In the mountainous New Territories of Hong Kong, amidst sub-tropical forests and narrow pathways locates a clear terrain that appears like a hillside farmland. It used to be though, rented from the government on one Hong Kong dollar a month until almost the end of the British era. It now is a botanic garden.
Microfinance, anchored by Bangladeshi banker to the poor Muhammad Yunus,has become a worldwide household tale on the best possible way to lift up the poorest of the poor, the long forgotten bottom of the poverty pyramid. Its concept is to help the poor to help themselves, to provide a hands-up vehicle on which the needy could stand up on their own, so that improved livelihood can be sustained when the aid period is over.
Long before Yunus started his first experiment in 1974 in the newly independent but famine-stricken Bangladesh to lend a tiny amount, US$ 27-equivalent, to 42 villagers out of his own pocket, in the Far East, in Hong Kong, microlending was already in scalable operation, championed by the same brothers the today’s botanic garden was named after.
Lawrence (1899-1993) and Horace (1902-1995) Kadoorie, sons of the Baghdad-bornJewish entrepreneur Elly Kadoorie (1865-1944), started to take serious notice on the huge influxes of Mainland China refugees fleeing from civil war and Maoist political campaigns, mainly subsistence farmers from southern provinces, in the then British colony of Hong Kong in the late 1940s, when the brothers themselves returned to Hong Kong from Shanghai at the height of the communist party’s taking control over Mainland China. The refuges largely settled in indigenous villages in the New Territories or Outlaying Islands after leaving behind everything back at home that were unable to be taken with. The Kadoories soon concluded that in order to stabilise the refugee farmers’ lives their different needs must be treated differently. Subsistence needs can only possibly be met through pure charity whereas sustainability needs, maintaining or even improving level of livelihood that was alleviated through hands-out charity, must be met through microfinance. In 1951, the Kadoorie brothers approached government Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry for making a rocky barren hillside land at Cheung Sheung, Sai Kung available to settle 14 refugee farmers out of their own pocket. The project went ahead with providing free gifts of pigs and cement for building pigsties and interest-free micro loans to sell pork in urban areas once the farmers were settled down. This was the beginning of Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association (KAAA) which had been active in Hong Kong until 1970, providing a wide range of assistance from public work construction to animal and crop husbandry, with no exception to adopt interest-free micro loans whenever beneficiaries’ subsistence needs and crucial rural infrastructures, on land and at sea, that are indispensable to transport harvests to urban markets are satisfied. The repayment of microlending principals, in the brothers’ eyes, was a special training on life discipline to make the beneficiaries responsible for their own future once the aid period was completed.
In 1955 KAAA and the government jointly set up a revolving micro loan fund named Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Loan Fund (KAALF) to better facilitate the proliferation of their micro loan offerings. The legislature passed KAALF Ordinance the same year to incorporate the loan fund with contributions from both the brothers and government and. A governor-appointed committee was formed to managing the fund. The first committee chairman was then Director of Agricultural, Fisheries and Forestry William J Blackie, a New Zealand-born British imperial serviceman who later authored Kadoorie Agricultural Aid Association 1951-1971. From 1955 to 1970 a total of HK$ 23,445,994.64 was loaned to 51,990 people with next to zero (HK$ 59,935.93) bad debts written off. Out of the total lending HK$ 14,443,552 went to livestock feed.
In 1953 Blackie’s department established a small station on the slopes of what is today’s botanic garden to observe seasonal effects on crops at higher elevations and possibilities on extending crops planting into such environment. The Kadoorie brothers approached Blackie on assisting such experiment in order to carry out farmer training on the station’s land, which was eventually rented to the Kadoories on one Hong Kong dollar a month in 1956 in order to open the Kadoorie Experimental and Extension Farm, or the Kadoorie Farm. Since then the farm has been a distribution centre for KAAA assistances, a laboratory for cropping and breeding at different elevations, and a farmer training centre.
Farming in Hong Kong would soon, almost as soon as the Kadoories institutionalised microfinance operations, decline amidst rapid industrialisation and urbanidation. By early 1970s crop cultivation and poultry rearing in Hong Kong were all but disappeared. As a result KAAA’s active aid basically stopped in Hong Kong by 1970, a time when 321,000 farmers in 1,218 villages were served. The Kadoorie brothers then turned eyes to Nepal.
Historically Nepalese Gurkha young men were recruited by the British armed forces to fight in the same front. Some of recruits were stationed in Hong Kong in the post-war era. When they did retire they were often sent back home to farm. Before doing so, from 1968 until 1986, over 5,000 of them received professional farming training at the Kadoorie Farm, where the mountainous terrains and slopes resemble their home environment. KAAA also directly aided British-run agriculture centres in two locations in Nepal, where seeds, live stocks and fertilisers were transported by RAF conveyors from Hong Kong. Beyond helping ex-Gurkha soldiers the Kadoories also equally attended to local community needs in Nepal, mainly aimed at building clean water pipelines.
The Kadoories passed away in their nineties in the1990s, at the very end of British Empire. Shortly before that the two brothers, who shared same bank accounts all through life, decided to set up a Kadoorie Charitable Foundation on their family’s fortune, which was established in 1997 when both of them were gone. In 1995, legislation transformed Kadoorie Farm into a botanic garden, which existed until today but with a whole new different mission of preserving rare species for spectators and scientists and advocating for and educating on environmental protection.
Statistics provided by Hong Kong Heritage Project and Kadoorie Farm & Botanic Garden.
The author is Hong Kong-based trader and exhibition specialist and author of Grameen in Kosovo.