For over 100 years, the Abayudaya (“People of Judah”) community has been devoutly practicing Judaism in their villages near the city of Mbale, in eastern Uganda.
Their five synagogues cooperatively share an organization called the Abuyadaya Men’s Club.
The Men’s Club leaders, Allan and Sam, have been pursuing ideas that might support their communities, ideas especially urgently needed during the extreme lockdown times of COVID.
While the Federation of Jewish Men’s Clubs (FJMC) and the Kulanu organization had provided some support, a new proposal to establish an Abayudaya community chicken broiler farm would be a larger, less-manageable venture.
My former Newton Highlands neighbor, David, came across the proposals.
While the broiler farm proposal seemed on paper to be a good idea for the Abayudaya community in Uganda, the FJMC executive team realized that they had no way to evaluate, let alone manage, a broiler farm.
David remembered that in the African country of Ethiopia, I have established large-scale factories and farms, and that one of those farms was raising a large flock of chicken egg layers. So David passed along the Abayudaya broiler farm proposal to me.
My first reaction to the Abayudaya proposal was that it was a limited rural project.
My interests are initiating serious African projects that have potential as significant long-term game-changers. Interesting projects, to my general thinking, are technical learning opportunities that result in permanently change through modern efficiency, data collection, and engineering improvements.
The stakes are high. We in the U.S. may not understand the unforgiving realities faced by poor African communities.
A safari trip will not prepare us for the challenge of clearing imported equipment through an African country’s customs authorities, nor for the severe lack of foreign exchange (e.g., U.S. dollars) required to purchase goods, nor the logistics challenges of a landlocked country such as Uganda, nor the maze of regulations and tax laws. Nor for the inter-clan jealousies, the regional tensions, nor the fighting between the down-Nile-River countries (Egypt and Sudan) versus the 15 up-Nile-River countries (one of which is Uganda). Nor for the scarcity of nutrients, tools, paved roads … a lack of everything we enjoy here every day, living the U.S.
I like challenges. Challenges can be overcome. For example, during the past 20 years, my NGO has established a large network of engineering education enrichment centers across sub-Saharan African countries, and helped to create export farms and industrial companies in Ethiopia.
So, how to begin a community chicken broiler farm in eastern Uganda? Longtime Temple Emeth friend (and retired MIT-trained engineer) Richard Gray joined our adventurous group. Now we became four members of a glorious team: Allan and Sam in Uganda, and Richard and myself in the Boston suburbs, 9,000 miles away.
We agreed on a grand bargain: I would fund the project, on the condition that our Abayudaya broiler farm be constructed and run as a professional operation, similar to a technical STEM engineering project, complete with data collection and analysis.
The bargain was accepted.
That brought us into a harmony with the expertise freely shared by the Ugandan government’s local outputs for agriculture and veterinary services, including chicken expertise.
Extra education was provided by our chosen chicken breeder, Biyinzika in Kampala.
Note that Idi Amin’s terrible reign occurred before Allan and Sam were born! The famous Raid on Entebbe in 1976 is a story they learned from their parents.
Uganda hopes to modernize.
But utility electricity had not yet come to our rural area, so we needed to establish solar power, including battery storage systems. Luckily, some shops in Kampala stocked what we needed. And nearer to our farm, a firebrick factory manufactured the components needed to construct the walls of our 900-square-foot broiler house. Surprising to me, we were able to purchase unusual technical items, such as digital thermometers, digital weighing scales, wood-based litter bedding, LED light bulbs, heat light bulbs, and wall-mounted cooling fans. Especially important to chick raising, we were able to purchase COVID-style personal protection equipment, to maintain both the workers’ health and the flock’s biosecurity.
Starting with a plot of bare ground, after three months our broiler farm was ready to welcome its first flock of day-old chicks. About 504 unfeathered, exhausted day-old chicks survived the grueling five-hour trip from Kampala. Yet in a few days, the chicks were gaining strength, weight, and size in their new heated home.
Our preparedness came in handy. Raising large chicken flocks in Africa will surely not encounter the kinds of problems experienced by a few chicks in the backyard of an American home, fed by bags of chicken feed from Amazon.
Despite the many challenges of COVID restrictions, we have now completed two cycles of growing healthy broiler chickens and brought them to market, as well as donated some chickens to the elderly and widowed as a community service. Cycle number three is underway. Our quarter-acre original farm is also serving as our experimental test bed, e.g., to test a nipple drinker system that is adjusted vertically as the broilers grow; no longer will the chicks spill water onto their wooden litter bedding, nor drink from fouled water, and soon we will more accurately measure the relationship between water consumption versus ambient temperature.
Another beneficial result: The Abayudaya are a tiny minority, even in their villages. The farming knowledge we have already passed to the surrounding rural communities has led to a new respect and camaraderie between all the different religious groups.
We think of our original farm as a pilot farm. I recently helped the Abayudaya Men’s Club purchase the land for a hugely scaled-up successor farm. We are gearing up for the front-loaded capital expense and construction of the new 15-acre farm. But this time, we have the experience, data, and knowledge, all gleaned from the experience of our pilot farm.
Every Friday morning for the past five months, we end our WhatsApp voice and data meetings with a “Shabbat Shalom,” in time for Allan and Sam to run off to each of their Erev Shabbat family dinners.
Mark Gelfand is the founder of STEMpower (stempower.org), an international NGO that to date has established 57 STEM Centers in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Rwanda, Kenya, Tanzania, as well as additional sub-Saharan African countries with STEM Centers in different stages of completion. Many of those countries have local Jewish communities. STEMpower’s many partners include participating Israeli embassies that discuss with national government ministries a plan to deploy and establish STEM Centers, which become assets of the local countries. No international agencies nor other developed nations (besides Israel) have helped advance the mission, but effectiveness and efficiency can no longer be ignored. Within a year, they will have established a total of 80 operating STEM Centers, at relatively modest cost, with even more countries lining up for access to hands-on engineering enrichment transferred to perhaps a million deserving African youth.