Teach a Man To Fish… Then What?

We’ve all heard the common saying, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” (original source unknown)

Typically, this idiom is used to assert the belief that people are expected to provide for themselves and should be taught to do so. It is a sense that true change through charitable giving occurs when skills are taught, not when goods are merely given. Unfortunately, the desired outcome of financial self-sufficiency often requires more than teaching skills. Let’s dig deeper. If we have compassion for people who are suffering, and we have genuine interest in making a tangible difference in the lives of others who want to help themselves, it is absolutely essential to keep the discussion going, not to stop at a cliché. 

Many vulnerable populations the world serves already know how to fish. Show up with fishing poles, bait and a seminar on fishing (or shovels and seeds and farming books) and intended “beneficiaries” may look at you as they see so many well-meaning individuals who come in and out of their lives through a revolving charitable door: kind-hearted but out-of-touch foreigners. Instead of assuming lives can be transformed by what we think we know, we are well-advised to seek first to understand – ask questions, talk to local leaders (other fishermen), consider economies and markets, ask the “beneficiaries” for their needs and ideas, and learn what has been tried unsuccessfully in the past (fishing methods) for people in need to move forward. Honor what’s been done by others. Identify what’s missing or misaligned. Focus there.

What do we often find to be missing and misaligned? Opportunity and fishing methods. When seeking to help people provide for themselves, we value local investors, business owners and operators as a critical source of information. After all, they represent three critical elements of provision: 1) They are prospective employers and customers (fish buyers). 2) They are, by default, subject matter experts in the local context (ice fishing obviously requires very different knowledge of species and conditions, bait, presentation, tackle and equipment than big game saltwater fishing). And, 3) They have a shared objective of income generation (market-driven). Just like the needy, their livelihood is on the line each and every day. The charity program teaching theoretical concepts and general skills cannot relate in any of these ways.     

Honestly, the people we serve are usually not starving. Our work occurs in environments where the latest emergency has passed. People are surviving, because they are survivors. The plight that draws us in is suffering and hopelessness.

Small Pond, Very Few Fish

While a vulnerable mother living in a thatched roof home might be struggling to produce or barter enough to feed her children today, she does not have what she needs for tomorrow and the days ahead, to cover unexpected expenses or to provide hope of formal education for her children or medical treatment when needed. She wants to know that her family will be taken care of, that they will grow up healthy, move out of her home knowing how to provide for themselves, and that they will be able to give better futures to her grandchildren. That need is universal and globally relatable. Viable exists to see her dreams fulfilled by connecting her with real opportunities, to the glory of God.

The reality? Small farmers often struggle to survive. This level of production and living is classified as “subsistence farming.” This means families traditionally farm only to eat. In some countries it is officially referred to as “unpaid work.” Imagine that. Beyond meals, there is little cash to pay for additional family needs. We know of families supporting a household of 6 on an income of $13/month. The “hunger season” is the leanest time of year where farmers await harvest to eat well. For farmers who venture to grow crops with market value, harvest means there may be money to pay school fees and settle debt they’ve incurred to survive for the past few weeks. 

A mother farming a small plot this way in the remote countryside needs money right away at harvest. But, the primary market for the crops isn’t within reach of these hard-working farmers in remote locations. The mother isn’t connected to companies who will pay a fair price for what they are working to produce, so farmers, especially women, settle for a small fraction of their harvest’s value through the middlemen who come around to exploit them. If she tries to store her harvest in hopes of a better price, she not only extends the hunger season for her family and adds to her debt, she risks losing her stored harvest to rodents, theft and spoilage. In the East African nation of Uganda, 6 million Ugandan workers fit this profile. This is roughly 30% of the working age population. They don’t need us to tell them how to farm. How does a seminar on farming techniques change the mother’s situation? If she increased her production efforts by 500%, a lack of markets (customers) means her income may increase some, but much less than the 500% increase in effort. The exploitative middleman is now going to be bargaining for lower unit prices. Larger purchases also create room for excuses to delay payment to her. A bad situation, getting worse. She needs legitimate and ethical connections. 

Viable disrupts these hopeless conditions by investigating legitimate markets, creating authentic connections, negotiating fair prices so farmers are immediately able to bring more home to take care of their families. Many people will then, on their own, increase their production efforts. We’ve seen some production increases as much as 1,200% (in the midst of COVID-19). Now farmers are receptive to those great farming techniques the world wants to teach them. Now, they may be able to use the “entrepreneurship” course to launch a secondary small business. Their new profits, perspectives, and knowledge gained from their interactions with companies introduced by Viable create what local community leaders refer to as “demand-driven” training opportunities. 

It is possible for people to have a new vision and a competitive advantage – in the local markets where they live. They are finally able to thrive in the communities where they were born, making a difference for their families, and for future generations. They have a business legacy to pass down. Often for the first time, their children express interest in staying in the community to pursue their parents’ line of work, especially agriculture.

Going back to Uganda, today there are five (5) working age people for every one (1) formal job available. Move from urban centers to rural areas and the ratio declines to twenty (20) people for every one (1) job available. How can we make this ratio 20 to 20 where tangible opportunity is within reach? Establish authentic connections (markets) for people who already know how to fish. The workers exist. The markets exist. Viable connects the two. 

Next time you hear “teach a man to fish,” think about what that man already knows, who he knows, and if anyone is even in the market for fish.   



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