Why is WVI investing in Oxen?

An ox is the male offspring of a cow, that has been trained to work.  A farmer with two oxen is ten times as productive as a farmer using hand tools. And, while fossil fuels have generated tremendous prosperity for the last 200 years, their future role is limited.

Either through fears of the danger of climate change or constraints in supply, over the decades to come, our economies will be burning less fossil fuel.  While there is tremendous investment and time being spent in the industrialized world on the question of how our cities and civil infrastructure will operate without fossil fuel, very little attention has gone to plan what our rural communities will do.  The economic infrastructure of rural economies is radically different from that of urban centers, and, since urban centers rely on the products and stability of rural communities, it is doubly important that rural solutions be discovered, tested, and deployed to avoid a messy transition.

There is no need to hypothesize about what happens when fossil fuel infrastructure is no longer viable in rural areas.  This challenge has already taken place in many rural areas across the world, since the 1990’s.  The collapse of the Soviet Union forced many of its client states into a severe depression, as that event cut their supplies of cheap oil which Russia had been supplying them.  Cuba, North Korea, and several eastern European countries had highly mechanized rural economies. Suddenly these economies could no longer afford as much fossil fuel as before. What fossil fuel their economies did have access to went to their urban elites who had the money to pay for it, and the power to secure it. 

After the initial economic shock and stop gap measures, either through state-run programs or through the decisions of individuals, all the rural economies in these countries did one of two things.  Either they turned to oxen for field and forest work, or they used hand labor.  The same thing has been occurring for decades in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa, when tractor farming proves uneconomical.  With oxen, the rural communities without fossil fuel were able to recover and thrive. With hand labor, the rural areas were plunged into desperate poverty, and in severe cases, famine and conflict.  It is instructive to note that hand labor was never chosen by a people who had the knowledge of how to use oxen, and the ability to work out the practicalities of the transition.  This is because a farmer with two oxen is around ten times as productive as a farmer using hand tools.  This difference in productivity is what separates a food insecure and struggling rural community from a thriving and prosperous one.

It is one of the chief functions of the non-profit sector to discover solutions to challenges where the market and government sectors have failed.  How rural economies will thrive in a world burning less fossil fuel is one such area.  WVI believes that there is a positive role that oxen can play in rural communities around the world today and in the post-fossil-fuel economy of tomorrow, and that discovering what that role is will be key to sustainably ending rural poverty. 

However, WVI also recognizes the practical, real-world challenges in executing such a transition.  These challenges are one of the main reasons why the for-profit sector has not focused on this area.  Yet a transition away from fossil fuel, either by choice or circumstance, is a coming fact of our world, and we are excited to be working on that challenge.

A Solar Powered Tractor

An ox is in essence a solar powered tractor.  Except that instead of photo voltaic panels it uses grass to collect the sun’s energy.  Instead of batteries, it manufactures its own fat to store that solar energy for later use.  What is more, it is a solar powered tractor that has already gone through 10,000 years of careful iteration, though the process of selective breeding, to fit the needs of humans working in rural areas.  Surprisingly, in terms of a rural economy, the ox is in many ways superior to a commercially produced solar powered tractor.

First of all, and most importantly, for those communities that have chosen to invest in oxen over solar powered tractors, oxen represent a technology that exists today at scale.  For reasons of physics and economics, a practical solar powered tractor manufactured by the commercial sector has proved elusive, despite decades of investment. 

Second, a great portion of the fossil fuel used by a tractor over its life time is used in its manufacture and disposal, so that even a machine that runs on batteries powered by solar panels, still requires a lot of fossil fuel to manufacture in today’s economy.  The ox requires no such energy investment.  Additionally, the fact that the ox can be produced locally with no upfront cash expense puts it within the reach of cash-strapped farmers all over the world.

Third, oxen have really important additional features.  After the ox is born, the cow that produced it, like all mammals, begins to produce milk.  The manure from oxen is a top quality source of free organic fertilizer. In fact, each ox produces somewhere between 80-120 pounds of the stuff each day!  When properly managed, this makes oxen especially compatible with sustainable, organic agriculture.  Ox manure is also a source of fuel!  It can either be dried in the sun and burned directly, as it is in India, where it provides the main source of cooking fuel for millions of households, or alternatively, the methane gases derived from it can be captured in a biogas digester, and burnt as a gas, with the remaining slurry used as a high quality, pathogen-free fertilizer.

There is a final benefit from working oxen that is not economic but emotional.  An ox is a living creature with a highly evolved brain, and much like a dog, a strong bond is built between an ox and the person working him.  It is a quality of life improvement that is hard to quantify, but impossible to discount for a person who has experienced it.

For these reasons, in recent decades, when governments and farmers have found fossil-fuel based farming no longer viable, they have historically turned to the ox to do the work the machines once performed.  WVI believes that the same logic will be used in the future when, either through concerns over climate change or constraints in availability, rural communities transition away from fossil fuel.  The sooner the role of oxen in today’s rural economies is discovered, tested, and deployed, the stronger our rural communities will be when conditions compel a transition.