There is a saying among pastors. Whenever one encounters a scenario in ministry that is out of the ordinary, mind-boggling, or otherwise perplexing to ministry sensibilities, it is common to say something like, “Well they certainly didn’t teach THAT in seminary!”
While most of the time this comment is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that there is simply no way to fully prepare a person for all the challenges of ministry life. In our case, it has recently become just a simple fact– Chicken farming: they didn’t teach THAT in seminary!
As most of you are aware, from early on in our time here at the Baptist Theological Seminary of Zimbabwe, the most immediate problem we encountered and continue to face was the seminary’s financial viability. Long story short, through a history of well-intended mission efforts and transitions, the local Baptist Convention ended up with a management crisis which landed the seminary in a world of financial difficulty. But heading up this list of financial problems was the fact that none of the student body has been able to pay their school fees for a long period of time (>95% national unemployment will cause this). When we arrived, there were 15 students, only 3 of whom were able to cover their fees, and this was only due to sponsorships from outside of Zim. This meant that, for decades, the seminary continued to operate, but with little-to-no money—further running up debts.
Of course, our immediate response to this need was “can’t we just raise the money?” But the strategy of sourcing funds from the west and handing them out in poverty-stricken areas is actually one of the major errors that has damaged many developing economies and has specifically done a great deal of harm through missions in Africa over the years. What was needed here was not another handout of relief money, but an initiative of empowerment and long-term development. So, we started dreaming about what kind of strategy might enable our students to learn certain skills and work to provide funds for their own education/training, thereby generating more income for the seminary through school fees that are actually being paid….Enter agriculture.
If you know anything about Zimbabwe and its history, then you may have heard about how it used to be known as a “breadbasket of southern Africa” because of its rich agricultural heritage. Unfortunately with economic decline, this booming agricultural output has slowed in recent decades. But knowing the nation’s history, we figured any path forward financially for our seminary must be through agriculture as well. In God’s providence and timing, He brought us incredible partners from Reclaimed Project in Brett and Allison Barnhill who came to Zimbabwe to do, of all things, “agricultural consulting and training” (Coincidence? I think not!). Around the same time, we encountered a farmer in our area who operates a vibrant poultry business and has been looking to expand as the market demand for poultry is high and the supply is extremely low. The only thing he has lacked has been the startup capital for expansion. Meanwhile, one of the only things we did have in the way of agricultural input is access to some startup capital, but we didn’t have any infrastructure or networks to do anything with it. We had found a perfect match. So combining the efforts of IMB, Reclaimed Project, and the local farming community, with the help of some extremely generous donors, we began the creation of a project we are calling “Umambo Farm.” (“Umambo” is Shona for “kingdom”).
Umambo Farm will ultimately consist of two large poultry houses being constructed on the seminary campus (we have already completed the first one, construction photos below) and 20+ smaller-scale poultry houses scattered throughout the surrounding community. These houses collectively will be home to over 9,000 Hyline laying hens which will produce around 9,000 eggs per day at standard production rates for sale in the local supermarkets.
While this is an extremely viable and timely business model, the part I’m most excited about is the opportunity it will provide for training pastors. Each student who qualifies for our “work-study” scholarship will be employed to work part-time at Umambo Farm during the course of their seminary studies. I have made the comparison numerous times to how my employment at UPS paid my way through a Bachelors Degree because of their “Earn and Learn” program. Similarly here, by working 20 hours per week at Umambo Farm, our students can generate enough income to have their tuition, lodging, board, fees, etc. covered in full for each semester they work. And during the semester breaks, they can also continue to work additional hours for personal financial savings and gain.
In addition to earning their school fees, though, the students are also gaining invaluable training and experience in poultry methods. Eventually we hope to add courses in beef-fattening and cropping as well. These skills will be extremely useful as most (if not all) of our graduates will go into some form of bi-vocational ministry in which they will require some form of non-ministry related income to survive. These skills will also provide ministry opportunities in their own right as students can teach others these same skills for economic development in other impoverished communities. In the future, we hope to partner with a locally-based organization called Farming God’s Way to offer an official certification in each of these reproducible and sustainable agriculture methods so that our students can graduate with a certificate in both theology AND agriculture. We are even in the process of recruiting another IMB family to come and oversee the agricultural component of the seminary program. So while there have been many times I may have had to say to these farming ventures, “they didn’t teach me THAT in seminary,” by God’s grace future generations of students from BTSZ will be able to say, “Oh yes, we learned all of that at mine!”
Aside from the benefits to the seminary, there will also be a tremendous community impact from this project. In March, with the help of BGR, we will begin construction on what we hope to eventually be 20+ smaller-scale chicken houses scattered throughout the local community, Chiwundura. These chicken houses will enable individual households to create their own small business. We will provide the start-up funds to create a 200-bird poultry house in each of these 20+ locations and as long as these households (primarily widows, orphans, child-headed households, abandoned women, etc.) can properly manage them, they will be able to generate as much as $70-80 in personal income per month. While that may not sound like much to us, in an economy where the vast majority of people survive on $1-$2 per day, this is a hugely significant part-time job! So we are confident this project can not only benefit our seminary efforts, but can even help develop the local economy. We are praying the new IMB couple who comes to oversee this agri-business initiative will also be able to utilize this platform for evangelism and church planting in this underserved area.
Having just begun this project, we are more convinced now than ever that the way forward for community and economic development in Zimbabwe and the whole of Africa is through sustainability projects, not simply through aid. Of course, donations and support are critical to the work we do, but more of these need to be invested strategically not simply dispersed to meet direct needs. Because of this one simple project, a seminary that was once squeaking along with only 3 paid students out of a student body of 15 will, this semester, have around 26 full-time students who will each be 100% fully funded. In addition, a community with little-to-no employment opportunities will see an influx of 20+ small businesses that will provide income for individual households and, in turn, stimulate the local economy.
And none of this is even to mention the significant spiritual good accomplished by initiating development projects like this. By seeking to restore individuals and communities to a place where they can provide for themselves and their families through God-glorifying, image-bearing, and soul-dignifying work, we feel we are adorning the Gospel of the Kingdom that we preach and teach with visible and tangible “signs” of what the Kingdom of God on earth was intended to (and someday will again!) look like. So as we begin the process of harvesting, packaging, and marketing our poultry products here in the Zimbabwe market places for the glory of God under the logo “Umambo Farm,” please join us in praying what will be the the tag-line of our logo– “Umambo ngauuye,” (trans. “Let thy Kingdom come.”).