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Gono: From teaboy to poultry magnate

By Gift Phiri

HARARE – Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono is not your quintessential Zimbabwean tycoon. He has been amassing wealth, spreading it across industries to reduce risk, and above all keeping quiet about it. 

Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono with workers retrenched by the bank
Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe governor Gideon Gono with workers retrenched by the bank

He began in the 1970s as a small-time chicken farmer and builder. He then branched out into practically everything, from farming to manufacturing to media to banking. Today, Gono a former “tea boy” commands a sprawling empire, managed by him and his partners.

While he is gregarious and chatty, Gono nonetheless ensures that virtually nothing of substance is known about his businesses.

On Friday, a delegation of Ugandan legislators were taken through a guided tour of his highly-integrated Lunar Chickens project that he built from scratch, a project that styles him as the new indigenous chicken king after taking over almost all of the famous business in a push to consolidate the fast-growing chicken industry.

“I have been doing chickens for the past 40 years. I started in February 1973,” the maverick economist and top ally of President Robert Mugabe said.

Gono is excited about his future as a possible chicken magnate and is serious about this stuff.

“By 2020, I must be the first chicken billionaire in Africa,” he says matter-of-factly. “Oh, yah,” he adds.

He has set up highly-automated, large-scale chicken farming and processing complexes that are driving the Zimbabwean chicken market under his Lunar brand which he says is a skyrocketing business.

He scoffs at claims that he dipped his fingers in the RBZ till, and says he has been in business for years, and used to export flowers until the imposition of a Western embargo on him from the site where he now runs Lunar Chickens.

Previously an enclave of white business, Gono’s development of so-called factory chicken farming makes him the first black Zimbabwean to venture into this kind of manufacturing business, and has managed to corner the market through high technology, with his Lunar Chickens rapidly growing in popularity and attaining the famed Halal certification.

Located in Borrowdale just behind Mugabe’s mansion, Lunar Chickens is split into various units, starting with so-called “Breederland” where eggs are laid by layers and taken into highly-automated chicken incubators where machines keep hundreds of eggs at a time warm.

This has enabled the central bank boss to commercially breed chicks and create life as it were.

“In a way, we play God,” Gono said.

He admits the profits have been enormous, and within just a few years, Lunar Chickens has became the centre of a thriving chicken industry. Gono hopes to produce one million eggs a day by next year for domestic consumption and hopes to capture the entire African market.

The Ugandan legislators were taken through the hatchery that houses thousands of chickens. The hatchery building is a large open space and when the hens lay the eggs, they are collected from the coops and taken to incubate.

The eggs are placed in large automated walk-in incubators where they are kept warm and periodically rotated by state-of-the-art machines for 18 days — a process called the setter stage. For the next three days, the eggs are taken through an X-ray process called candling and they begin to hatch in about 21 days.

The chicks peck their way out of their shells when they are ready. Trays of newly-hatched chicks are wheeled on carts to an inoculation area, where they are sprayed with a vaccine against common diseases. The operation is spanking clean.

Some of the day-old chicks are immediately bought by “out growers”, while others are delivered to the market by Lunar trucks. The rest of the chicks are taken to the so-called “meat land” where the chicks live in large houses which hold as many as 45 000 birds.

During the tour, there were seven such houses with 45 000 chickens each. Each chicken is sold at $5 each, you do the maths. These grow-out houses are under controlled temperatures. The operation is a hub of impressive instrumentation and control.

The floor of each house is covered with a dry bedding wood chips, and are automatically fed a diet of chicken feed and water and is under special lighting that makes the birds calm, according to Gono. Because of the technology in use, only one person looks after 45 000 birds.

After a 36-day grow-out, the birds are conveyed to an automatic neck cutter at a place called the “slaughter land”. The carcasses hang until all the blood has drained and then they are moved to automatic feather pickers, which are moving rubber fingers that rub off most of the feathers.

