can Help

$20 buys a flock of chicks for another woman like Jena. $20 can double or triple an individual’s income for a year, enabling them to buy food or pay for school fees and health care. Want to make an even bigger difference? Heifer offers a number of opportunities to give.

For more information, or to make a donation, visit Heifer on their website or blog, or you can find them on Facebook, YouTube or Twitter.

All images: Heifer International

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