With South Africa’s drastic shortage of poultry and eggs due to an outbreak of the H7 bird flu, learners at a Bloemfontein school for youngsters with special educational needs have been doing their bit to deal with the crisis.
For quite some time now, special educational needs learners at Dr Böhmer School in the Free State have been looking after hens and producing their very own eggs as part of an agricultural programme the school runs.
The school has 230 hens that are producing eggs as learners taking responsibility for looking after the hens and the eggs.
The school teamed up with Nutri Feeds, who supports the school with expertise and feed.
The school produces its own eggs, and the chicken manure produced has become fertiliser for the school’s vegetable garden to produce organic vegetables for their hostel and for their school feeding scheme.
The initiative has gone a long way in helping the school as it currently does not get any support from the Department of Education for its feeding scheme.
The chickens are being used to teach valuable life skills to its students with the support of poultry experts at Nutri Feeds, a subsidiary of Country Bird Holdings.
Dr Böhmer School has 550 learners between the ages of 12 and 19, many of whom come from disadvantaged rural backgrounds and have varying degrees of learning disabilities.
It provides a safe learning environment where youngsters are equipped with skills to ensure that they can become reasonably independent, and even enter the labour force where possible.
Training is offered in practical subjects such as agricultural studies, food production, hairdressing, maintenance, motor mechanics, welding and woodwork.
According to principal Kallie Viljoen, the egg project was conceived as a way to teach lessons in self-sustainability.
“We wanted a project involving live animals, but because we’re in an urban area we were limited in terms of the livestock we could house on the premises,” said Viljoen.
“Chickens fit the bill, and we felt that our learners would be able to manage the process, while the daily supply of eggs would be welcome at the hostel, and also provide a learning opportunity in managing a business.
“One of our staff members has a connection at Nutri Feeds, so we reached out for advice about chickens.”
Nutri Feeds has a manufacturing plant in Bloemfontein, and agreed to provide feed and poultry expertise to get the ball rolling.
An A-frame hen house was constructed on the school premises, and the learners were involved in every step of the building process, from digging the foundations to casting concrete slabs, welding the metal framework and putting up the roof. “It was a major project for the whole school. Now the kids who take agriculture are involved in cleaning the house, feeding the birds and collecting the eggs.
“At first some of the learners were sceptical and did not believe that we’d be getting the hens, and it was so rewarding to see their excitement when the first chickens were delivered.
“By now they have really taken ownership of the project, and are learning valuable lessons in the process,” said Viljoen.
Viljoen said the idea started in 2021 when the school first introduced agriculture into Dr Böhmer School’s curriculum.
“We wanted a project with live animals and because we are based in Bloemfontein it is not possible to have livestock bigger than chickens on our school premises.
“Nutri Feeds supports us with expertise and with feed, which is a huge help, because feed makes up 70% of the input costs to produce eggs. We have 230 hens producing eggs now.
“Most of our learners are from the rural areas around Bloemfontein and we were hoping to encourage them by showing that if they keep one hen alive they will get an egg six out of the seven days a week – a source of good protein.”
The project comes at a crucial time when there is a shortage of poultry and eggs due to the bird flu.
“Being able to produce your own food in a time of shortage has many benefits, such as that you don’t have to pay more to eat,” said Viljoen.
“We are able to supply the hostel with all the eggs they need to feed the boarders, without paying retail prices, which have gone up significantly.”
Viljoen said the objective is to teach learners life skills in the hope that it could help them earn a living one day.
“Aside from learners gaining skills that could help them earn a living one day, the best thing about this project is that it helps us become more self-sustainable.
“We produce our own eggs, and the chicken manure becomes fertiliser in our garden to produce organic vegetables for our hostel and for our school feeding scheme.
“This helps a lot because we don’t get support from the Department of Education for our feeding scheme; it relies on donations.”
Viljoen said the initiative provides a unique opportunity for learners to learn about poultry production in a safe environment.
“We hope that knowing the basics of this business means that once they write their final exam they won’t end up on the streets, because they can make a living.”
Viljoen is incredibly pleased with the way the initiative has taken off.
“The learners were involved from the very start – from construction of the coop, to day-to- day operations of feeding, cleaning the coop and collecting eggs.
“They are very proud of what they have achieved, but we still learn something new about this industry every day with the help of the team from Nutri Feeds. We could not do this without them.”
Viljoen said the initiative will equip students with multiple skills.
“They learn poultry farming skills, but most importantly they are learning that what we teach at school can help them become self-sustainable and earn a living for themselves one day, with the independence that comes with not relying on handouts.”
Viljoen said the project has provided hope that initiatives such as these at Dr Böhmer School will help impact other rural areas too.
“Working with companies like Nutri Feeds to enable such initiatives makes me hope that maybe one day we can see a difference in the rural areas where poverty and unemployment cripple communities.
“We’d like to scale up to 500 hens so that we can double our egg output, increase our profits, and keep on making a difference in our community.”
Dr Böhmer School has been offering specialised training to children with special educational needs who are also from disadvantaged backgrounds since 1977.
The school teaches functional, practical life skills with the aim to allow every youngster to develop to their maximum potential so that they can support themselves one day.
“I’ve been with the school since 2014, and we have 550 students and 48 wonderful staff members.
“We are very proud of our learners, and it is a great privilege to play a role in equipping them for their future.”