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From the first egg to future hen operation

Farmers’ leadership skills are making a humanitarian difference, like Project Canaan in tiny Swaziland

Roger Pelissero gets choked up when he talks about his time in Swaziland as part of a humanitarian effort called Project Canaan. The words that come to him are the only ones he can think to say. “We take so much for granted,” he says.

Pelissero sees eggs every day as an egg farmer from the Niagara Peninsula in Ontario, but even so he had never really felt what an egg can mean in quite the same way as the day he watched young children at the Swazi orphanage eat hard-boiled eggs for the first time.

Pelissero is part of a team from the Egg Farmers of Canada that’s working with Heart for Africa, a non-governmental organization that has set up an orphanage and a 2,500-acre farm called Project Canaan in Swaziland, one of Africa’s smallest countries.

men standing in front of a world map

From across Canada, egg producers are setting goals for African assistance.
photo: Supplied

Located adjacent to South Africa, Swaziland has been devastated by the HIV/AIDS pandemic. It has the highest prevalence of HIV infection in the world, with 43 per cent of adults affected.

With their parents dead, dying or incapacitated, more than 200,000 children are orphaned, says Tim Lambert, CEO, Egg Farmers of Canada.

Now, Egg Farmers of Canada plans to build a barn for egg layers at their Project Canaan farm. Through an established network of 27 churches, eggs from the farm will not only feed the children living on site in the orphanage, but will also supply valuable protein and nutrients to about 200 farm workers, as well as to thousands of others in need in nearby settlements.

Eggs are among the most accessible forms of protein. “They are the perfect product to feed a hungry world,” Lambert says. Hens have many advantages over other livestock, he explains. They are small, easy to handle, efficient and productive. They can be farmed on a small or large scale, and at the end of their life cycle, they can be used for meat.

Founded by Canadians Janine and Ian Maxwell, the farm is already producing fruits, vegetables, coffee and a small herd of goats. Milk is pasteurized on site before it is distributed. Coffee and vegetables are sold and the profits are used to help sustain the farm. “The egg farm will be the crown jewel of the project,” says Lambert.

Manitoba egg producer Kurt Siemens visited Project Canaan in June 2014. “We had to see if it made sense to go ahead with the barn,” he says. They did a preliminary feasibility study to answer basic questions like: Is there access to water and feed? Is there a good site for the barn?

The farmers were impressed with what they saw at Project Canaan and with how much the Maxwells had accomplished in just a few short years. Since moving there with their children in 2012, the Maxwells have installed three dams and a water filtration system as well as drip irrigation to grow vegetables, says Lambert.

In October, another group from Egg Farmers of Canada including Pelissero visited Swaziland to meet with potential suppliers. Eagle’s Nest, a local farm owned by a father-son team, is willing to supply ready-to-lay pullets, plus feed and veterinary services and they are also signing up to buy any excess eggs.

On that trip, the Canadian egg farmers were also able to source construction materials and equipment and get prices for everything so they could establish a budget.

The plan is to have 5,000 laying hens in cages and another 1,500 free-range hens. (There is demand for free-range eggs by the ex-pats living in Swaziland. The revenue from the sale of eggs will help with the financial sustainability of the farm.) An egg cooker will be used to hard boil the eggs so they can be vacuum packed for easier distribution, says Lambert.

Pelissero, Siemens and the other farmers involved donated their time to develop the plan. A life-long supporter of charities, Siemens says it was great to be able to contribute his expertise in construction and chicken farming directly to the project. “It’s something I have first-hand knowledge in.”

men carrying children in Africa

At work, egg producers Tim Lambert (l), and Kurt Siemens (r), with Ian Maxwell of Heart for Africa.
photo: Supplied

So far, there are 81 children living in the orphanage at Project Canaan, all under the age of four. The children arrive as infants, usually malnourished and sick. There are many social problems in this tiny impoverished kingdom the size of the state of New Jersey. Rape is common and young girls are forced into prostitution to feed their younger siblings. Mothers are forced to abandon their children because they cannot care for them.

At the Project Canaan orphanage, the children are loved, fed and educated, says Lambert. So far the Maxwells have built a baby house and a toddler house. Additional housing will be built for children left destitute by the AIDs crisis.

Part of Project Canaan’s goal is to educate the children and teach them vocational skills so they can one day break the cycle of poverty and ignorance. “The children will not be adopted out. Instead they will be taught skills and hopefully they can rebuild society when they grow up,” says Lambert.

A medical clinic at the farm serves not only the orphans and farm workers but also the outlying communities.

Project Canaan is also having an impact back here in Canada. Pelissero says visiting Project Canaan was a humbling experience. “Words cannot describe the impact the trip had on me.”

Siemens agrees. “It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been there.” Both men recommend this type of experience to others.

Lambert says that for years the Egg Farmers of Canada has shown social responsibility through its support for food banks and school nutrition programs at home in Canada. It was through their membership in the International Egg Commission, however,  that board members began to see opportunities for the egg to play a more significant role on an international scale.

In addition to Project Canaan, the Egg Farmers of Canada is involved in a capacity building project in Africa that would help small-scale farmers improve their production practices though education.

The next phase at Project Canaan is to raise the necessary funds, says Lambert. They are hoping to raise $1 million to make it viable for the next seven years. After that they hope the egg-laying operation will be self-sustaining.

If the fundraising effort is successful, construction can begin in spring 2015 with production starting in the fall.

The Egg Farmers of Canada is encouraging their partners and organizations with an interest in agriculture development to support the project. Donations can be made online on the Heart for Africa website.

This article was originally published as “The first egg” in the Feb. 3, 2015 issue of Country Guide

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