From beggars to dignifying communities - How one man’s dream changed a whole race’s destiny

BY: Edmund Smith-Asante
Many of the households also run  traditional restaurants. Picture: EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE
Many of the households also run traditional restaurants. Picture: EDMUND SMITH-ASANTE

They were destitute and had been reduced to begging to make a living because their environment could no longer support them.

The desert was driving them away but they had nowhere to go and the best they could do was to move in circles looking for fodder and water for their animals, for they thought that if they could somehow sustain their herds, they could at least have a similitude of life.

That was a lot of farmers and nomads living on the Kubuqi Desert until one man dared to control the desert and actualise his dream to build a roadway in the desert to protect his investment.

Now the about 100,000 ‘beggar farmers and herdsmen’ do not only have permanent residences built for them free of charge, but they have well-paid jobs, alternative livelihoods and regular incomes of not less than 30,000 yuan (US$ 4,425.63) annually.

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These were made known to journalists from 27 African countries who were on a visit to the Kubuqi Desert as part of their tour of the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China.

 How it began

The journalists also gathered that it was in his bid to cut down the cost of shipping his company’s annual salt production of 500,000 tonnes and save about 20 million yuan (US$ 2,950,418.40), which was about 70 percent of the profit, that the Chairman of the Elion Resources Group, Mr Wang Wenbiao, thought of building a highway in the desert.

The road was also meant to remove constraints from further development of the company.

People thought he was crazy to have nursed that ambition, with his mother saying to him, “You are being stupid to do what nobody else ever dared to do! Do you have so much money to waste? You are throwing your money into a desert!”

Undaunted, however, he pursued that dream and received a 70 million yuan (US$ 10,325,245) loan from the government as support for the project.

On June 16, 1997, with the assistance of the Hanggin Banner Government and Elion, the construction of the Kubuqi cross-sand high road was launched in total excitement.

An army of 1,000 road contractors, supported by more than 100,000 town folks in Hanggin Banner, moved into the desert in three divisions and pushed the road forward metre by metre.

However even before the first 65-kilometre desert road was completed in 1999, a Mongolian grandmother led her two grandsons to Mr Wang at the construction site, knelt down and said to the boys: “Come and kneel down to this gentleman who is building this road. But for him, you might not be able to go outside this desert your whole life!”

Apart from the new road shortening the distance between Elion and Kubuqi, the world outside, and ensuring a better life, the market share of Elion’s salt topped the world.

As of now, however, five desert-crossing highways totalling over 300km have been built.

 Green revolution

The construction of the roadway in the desert also brought another need – growing more trees and plants to protect the roads.

Farmers were, therefore, paid 30 yuan (US$ 4.43) daily to do so, which initially proved worthwhile because of the motivation it gave, but the lack of adequate knowledge soon defeated the plan as less and less trees survived with time.

This birthed the contract system where Elion provided technical support to the farmers who were paid 2,000 yuan (US$ 295.01) for every 666.7 m2 planted with a survival rate of 85 per cent as the assessment target.

The catch, however, was that deductions would be made from the payment of the annual assessments and the contract were for three years. This new plan proved successful and soon resulted in a steady income for thousands of farmers and grew a professional planting and desert team of over 5,000 people.

 House owners

In 2006, with the support of the Hanggin Banner Government, Elion embarked on another daring move to house the herdsmen who were scattered across the 400 km2 of the Kubuqi Desert by implementing eco-migration.

The first to be built was the Daotu village, after which others were put up to enable the herdsmen to live more productive lives.

The visiting journalists were treated to some Mongolian music at the Daotugacha Comprehensive Cultural Centre and also hosted to some Mongolian meals by some families, most of whom run restaurants and shops at their residences.

Apart from becoming a very hospitable place for people, the Kubuqi Desert is also now a home to over 100 species of wild animals and plants such as the hare, fox, swan, red crown crane and Euphrates Poplar trees, among others.

 Poverty alleviation

Just like the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China, Ghana, through the government and non-governmental agencies, has embarked on many poverty alleviation projects.

Some of them are the Livelihood Empowerment Against Poverty (LEAP) and School Feeding, Free Exercise Books and Free Uniforms programmes; the National Health Insurance Scheme and the Capitation Grant.

However, the gains made by the people for which such projects are embarked on are non-existent, unpublished, very minimal or unsustainable.

For instance, a study conducted by Prince Peprah, Geography and Rural Development Department of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST) in 2016 and published on March 2, 2017 found that: “The LEAP beneficiaries do not have other preferable productive livelihood assets needed to expand their livelihood options, largely due to the low amount paid coupled with irregularity of payment.”

The then World Bank Country Coordinator for Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, Mr Sergiy Kulyk, also stated in 2015 at the bank's office in Washington DC that the challenge in Ghana was how to translate its achievements per statistics to the people, saying the situation on the ground was "far from mission accomplished".

According to him, although Ghana was the first country in sub-Saharan Africa to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) One of reducing poverty and hunger ahead of the deadline of 2015, and had halved poverty, nine years down the line, about six million people still lived in poverty and 2.2 million more were living in extreme poverty.

There have also been suspicions around such projects or modules because they are not made transparent enough and the sudden affluence of some administrators has made the intended recipients perceive that the projects were rather intended to enrich a few people.

The integrated nature of poverty alleviation modules of Inner Mongolia and other parts of China are worth emulating to hasten the government’s desire to reduce the number of people living below the poverty line.