Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Trip Number 66 (July 18 thru Aug. 2, 2009)

Saturday morning found me back at the Oklahoma City airport for another journey to the wilds of western Kenya. This time I went through Houston and then on to Paris for the first leg of the journey. As I departed Houston at 3:30 in the afternoon, I couldn’t get into my usual sleep pattern. I spent most of the trip working on the design and engineering of our fish feed plant and the fish processing plant.

Our long awaited aquaculture facility is finally under construction. We’ve been breeding a “super tilapia” since 2004 with outstanding results. Lake-caught tilapia typically yield 24% usable meat while we have achieved an average of 35% flesh to total weight – an increase of almost 50%. This is significant, as consumers pay for meat – not bones. But this selective breeding process has been time-consuming and costly.

The principal buildings will be constructed almost entirely from materials currently on hand and recycled from other projects on the farm. The feed mill will be a simple structure, requiring only a concrete floor, frame and roof with the sides mostly open to dissipate the heat. The processing plant, on the other hand, is a very tightly constructed cold-storage plant. Years ago during our rice breeding phase, we built a large greenhouse that is no longer needed. It will be disassembled, relocated, modified and become the frame for the plant. Few in equatorial Africa insulate their building due to the mild climate, but this will be the exception. The walls will be thick and filled with rice husks, while the attic space will be heaped with the same byproduct, providing extremely high insulation values. As the hours flew by, each design fell into place and I identified so many building materials on the farm that are no longer needed for their original purposes. The old boom from the crane will become a center beam, concrete forms will turn into ceiling joists, and many things previously discarded will be useful again. It is as if these materials were just biding their time while waiting for their next job. In Africa you learn to use what you have.

The Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris is a difficult place to get around, somewhat like the maze at JFK in New York. After 30 minutes of walking, waiting, and bus riding, I was at the proper terminal. I was beat – having been awake for some 30 hours – and then discovered that I had no seat assignment. At the ticket counter for Kenya Airways, God must have let the lady know this as she handed me a business class ticket and pass to the first class lounge. The next three hours passed quickly and I departed the City of Lights in total comfort. After a good meal I was perfectly flat and fast asleep. All was good. In Nairobi, all my bags and I made it through the endless immigration line and I was off to the hotel.

First meeting was at 10:30 a.m. I was on a mission to purchase the piping for the fish farm, a very large order. We were not getting competitive prices from the brokers, so my driver and I were on the road at 7:00 a.m. in search of manufacturers. We got the same old run around from some, thinking I was just another dumb, rich American. By 10:00 I had cut a deal with the largest pipe manufacturer in the nation – saving a cool $20,000 for the morning’s work.

Next, we met up with the people from Feed the Children in Kenya. Larry Jones has quite the operation in Nairobi, feeding over a hundred thousand children a day and taking care of handicapped and abandoned babies. Over the years they have acquired three pieces of prime property, two of which are undeveloped. One is highly suited for upscale residences or apartments while the other is industrial land. Both are ripe for development and there is a pressing need for another center for abandoned kids and handicapped children on the side of the city where the industrial land is located. This would include a compound with a school, dorms, medical facilities and vocational training venues. I believe that if both properties are properly developed, they can produce enough income to support a substantial outreach to these children. As an accommodation to Larry Jones, I’ll undertake some research and planning to see what is feasible and how these assets may be put to their highest and best use.

That afternoon I flew to Kisumu and was met by a driver from the farm. As is my practice, I look forward to that last turn in the road before the vista of the farm opens up below me. The weather was dry and it was harvest time. Only two fields were left to be harvested and replanting had already begun. Clouds of dust trailed behind the tractors as they plowed in preparation for seeding the next crop. Supper was on the table and it was good to be home again. That evening passed quickly as I caught up on my emails.

By 5:00 a.m. I had rousted Ronald Boone and by 6:00 we were in the field getting the men started and solving the logistical problems of the day. A few tractors are always down for repairs but Doug’s crew presses on in the workshop – returning them to the rigors of the fields as quickly as possible.

The farm looks good and finally we are able to replant those fields destroyed by the hailstorm of January this year. Over 350 acres of crops were destroyed in a burst of hail tracking right along the equator. It then took four months of growing out the rotten seed left on the ground before those fields could be returned to production. Two lost cycles on 350 acres of paddies in 2008-2009 equates to 700 acres of lost rice production. Strange as it seems, we must now view ice as a threat on the equator.

Our fish operation has received a boost via a grant from the African Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF). These people have it right, providing funding to established businesses which will have huge, predictable impacts on the impoverished masses. Dominion Farms competed against businesses throughout Africa and won a repayable grant of almost US$1 million. We’re buying and shipping equipment as fast as possible from the U.S. and construction is now underway here in Kenya. Our crews are clearing land for fish ponds, hauling in gravel to the site, and staging materials on site. By the middle of August we will have 80,000 fingerlings in the first pond. It will be October, 2010 before we get our first harvest of 700-gram tilapia, a date just around the corner by African standards. The planning and layout must be absolutely correct to keep the perfect quantity and speed of water flowing through the ponds. Once the system is turned on it can never be turned off without killing millions of fish, so every element of construction is checked and double checked. Ultimately each tank will hold at least 300,000 fish. With 32 ponds in total, that’s a lot of fish.

