SIOUX CENTER, Iowa -- Two companies in ag-rich Sioux County are partnering in a new for-profit chicken, egg and grain businesses in Mozambique, one of the poorest countries in the world.
The project will start from near-scratch to bring modern agricultural practices and scale to a culture of subsistence farming that produces little surplus to take to market.
Overall unemployment in Mozambique is at 21 percent but probably closer to 90 percent in the area where they are focusing their efforts, according to Jeff Visser, of Visser Elevator in Sioux Center, one of the partners, along with his cousin, Chris Visser, in the new venture.
Another is Kim Dooyema, an owner with his brothers of Sioux Center-headquartered Center Fresh Egg. Dooyema lives in Wisconsin and works as a certified public accountant for a medical device company but grew up on the family egg farm in Sioux Center. He is spearheading the development of Center Fresh Africa in Mozambique, a country that currently imports eggs for retail sale.
Vison 'very ambitious'
Visser Elevator will eventually build a grain elevator and storage bins, making it possible to develop a grain market in the country, where lack of storage makes for erratic prices and an inability to compete internationally.
"Our vision is very ambitious," said Jes Tarp, another partner, who is based in Wisconsin and will serve as CEO of the African company. Tarp, who holds a doctorate in philosophy and a Master of Business Administration degree in global management, raised capital and started and runs a similar venture, a 21,000-acre grain farm in Ukraine.
Dooyema initially contacted Tarp, who decided to visit Mozambique to see if his company's Ukraine model would work there. He decided it would.
"It's going to be a very large project," he said. "Right now the farmers there till two to six acres and get very poor yields. We want to help them develop from subsistence to economic viability through a triple investment: economic, social, spiritual."
Visser agreed. "You build the economy through job creation, taxation, market development," he said. "If that works, you get social development -- a tech school, a higher skill level and more opportunity for more people." That in turn supports other enterprises, such as health care, better water, schooling and spiritual development by planting churches, he said.
"The government has no problem with churches, but we'll build the trust of the population first," he said. "We want to do well (financially), but also do good. It's a heart investment. You're looking not at handouts but at self-sufficiency."
The business plan unfolds in four parts over five years:
-- Growing and storing grain.
-- Helping existing local companies feed and process more chickens.
-- Feeding chickens to produce eggs.
-- Teaching locals to do the same.
To that end, the company will:
-- Prepare 25,000 acres of land to grow maize and soybeans.
-- Build an elevator and storage bins and develop grain markets.
-- Establish a technical school with ties to Dordt College in Sioux Center.
-- Become the premier seed producer of maize and soybeans in Mozambique.
Land clearing to start soon
First, the grain must be grown. To that end, the new venture -- incorporated in the United States as Aslan Global Management and in Mozambique as Rei Do Agro -- will begin in April clearing the first 2,500 acres of the 25,000 acres it owns in Matwali, near Nampula, the major city in the north of the country.
All the work will be done with manual labor. Visser said the work will provide jobs for hundreds of men, providing income for their families and giving the company a chance to see who the best workers are and who has the leadership skills to become a manager.
The first soybeans will be planted in late November for harvest next April or May. Corn, or maize, will come later. Beans were chosen to start with because the soil is best for them and farmers already grow them. And soybeans are less likely than corn to be stolen, Visser said.
Tarp said the area is excellent for growing corn and beans. Given the climate, which Tarp likens to far southern Florida, it will produce two crops a year. So, the 25,000 acres will produce 50,000 acres worth of grain after irrigation equipment is installed.
Preliminary work done
Before incorporating, the partners were already working with a number of nongovernmental organizations such as Partners Worldwide and Techno-Serve, which helped them make contacts and establish relationships with the appropriate agencies and officials in the Mozambican government for getting all the necessary permits and services required for the venture. Next it needed a local executive.
Tarp recruited Chish Mawoyo, a highly educated CPA with Chiquita Brands International, to be Aslan's general manager. The two met by chance several months ago on a flight from the capital, Maputo, to Nampula. Mawoyo was drawn to the project.
He'll be there to get the farm up and running.
"We chose Mozambique because of the demand for grain, the existing poultry industry and a climate suited to soy production," Visser said. Two relatively big broiler companies there have indicated they're interested in working with Aslan to grow and process more chickens, also to stabilize prices, making their products attractive for export.
Visser said feeding grain to chickens is the most cost-effective means of providing protein in the diet.
Currently eggs are imported from Zimbabwe or South America. They are expensive and are bought singly, not by the dozen. There is no refrigeration, so they often rot. Visser said the average Mozambican eats just eight eggs a year.
Aslan plans to change that, too. It will have a Center Fresh Africa facility with 5,000 to 6,000 laying hens there, possibly later this year.
Visser plans to build his grain elevator and bins there in a few years and will establish a modern grain marketing system. That will help moderate prices, allowing the farmers and two existing large poultry companies to modernize and compete on the world market, profitably.
Aslan's land adjoins a major dirt road that is scheduled for paving in a few years. It leads to an existing rail line that runs to the port of Nacala, the world's deepest natural harbor. Over time, Visser said, the railroad will be upgraded to better handle frequent strings of freight cars filled with grain and, perhaps, broilers and eggs, being shipped to other countries.