'Start with the food, then we can worry about the mezuzah'

How homegrown data-driven farming may save sub-Saharan Africa’s Jews from starvation

Currently surviving through food aid and donors, 10 countries’ Jewish communities come together to share best practices for scientifically proven farming schemes seeded by a US Jew

Deputy Editor Amanda Borschel-Dan is the host of The Times of Israel's Daily Briefing and What Matters Now podcasts and heads up The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology coverage.

  • A worker at the poultry pilot project run by the Abayudaya Men's Club Association, near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)
    A worker at the poultry pilot project run by the Abayudaya Men's Club Association, near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)
  • The Namanyonyi Abayudaya synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)
    The Namanyonyi Abayudaya synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)
  • An Abayudaya elected communal leader at the Namanyonyi village at her synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. A mother of twins, she is accorded the honorific 'nalongo' title. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    An Abayudaya elected communal leader at the Namanyonyi village at her synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. A mother of twins, she is accorded the honorific 'nalongo' title. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Members of the Abayudaya Men's Club Association at the Namanyonyi synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
    Members of the Abayudaya Men's Club Association at the Namanyonyi synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
  • Members of the Lemba Jewish community of Zimbabwe at prayer. (courtesy)
    Members of the Lemba Jewish community of Zimbabwe at prayer. (courtesy)

MBALE, Uganda — An unusual experiment in data-driven agriculture is underway in the Abayudaya Jewish community in rural Uganda: a pilot poultry farm. From the moment chicks arrive at a day old until their sale at day 36, nearly every move and morsel they take ends up charted on a carefully cultivated spreadsheet.

A thousand chickens in a room the size of an average American bedroom is an impressive sight and sound. But, founded in 2021, the AMC Pilot Broiler Farm is now on its way to upscale over 20 times after the purchase of the Jewish community’s first-ever owned piece of land of approximately 6 hectares.

The Times of Israel was recently invited to Uganda to witness the next steps of the poultry project — which, with a profit margin of 15-20 percent for each batch of chicks is an unqualified success — and meet Sam Muwalani and Allan Zilaba, the dreamers who are determined to take their Abayudaya communities off the charity train.

“Inspired by Jewish values, we empower people in poverty to be more self-reliant and self-sustaining,” the two wrote in a prospectus on their agricultural project’s vision. As a result, they state, their organization, the Abayudaya Men’s Club, is engaging in what they describe as “strategic economic activities.”

According to a recent 2023 United Nations global poverty index, 534 million of the global 1.1 billion people who live in “acute multidimensional poverty” are from sub-Saharan Africa. The region’s minuscule Jewish communities dotting 10 of the area’s countries are likewise not immune.

In Africa, each Jewish community has its own unique genesis story and each faces singular problems in its home country. But the thread that binds all 10 member nations of the Sub-Saharan African Jewish Alliance (SAJA) is food insecurity.

Sam Muwalani (left) is the financial director and Allan Zilaba (right) is the president of the Abayudaya Men’s Club Association, which is heading up the AMC Farm, near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)

“Each community is unique in itself. We face different problems, some persecution, some lack of resources for learning. So we wanted to share our experiences with the idea of eventually coming together, assisting each other and developing stronger African Jewish communities,” explained Modreck Maeresra from the Jewish community of Zimbabwe in a recent Zoom call.

“But then later on, we noticed that the other problem as far as sub-Saharan Africa is concerned is the problem of food shortages,” Maeresra said.

And this is where an out-of-the-box-thinking Jewish philanthropist from Boston named Mark Gelfand has stepped in.

“What really is important to me is that I’d like to connect the idea of helping Jewish communities become self-sustaining and connected to each other,” Gelfand told The Times of Israel in a June Zoom call. Gelfand, a retired physicist and serial social entrepreneur, already had garnered experience in farm initiatives in Ethiopia.

Then, during the COVID epidemic, community members lost their jobs and started to go hungry — and then to starve — the already disadvantaged African Jews’ needs dramatically increased.

Gelfand advised SAJA to begin with food security initiatives: “Start with the food. Make everybody not hungry. Start there. And then, all right, we’ll put a mezuzah on the farm. We’ll grow from there,” he said.

Within the 10 SAJA nations — Zimbabwe, Uganda, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Gabon, Ivory Coast, Tanzania, Kenya and Madagascar — four have begun implementing agricultural projects. Uganda is at next-phase poultry farming, Zimbabwe has upscaled its cultivation from 2 acres to 10 hectares, and Nigeria and Cameroon are at what Maeresra calls “implementation level.”

Construction of the AMC Farm, near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)

In Uganda, massive chicken coops are under construction with an eye on production starting this winter. When this journalist visited the site, the warehouse was largely completed and the shells for four massive chicken coops were already standing. An administrative building, which will also house a STEMpower science center, was already an unfinished, but towering presence.

Even with only 1,000 chicks per batch, the poultry pilot project has already been a game-changer in terms of feeding the community since approximately ten percent of each flock is donated to the community’s needy in the form of birds.

Likewise, a tour of the AMC Farm’s arable farmland displays a wealth of agricultural possibilities. Today, the organization is still consolidating several privately owned plots to create a large, commercially viable farm. During our tour, we witness local villagers washing their clothes in the nearby stream, we saw small huts forming family’s semi-permanent cultivation groups. According to Zilaba, the AMC is in talks to purchase these plots as well, and the current owners are willing.

In addition to one day planting the land, the initiative already includes the AMC Tractor Plowing Service, dry storage facilities and construction equipment rental.

