Of Chinese Proverbs and Gambian Donkeys

by Tim Young, KF15, Senegal

To paraphrase an ancient Chinese proverb:

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Give a man a donkey and you feed him for at least five years, providing the donkey is well treated and doesn’t get sick.

Meet Lazarus, one of the co-founders of the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust!

At the Gambia Horse and Donkey Trust (“GHDT” or the “Trust”) this proverb has been turned into a reality and what started as a compassionate intervention to save a suffering horse has grown into a fascinating project combining animal welfare and poverty alleviation.

Located in the small village of Sambel Kunda in the heart of the Gambia, the GHDT was founded in 2002 by sisters Stella Marsden and Heather Armstrong, both at that time long-term residents of the Gambia. It was in 2002 that Stella first met and rescued Lazarus from among the local villages and bought him to live with her near her chimpanzee rehabilitation project in the Central River section of the Gambia.

Stella and Heather realised that a healthy working equine is an extremely valuable asset for a poor Gambian family. Their website estimates that it can increase the income of a family by up to 500% and the loss of such an asset would clearly be a serious blow to the finances of the people who make their living farming the fertile soil alongside the Gambia river. However, as I mentioned in a recent blog post, families living in poverty often do not have the training or education to provide proper care for a working animal, no matter how much they might depend on it. Neither do they necessarily have the resources to purchase the necessary medicines or veterinary care at the time when they are needed, even if they are available. Add to this the many diseases, harsh climate and (often) poor food that Africa throws at its animal residents, and life as a Gambian donkey is challenging to say the least.

"Its tough out there!" Young Project donkeys stay at the GHDT until they are old enough to be allocated to a farmer. Here they're looking forward to getting out into the fields.

Enter the Donkey Project, an innovation of the GHDT which since it first started operating in 2006 has put 122 healthy donkeys into the field, working alongside Gambian farmers to improve their incomes. A donkey provides not only essential power to till the fields and help with other laborious tasks such as transporting firewood, it also improves a farmer’s ability to access markets, allowing him to travel further distances to get better prices for his produce and providing another potential source of income from transportation.

Taking a short break from the hard work of a Kiva Fellowship in Senegal, I decided to visit the Project, its workers, donkeys and beneficiaries, to better understand how this interesting organisation has helped combat poverty in this tiny West African nation.  Travelling through the rural villages around Sambel Kunda I was fortunate enough to meet a number of the farmers who are proud custodians of one of the Projects’ donkeys. As we talked over how the donkeys contributed to their lives, the economic benefits were emphasised alongside important social work.  “If a family member is sick, he can help us take him to hospital” says one farmer, fondly stroking his donkey’s ears.

Saloum runs the Donkey Project for the GHDT and cares passionately about both local development and his long-eared charges

What interests me about the Donkey Project are its many similarities with microfinance. In both a large upfront capital investment is required to provide or improve a revenue flow. The investment needs ongoing maintenance, either in the form of interest payments or in food and care. The investment allows the recipient to greatly improve production, lower production costs and access markets that might previously have been out of reach. The loans are administered by a Loan Officer, the donkeys by Saloum, who every month travels by motorbike to visit each and every donkey in the project, making sure that they are receiving the appropriate care and are healthy and happy.

In order to best allocate scarce resources, the Donkey Project undertakes a thorough due diligence of its potential beneficiaries. Applications are received and reviewed and potential candidates visited to make sure they are who they say they are and that they do not already possess a donkey or equivalent beast of burden. Farmers who proceed past this part of the process are then invited to come to the GHDT for a 2/3 day course on donkey care and management. They learn how to feed and keep their animals, how to harness them correctly and how to identify certain illnesses. Finally they are asked to sign an agreement, undertaking to properly care for and manage their donkey and to build for it a thatched stable. As Heather says “we don’t mind the animal working hard, but it must have shade to rest away from the heat and flies.”  

A donkey stands in front of a GHDT financed borehole in a village not far from the Gambia river

As with microfinance, the Donkey Project also has a strong social focus. One farmer tells me how the additional income the donkey provides allows him to send one in two of his children to school. Realising that promoting animal welfare and conservation requires the engagement of the local community, the GHDT has approached local development holistically, providing local villages with boreholes for water, schools and a clinic.