Our 2,400 chickens are looking great and our homemade chicken feed is doing well. We are now at 96% of the egg production as compared with production using expensive commercial feeds, all using our own production with mostly in-house waste products. The egg yokes are brilliant bright yellow due to the high protein content of our foods. Free chicken meat and high quality eggs are great, but what we’re really after is the chicken manure for growing the duckweed used in our fish feed.

The shop is running well, but with the tractors running 12 hours a day, all year long, breakdowns are common. The rice mill was down for a week as the generator was damaged by employee negligence. The mill worker assigned to watch the machine and monitor the gauges every minute decided to wander off, and of course at that time a hose sprung a leak. Our old Caterpillar standby generator will hopefully keep us going.

Early mornings are beautiful here. The quiet of the day is broken by the sound of big diesels coming out of their night’s rest as the sun breaks over the horizon. The smell of fresh turned earth is in the air and the birds arriving by the hundreds. Eagles on the rocks, egrets following the plows, storks fishing in the canals and guineas scampering across the fields. It’s hard to imagine without seeing it.

On Thursday we received an invitation to meet with the President and Prime Minister on Friday afternoon, so at noon Steve and I left for Kisumu. They were delayed so we went to the markets to see how our rice was selling. At one store we were told how Prime Harvest rice is almost flying off the shelves and we witnessed it ourselves. We are the high quality, low priced, best value in the marketplace, with a growing customer base. Over the past six months we have established a string of over 20 distributors, are leading rice sales in several supermarkets, and have established a significant market presence in Uganda. Such rapid growth has been stressful on our sales team and on our cash flow, but the near-term prospects are gratifying. We’ll press on until we dominate the market.

The politicians finally arrived (five hours late) but it was a grand affair. This was the first time since the political unrest of January, 2008, that the President had visited Nyanza province. It appeared to be a healing event for many, but who knows how long the goodwill will last? After all, this is Africa.

Saturday was a great day. Our rice distributors were invited to the farm and it was the first time for some. They toured the rice fields and the mill to get a much better understanding of the process involved in getting the rice to their shelves. Government officials arrived to assist with our certification as an Enterprise Processing Zone for the fish processing plant. This certification has been four years in the making and it finally looks as if it is about to happen.

That afternoon I met the youth of Daraja (a village south of the farm) with a message of hope and help. These young people have no jobs, no land and no money – just a life of despair. We are about to change this, at least for a few. For the past month our youth training program has been underway with resounding success. The initial group of 27 students are learning aquaculture, horticulture and building construction. We can only handle this number, as our classroom space is limited to the use of our boardroom. They have constructed a chicken coop and are about to start raising free-range chickens. We have isolated 22 acres of irrigated fields to plant in maize, vegetables, fruit trees, bananas and fish ponds. These kids are working hard and learning well.

The next phase of the youth program is about to really take off. In May of 2008 the youth leaders of the area asked for guidance and help. The aftermath of a war and the hailstorm caused delays, but now we are ready to respond. We have announced a small scale fish program to develop a series of co-operatives of youths to raise fish on a contract basis. Teams of 10-12 will be formed and will each be given 2 acres of lakefront property for aquaculture. Dominion Farms will train, provide resources, knowledge and market for the product. We initially have land for 100 of such groups or up to 1,200 young people. If they work hard and guard their assets wisely, within a year they will begin to make good money and gain a promising future. About 60 young people showed up and there was excitement in the air. At11:00 p.m. a soft and steady rain started to fall, providing needed relief from the dust and giving life to the 300 acres of rice seed we have planted in the last few days. God is good.

Sunday morning Josh, Chris, and I left for Kisumu, to speak to some leaders there about the many activities at the farm. By the time we arrived, however, they had left for more ceremonies involving President Kibaki. It would be a four hour wait so we took Josh to the supermarket for his first shopping experience in Kenya, then had lunch and tea. On the way out of town, we visited a fish processing plant to see if there was any excess equipment for sale. They no longer process tilapia since there is none to be had, only a dwindling supply of Nile Perch. We arrived in Siaya around 2:00 p.m. and within a few minutes there was a full auditorium of youth eager to hear the presentation about our fish program for contract growers. We also had bankers from all three banks. We finished at 6:00 p.m. with assured support from the banks and the beginning formation of a strong voice of the youth in the community. From this group and the one the previous day we should start to see the green shoots of entrepreneurship, responsibility, patience, honesty, discipline and market awareness.

The workday at Dominion Farms begins at 6:30 a.m., as the day’s activities are planned and prayers are said by our workers. Chris and I accompanied Ronald for his usual morning tour of the farm, directing where the tractors should go and taking care of the workers in the fields. This is a great way to see the farm as we travel to the far corners of the developed land and beyond. Before the start of the last big rains, we were able to clear around 700 acres of land and as the mud recedes we again can get into many of these areas to plow and clear weeds. By mid-October, 500 more of these acres should be planted.