Then the carcasses are scalded a second time and run through another feather picker. The defeathered carcasses next pass to a washer, which scrubs the outside of the body. The feet and head are cut off, and the carcass is conveyed to the evisceration area.

Next, the carcass is suspended in shackles by the feet and neck, cut open, and the internal organs are removed. When the chicken carcass is empty, it is washed again inside and out by a multiple-nozzledsprayer. And this is all automatic, with a small staff compliment involved.

The cleaned carcasses are sent down and immersed in a “chiller” of cooled, chlorinated water. The entire slaughter process takes only about an hour, and the bulk of that time is taken up by the chilling. The internal temperature of the chicken must be brought down to -18C before further processing.

The chilled carcasses are then passed to a cutting room, where workers cut them into parts, unless they are to be packaged whole.  In whatever format, the meat is packaged by workers at the processing plant, loaded into cases, and stored in a temperature-controlled warehouse.

Quality control at Gono’s Lunar is a particularly high to eliminate the potential for disease-causing microorganisms, hence the Halal certification, Gono clarifies. Asked where he got the money to set up such a massive highly-automated operation, Gono retorts,

“We borrowed money from banks.”

He listed a number of financial institutions, including CBZ, Kingdom, Capital Bank, PTA Bank and pan-African bank Eco Bank.

Gono says he kept this information out of the press as a shrewd sanctions-busting strategy, and indicated he bought the state-of-the-art equipment from Europe, even though he was under a an embargo. The 27-nation bloc recently suspended targeted measures on Gono.

“My principal was aware,” he adds, referring to Mugabe.

Gono’s five-year term of office as RBZ governor ends at the end of this year. He says his “principal” will decide if he should go into retirement.

“We should not talk about my retirement, the reasons being that you don’t want to go ahead of your principals,” Gono said.

“So you don’t want to do that, it causes… But the fact really is that when the time comes for me, I will be full-time, I will not be bored, so to speak.”

Gono says he has a Zimbabwe vision, a Sadc vision, a Comesa vision and an African vision.

“Within those visions is a desire to see Africa being self-sufficient in terms of its food production,” he said.

“I have chosen to focus on the chicken side of food and the situation at the moment is that Zimbabwe consumes on average between 5 000 and 5 800 tonnes of chicken per month. Now local suppliers are only producing 2 000 tonnes per month and the rest is being imported.”

“There are basically three major producers in Zimbabwe of which we are the second,” he said referring to Irvines and Suncrest. “So we are hoping that with time, we are going to spread the production of chickens throughout the country. We would like everyone to get involved whether with a 100 chickens behind someone’s backyard, 500 chickens and so forth, we want to find meaning out of chicken.

“I have always argued that if you want to empower people say through mining, tell them that they must wait for at least five years before they can get a return; this is for a small mining operation. If you want to invest say through tobacco growing, tell them to have patience, to wait for a year, they get their money, through maize, four, five months. But through chickens, you are looking at 35 to 36 days to get your returns. So we believe that we have got a formula for quickly empowering people in a manner which is also nice, chicken is nice when you eat it.”

Originally from Buhera, Gono says he seeks to play a dominant role which is inclusive by allowing those in rural areas to partner him.

“The way we hope those in rural areas will participate, we would concentrate on technology-related activities, grow the breeders, hatch the chicks, give them to look after, bring them to our slaughter facilities, and take it to the market. Once you begin doing chickens above 500 at a time, you can’t now slaughter them by hand, the traditional way.”

He said rural folk can also be involved through feed meal facilities.

“Where we make our own feed, we want to involve farmers in growing the inputs, the maize, the soya bean that goes into feed but right now the challenge; we didn’t grow enough maize in the country or soya. It kind of like militates against volumes that we would want to produce.”

As a parting shot, Gono says “chickens make business sense.”

“I always say that even if I have no penny in my pocket, and at home we eat chicken, and you visit and we serve you chicken you will go thinking that we are so well-up. So chickens make business sense.” -Daily News