Historically, the majority of Abayudaya are farmers, cultivating yams, peanuts, cassava and more. However, this is the first time that data is driving their methodologies and decisions. In a country in which families still make their own charcoal using thousands of years old techniques, “new” can be a bit unnerving.

A worker at the poultry pilot project run by the Abayudaya Men’s Club Association, near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)

However, the use of modern data collection and a hi-tech “fail-fast mentality” is already paying off in a fellow Jewish community.

In Zimbabwe, said Maeresra, through proper soil composition and smart irrigation, the land can annually produce 20 tons of potatoes, which can feed 300 people for 3 months, and 20 tons of corn, which can feed 300 people for 6 months, as well as 20 tons of sorghum and millet which they can use to make chicken feed. It took the farm years to get to this production point, however.

Which is why Gelfand’s overarching goal of bringing the disparate African communities together is so key to other communities’ success.

“What we were planning with Mark was first and foremost, to bring these communities where the projects are taking place together. And one of the things that we can benefit from is skills sharing, experience sharing,” said Maeresra.

Modreck Maeresra (fourth from left) and members of the Lemba Jewish community of Zimbabwe (courtesy)

Unique communities with unique challenges

Uganda’s Abayudaya Jewish community was founded in 1919 by a former military leader who, raised pagan, initially converted to Christianity and then, in reading the Bible, decided to adopt Judaism. Semei Kakungulu called his newly circumcised flock the “Abayudaya,” the Luganda word for “People of Judah.”

The Abayudaya lived in relative seclusion for decades and observed their homegrown Judaism, praying in Luganda. Eventually, they were exposed to rabbinical Judaism and began a series of official conversions, largely under Conservative rabbis from the United States. Their Jewish status is not accepted by the Israeli chief rabbinate and efforts by a few members to immigrate to the Holy Land have been rebuffed.

This is not the first time the community has faced political adversity.

According to Muwalani and Zilaba, “In the 1970s, [former dictatorial president] Idi Amin prohibited Jewish rituals and destroyed synagogues forcing some of the Abayudaya to convert to Christianity or Islam. A core group of roughly 300 members, however, remained committed to Judaism, worshipping secretly. The Abayudaya have since grown to as many as 3,000 individuals. We are spread across eastern Uganda, living among our non-Jewish neighbors.”

Members of the Abayudaya Men’s Club Association at the Namanyonyi synagogue near Mbale, Uganda, July 13, 2023. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

When visiting a pair of synagogues in Muwalani and Zilaba villages close to Mbale, it is apparent that most residents live cheek by jowl — Christian, Muslim and Jew.

“I know everyone in my village — even he who was born today,” joked Muwalani, who lives in Namanyonyi, a stone’s throw from the synagogue. An accountant by profession, he is the project’s financial director. Born into a family that is descended from the original core group, Muwalani was converted officially along with his parents and siblings in a 2001 conversion.

Zilaba’s grandfather was among the followers of founder Kakungulu, but he was brought up in a Christian home. He reclaimed his Jewish roots through his Jewish uncles’ influence and chose to convert to Judaism in 2005, eventually becoming the spiritual leader of his local synagogue. With a degree in public administration and management, the president of the farm initiative exudes a quiet authority.

The pair aim to use proceeds from the farm initiative to ensure food security for their people and also help fund education for the next generation. Muwalani, whose wife is a physician, dreams of a medical clinic.

Spiritual leader of the Namanyonyi synagogue Eria Muyamba (left) is the Operations Manager of the Abayudaya Men’s Club Association, July 13, 2023. (Sharon Amali)

“As a minority group, facing low numbers of educated people, difficult health concerns, and uncertainty surrounding the recognition of our community by the State of Israel, the Abayudaya community faces a sustainability risk,” the pair claim.

“We seek to become less isolated and to have more interaction with the outside Judaic world,” they add.

One step towards becoming less isolated is through the SAJA umbrella organization.

Modreck Maeresra of the Lemba Jewish community of Zimbabwe makes charoset for the Jewish holiday of Passover. (courtesy)

The Zimbabwe Jewish community has an equally unusual roots narrative.

Maeresra, who is also president of the Harare Lemba Synagogue, told The Times of Israel that his community is descendants of a tribe of people who, according to their oral traditions, are historically Jewish. “We came from Yemen around 730 CE and then crossed into Africa and stayed until now. We have a culture that is significantly traditions that are recognizable as Jewish, and we always identified as Jewish,” he said.

Asked whether all the different African Jewish communities respect each other’s origin stories, Maeresra laughed and said, “I will be lying if I say everything is okay and everybody accepts the other person’s story… so although we may have other people who have question marks about Jews of choice from other African communities, we are learning to accept,” he said.

“These are the challenges that we are working on. When people from different backgrounds are brought together, there tends to be friction initially, but the edges tend to round off as people get used to working together. And we are noticing the same thing. When we started having SAJA board meetings, the friction and the tensions were there to be seen and to be felt. But slowly, things are becoming smoother and smoother,” he said.

Houses and shops line a main highway connecting Mbale to Kampala, Uganda, July 14, 2023. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

What truly binds all the SAJA communities together, he said, is the desire to end their people’s hunger, to step away from the cycle of charity and to live flourishing, dignified lives.

“We realized that with climate change, droughts and food shortages were becoming perennial, so it created a perennial donor dependence,” Maeresra said. As a result of the continuous aid, community members stopped working in their fields and lost their work ethic, he added.

“Now we are awakening, we are producing,” he said. “When it’s Shabbat, you welcome it because it’s giving you a chance to rest. When you are resting throughout the week, it takes away the meaning of Shabbat.

“So the biggest thing that we should get from these projects is the ability to work for ourselves, to produce for ourselves and it gives dignity,” he said.

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