By engaging with the local population, the GHDT has better helped them in turn to engage with their working animals. Noticing that equines are almost always cared for by children, the GHDT organises an education programme, visiting local schools fortnightly and offering classes in equine welfare. As I look through the list of where the Project’s donkeys have been located, I am also struck by how many are located in schools. Here, Saloum tells me, they serve not only to educate the children about equines, but also to work the school’s fields, providing additional income to support and expand educational programmes in the area.

GHDT vet Yoby and volunteer vet Tess getting ready to go to market

Alongside the Donkey Project and education, the third focus of the GHDT is on providing veterinary care to all the local animals. The absence of qualified veterinary care is one of the biggest impediments to animal welfare in the Gambia and one of the most important and highly rated benefits that the GHDT brings to the local area. The Trust has its own resident local vet as well as frequent volunteers from abroad who spend time visiting the local markets and providing much needed veterinary care and advice. On average they treat some 2,700 animals a year, excluding those treated in vaccination campaigns. I have the chance to travel with the vets to visit one such market and when a Senegalese man approaches with a gaunt looking horse, I am called on to translate. “Your horse has Trips (*1)” I tell him, “and needs rest and food. The vets want to give him two injections, one for the Trips, one of vitamins, it will cost you 100 Dalasis (roughly $4), do you agree?” The man smiles at me, “and the horse will be ok?” As long as he has enough rest and food I emphasise; the man smiles again. “I can’t tell you how much this horse helps me. I was so scared of losing him. Please thank the vets for me, tell them they are tres sympa”.

Treating the complicated cases. Unfortunately not every village in the Gambia has access to the GHDT's equipment and skills

Weighing in at about 4,000 Dalasis ($150), a donkey is a significant investment for any poor African farmer and at the moment the Trust’s donkeys are financed entirely by charitable donations, mainly from the UK. However, $150 is easily within the capacity of a microloan and the economic benefits of donkey ownership make this project a tantalising proposition for microfinance. Not many cars would be sold in the West without credit arrangements, so why not specific financing arrangements for purchasing donkeys and for their ongoing care? As project staff are already visiting clients every month it would be easy to collect repayments and additional services, such as collecting savings could be neatly added on. Providing a sustainable source of financing would allow the Trust to greatly expand its operations and to bring the benefits of donkey ownership to many more African farmers.

As I bounce along on the back of Saloum’s motorbike through the green fields of the Gambia, my mind is awash with the possibilities for financing donkeys. I see pictures of donkeys appearing on the Kiva website with descriptions of the people they will help and the work they will be asked to do. But as we travel onwards and Saloum introduces me to donkeys called Kent, Moses and Sue, and the proud Gambians who care for them tell me how they fared in this year’s donkey beauty contest (*2), my wayward thoughts desert me. There really is nothing else to do but smile.

Baby donkey! Do you want to be on Kiva?


*1: Trips: trypanosomiasis is also known as Equine Sleeping Sickness, an insect borne disease which is common in the Gambia.

*2: The Annual Donkey Show is organised by the GHDT and is designed to reward donkey owners who care well for their animals and to encourage those who need help. The Judge, smartly dressed in a suit and hat, explains to the audience the criteria that he is using and the things that he is looking for. The Show is televised and so reaches a large audience in the Gambia and provides a talking point for the local villagers the whole year round.

General: Kiva’s policy regarding publishing photos of people without their express permission has meant that I have not included any photos of farmers benefitting from Project Donkey. Sadly none of them are Kiva borrowers and so have not expressly consented to the use of their photos on the Kiva Fellow’s blogsite.


Tim Young, KF15, is a Kiva Fellow currently working with one of Kiva’s Senegalese field partners, UIMCEC, in the Cassamance – the southern most region of Senegal (just below the Gambia). He has always been interested in donkeys. Infact, he loves donkeys; they’re such sturdy, willing little fellows with their long ears and their thoughtful faces. While he does not yet currently know of a way to directly finance donkeys through microfinance, he does know that if you help a farmer in the developing world with a microloan, you will be helping their animals as well. Join Kiva. Make loans. Help donkeys! www.kiva.org

About the author