The day passed very quickly with job interviews, engineering calculations and planning sessions. In the afternoon Chris, Ronald, and I took a 4-hour drive to see a government fish farm that uses our fingerlings. It is for demonstration purposes only, but interesting.

Tuesday began with finalizing designs and construction methods for the fish ponds. We needed a good source of gravel and that was located only a mile away. The duckweed ponds are coming along well but need a source of fresh water so trenches are being dug. Between the duckweed ponds we are planting banana trees with 5,000 already in the fields. In one of our rice fields the surveyors made a mistake and placed the levies in the wrong location which caused a lot of problems and will require rebuilding to salvage the field. It is so difficult to transfer modern technology to people who just do not understand what we are doing, but it is part of our job here to teach. After a trip to Kisumu to see our electrical contractor; we were all back at the farm and I was off for a walk. This time, however, I decided to visit the villages. Kids and adults came out from everywhere and all seemed to know my name. Beautiful little children with big smiles, no shoes and torn, dirty clothes, but they were wonderful. We talked and walked and played for an hour and then it was time to get inside before the mosquitoes came out. It was now getting late and I had to pack for the trip back to Nairobi.

Wednesday morning was time to wrap things up on the farm, making last minute schedules for the next six weeks, taking a few pictures, and answering last minute questions. Then I was off to Kisumu for the flight to Nairobi. I sat on the plane next to a 22-year old woman, Maureen, now supporting two of her brothers and sisters after both parents and an older brother had died of AIDS. The evening was spent with our electrical engineer who has been trying to get the hydropower plant at our dam approved by the authorities. It looks as if we are finally almost there.

Thursday started at 7:00 for breakfast with a former Member of Parliament and a Deputy Minister from the treasury to discuss various issues including the up and coming fish program for ourselves and outgrowers. The government is currently appropriating funds for outgrowers and it looks as if our people will qualify. The remainder of the day was spent in meetings with the other companies who also have been awarded AECF funds for business development. Many good companies from around the world, but I was the only American there. Americans seem to flock to Africa for Christian evangelism, tourism, and humanitarian efforts but shy away from investing real capital and effort in building the continent’s economy. This must change.

Each company made a presentation of their business plans and many are very good ideas which will make a real impact on their bottom line and the welfare of the surrounding communities. I was particularly impressed by a large sugar cane company that was doing a $3.0 million dollar expansion for the total benefit of the surrounding community. They make good money already but want to reach out to their neighbors as well. We had much in common, as not all profit is measured in dollars. I hope our fish out-grower program works like this as well. Mine was the last presentation done on Friday morning and was well received with many questions. The presenters had many requests to come to their countries and help there. Who knows what may come about in time, but for now I must get our own farm finished and profitable. By noon I was off to the Feed the Children compound to see the babies and the handicapped children. It is a well run operation but is always stretched financially. Those other properties will somehow need to be converted for these purposes. By 4:00 I was checking in at the Ethiopian Airlines ticket counter for the a flight to London via Addis Abbaba and Rome. In Addis there is a new terminal but there are smokers everywhere (especially the Chinese), so the stay was unpleasant. I arrived in London at 8:30 a.m. but without my luggage and I was tired. After an hours napping at the Sheraton, I was in meetings regarding fish sales in Britain, shipping options and various other things. A good traditional meal of fish and chips ended the day.

By five thirty I was on the bus to Heathrow Airport and the morning flight to Houston. Just as I was anxious to see the farm in Kenya I am even more eager to see Sue waiting at the airport to welcome me back. She always looks so great.

This has been a very productive few weeks and the farm is coming into shape slowly but surely. There have been so many obstacles along the way and there will continue to be, but real change is coming to the area as the vestiges of poverty and sickness are slowly broken. Light is beginning to shine through to the eyes of the people as hope builds in their hearts for a better future. The youth are getting organized to take control of their future, breaking the traditions of the past which have kept them in bondage so long.

I hope Dominion can live up to the task of providing the guidance to lead them out of their wilderness.

Calvin Burgess, CEO

Dominion Farms LTD.


Ron Stull said...

Thanks for your latest post. I always enjoy hearing of your progress and they also provide some inspiration to get our little venture moving quicker. Although the pace at which we seem to be moving is great training to adjust ourselves to Kenya time.

Great to see the Tilapia program is off and running strong. I look forward to a time when we can visit the farm once again and see the operation.

Best Regards,

Ron STull

Gloria Swenson said...

Good to here of your progress. Keep up the good work and thanks for investing in Kenya.

Eric Swenson
Kisumu Missionary

Gloria Swenson said...

I enjoyed hearing details of your recent trip to Kenya. Keep up the good work. Thanks for investing in this country.

Eric Swenson, Kisumu

Anonymous said...

I am an inhabitant of the dominion farms area, still at the university. I must say that am very proud of you, Calvin. I fist saw you in 2004 and you really impressed me. Thanks for your investment and keep up the spirit