Subsistence farming isn’t just a livelihood. It is a mindset. The typical participant in the Village Enterprise program is a subsistence farmer, who occasionally does casual labor in other people’s gardens to earn cash to cover household costs. This is their livelihood. And it was the livelihood of their parents before them. And their parents’ parents before them. This is how a livelihood becomes a mindset; a culture; a way of life.
We believe that entrepreneurship is a way of life. Village Enterprise invests in fostering the entrepreneurial spirit so that people can lift themselves and their families out of extreme poverty. In addition to the business and financial literacy training, seed capital, access to savings, and mentoring that we offer through our one-year Graduation program, this takes investing time and resources in changing not just livelihoods, but mindsets. We have to overcome agriculture as a mindset.
Entrepreneurship in action: realizations in the field
Recently, I was in Muntema, about 20 km outside of Hoima town in Western Uganda with my colleague, Mildred. We were observing a new training module we had just designed to guide our participants through a process of deciding on the enterprise they would like to start using the seed capital we will disburse in a little over a month.
At the end of the training, one trainee stood up to ask a question. “The planting season will be over next month,” he began, “so we would like to inquire why you are giving us capital after the planting season is over. How can we start our businesses if the planting season is over?”
Mildred and I exchanged a look. This man’s question was a shining example of what I mean when I say that subsistence farming isn’t just a livelihood, it is a mindset.
The power of entrepreneurship and the future of farming
We spend three months training our business owners, and provide 150 USD in seed capital to provide an avenue to think creatively, identify new opportunities, and invest in diverse livelihoods.
Our business owners may initially want to plant beans. Or cassava. Or groundnuts. Or any other of the crops that they plant each season to feed their families. With a subsistence farming mindset, our program can be viewed as an opportunity to cover the costs of growing the food needed to feed their families this season. With a shift to an entrepreneur’s mindset, our program is viewed as an opportunity to invest in profitable businesses and diverse livelihoods that create a path out of poverty. This is our challenge: overcoming the subsistence farmer’s mindset to create entrepreneurs.
Just as we believe in the power of entrepreneurship, we also believe in the future of farming. Our participants are farmers, not only because it is a way of life in which they are comfortable but because it is the way of life in the areas where we work, where formal labor is scarce, access to education is poor, and you need to be able to grow what your family needs. The entrepreneurial spirit isn’t just about enterprise, it’s about creativity and innovation. We want our business owners to be creative and innovative farmers, prepared to apply their entrepreneurial talent to diverse livelihoods that both supplement and strengthen the productivity and profitability of their farming.
From farmers to entrepreneurs
Mildred stood up to answer the man’s question, with a few questions of her own. “What do you think you could do with your seed capital when the planting season is over?” she asked.
“We could start a piggery business,” said one trainee. “Pigs are profitable all year-round, and we could have an income when harvest season is over.”
“We could sell silverfish when the season for beans is over,” someone else added. “People need alternative protein sources when beans are out of season!”
The man who originally asked the question stood and said, “We all grow beans. We could build a storage facility and all bring our harvest and store them until the price is high and then sell in bulk.”
Mildred gave him a fist bump.
This group of soon-to-be business owners is overcoming the mindset of a subsistence farmer and adopting the entrepreneurial spirit. Farming is no longer just a way of life; it is an opportunity to innovate their way out of poverty.