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From farm to botanic garden

The Kadoorie brothers in Hong Kong had a microfinance outreach up and running decades before Muhammad Yunus made his first tentative steps in the area

In the mountainous New Territories of Hong Kong, amidst sub-tropical forests and narrow pathways, there is a clear terrain that looks for all the world like hillside farmland.

In fact it used to be. The land was rented from the government for one dollar a month until almost the end of the British era. It is now a botanic garden.

The concepts of microfinance and social business were popularised by Bangladeshi banker to the poor, Muhammad Yunus, who became a household name worldwide, taking centre stage as an expert on the best way to raise those living at the long-forgotten bottom of the poverty pyramid up, so they could stand strong on their own two feet and become people who could help themselves.

Yunus often spoke about why simple hand-out charity wouldn’t sustain people in the long run and what the poor truly needed was a vehicle, or kick start, on the self-sustaining path toward subsistence and a better livelihood.

Microcredit aims to offer such a hand-up partnership and the social business concept aims to sustain the endeavour for the long run.

But before Yunus ventured into his first experiment in 1974 in the newly independent, famine-stricken Bangladesh, by handing the equivalent of US$27 ($209.25) to 42 villagers out of his own pocket, microcredit had already become an established operation in Hong Kong.

It had already been championed by two brothers whose name the botanic garden bears to this day—Lawrence (1899 to 1993) and Horace (1902 to 1995) Kadoorie.

The sons of the Baghdad-born Jewish entrepreneur, Elly Kadoorie (1865 to 1944), took serious note of the huge influx of refugees fleeing into Hong Kong from mainland China in the late 1940s and early 1950s, at the same time as they themselves were packing up their belongings in Shanghai to seek safety in the then-British colony.

But unlike the Kadoories, many of the refugees had been subsistence farmers from the southern provinces, the majority of them arriving with nothing and heading to the indigenous villages in the New Territories or outlying islands.

The Kadoories believed that giving the lives of the refugee farmers some stability demanded a multi-pronged approach, as their needs varied considerably. 

Supplying subsistence needs could be done through charity, but the next step, sustainability, was a more difficult challenge.

The subsistence life achieved through charity had to be built upon and developed, and the two brothers saw the way forward as being microfinance.

In 1951, the Kadoorie brothers approached the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry to make a rocky, barren hillside at Cheung Sheung, Sai Kung, available to 14 refugee farmers, who would settle there, farm the land and make ends meet themselves.

The project went ahead with the free provision of pigs, as well as concrete to build the sties and an interest-free micro-loan to market their pork in the urban areas.

This was the beginning of the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association, which remained active in Hong Kong until 1970. It provided a wide range of assistance to people, from public works and construction, to animal and crop husbandry.

All was achieved with interest-free micro-loans to put the essential infrastructure for marketing produce from both land and sea in place.

In the eyes of the brothers, the principle of micro-loan repayment was special training in the personal discipline people need to realistically take responsibility for their own lives beyond the hand-out stage.

In 1955, the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association and the government jointly set up a revolving micro-loan fund, named the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Loan Fund, to manage the fast growing micro-loan business.

The governor-appointed legislature passed an ordinance incorporating the fund in the same year. The fund was to include the contributions coming from both the Kadoorie brothers and the government, and a governor-appointed committee to manage the fund was set up as well.

The first chairperson was the then-director of the Agricultural, Fisheries and Forestry Department, William J. Blackie, a New Zealand-born British imperial serviceman, who later authored the book, Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association 1951 to 1971.

From 1955 to 1970, a total of $23,445,994.64 was loaned to 51,990 people with a mere $59,935.93 in bad debts that had to be written off. Out of the overall total, $14,443,552 went to livestock feed.

In 1953 Blackie’s department established a small station on the slopes of what today is the botanic garden, to observe seasonal effects on crops at higher elevation and research the possibilities of extending planting land into such an environment.

The Kadoorie brothers approached Blackie to assist with this work in order to train the farmers in crop experimentation on the station land, which was eventually rented to the Kadoories at one Hong Kong dollar a month in 1956.

This saw the opening of the Kadoorie Experimental and Extension Farm, or as it was more popularly known, the Kadoorie Farm.

Since then, the farm has been a distribution centre for assistance from the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association, a laboratory for cropping and breeding at different elevations and a farm management training centre.

But almost as soon as the Kadoories had institutionalised the microfinance operations, farming began to decline in Hong Kong, amidst rapid industrialisation and urbanisation.

By the early 1970s, crop cultivation and poultry rearing had all but disappeared from the colony. As a result, the association’s active aid programme had basically stopped by 1970, but 321,000 farmers in 1,218 villages had been served.

The Kadoorie brothers then turned their eyes toward Nepal.

Historically, Nepali Gurkhas were recruited as soldiers by the British armed forces and in the post-war era, some of them were stationed in Hong Kong. When they eventually retired from the army, many of them were sent back home to Nepal to farm.

But from 1968 until 1986, over 5,000 of them received professional training in farming at the Kadoorie Farm before they left Hong Kong. 

It was an ideal location, because the mountainous terrain and slopes of the area closely resemble the environment the Gurkhas were returning to in Nepal.

In addition, the Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association directly assisted British-run agricultural centres at two locations in Nepal by providing seeds, livestock and fertiliser, all transported by the Royal Air Force from Hong Kong to Nepal.

On top of the help given to the ex-soldier Gurkhas, the Kadoories paid close attention to local community needs in Nepal, mainly in the area of the provision of clean, running water.

The two brothers, who shared the same bank accounts all through life, decided to set up a Kadoorie Charitable Foundation with their family fortune.

However, although they lived to be more than 90, they left this world before their dream was fulfilled, dying before it was finally established in 1997.

In 1995, new legislation transformed the Kadoorie Farm into a botanic garden, which still exists today, but with the new mission of preserving rare species.

It is a place where visitors, scientists and advocates for environmental protection can study the rarities and great variety of nature.

By Hongyu Wang, a Hong Kong-based trader and exhibition specialist, and author of Grameen in Kosovo. Statistics provided by the Hong Kong Heritage Project and Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.