Volker Wagner was a successful Vancouver entrepreneur who, after helping to raise funds for an eye clinic in the tiny African nation of Swaziland, had a brief conversation with King Mswati III.
"He said, 'Are you a doctor?' I said, 'No, I'm a businessman.' That led to a question from him, 'Why don't you help me create jobs?' " Mr. Wagner recalled.
Mr. Wagner did better than that: He bought a ghost town.
In 2006, he sealed a $1-million deal with partners, donors and his own money to buy Bulembu, an old company town started by a British firm in the 1930s to mine asbestos, shuttered in 2001. Half-dilapidated, Bulembu had the skeleton for a future: ample housing, schools, a hospital - and an executive golf course. Mr. Wagner's vision: "restore a town, transform a nation." The goal for 2020 was to house and educate 2,000 orphans, underpinned by sustainable businesses that would make Bulembu self-sufficient.
"It's an act of love," Mr. Wagner said. "This is intense work. You can't just take money and throw it at it. You've got to apply your mind, your soul, your body, your spirit. It's effort. And a lot of grace."
This weekend, Mr. Wagner aims to raise $2-million in shows and events in British Columbia with the Canadian Tenors, after generating about $1-million with the group last year. The first injection of government funding is being announced Friday: $500,000 from the Canadian International Development Agency to help convert an old building into a training facility for the hospitality business - Swaziland's third-largest industry - and a convention centre, to bring more people to Bulembu.
Four years in, and with $9-million already raised from donors, Bulembu is home to 2,000 people - including 270 orphans - and 550 jobs at a sawmill, a tourist lodge, a bakery and other businesses. The golf course is now pasture for dairy cows. Annual revenue is $3-million, with a $250,000 profit. All the money made is pumped back into Bulembu.
Mr. Wagner, 52, is a devout evangelical Christian, and he is reclusive. In an effort to draw more attention to Bulembu and drum up more donations, he spoke with The Globe and Mail, his first-ever interview about his work in Africa.
It all began when Mr. Wagner, living with his family in Australia, heard about a cataracts surgery that saved people from preventable blindness. Seized by the idea, he imagined marshalling resources to give the technology to save the sight of an entire nation.
And so he learned of Swaziland, an impoverished, disease-ridden country bordered on three sides by South Africa and Mozambique on the other. In Swaziland, home to about a million people, an absolute monarchy governed by a profligate, polygamous king, two-thirds of the people live on less than $1.25 a day and one out of four aged 15 and older has HIV/AIDS. There are 56,000 AIDS orphans.
Mr. Wagner helped raised the bulk of the funding for the eye surgery clinic - $500,000 - but his journey in Swaziland really only started on his first visit, in 2004, after his brief conversation with the king. The surgeon at the eye clinic told Mr. Wager about Bulembu, located on the western border with South Africa, in lush green rolling hills of the highveld, surrounded by protected parks.
"Gorgeous," Mr. Wagner said. "I fell in love with the place."
At the same time, Mr. Wagner had moved his family back to Vancouver and sold control of his printing company. He set about remaking Bulembu, once home to 10,000 people. It is an intense philanthropy driven by a deep faith in Jesus, the proverb "give a man a fish/teach a man to fish" brought to life. The Bulembu mission is "serving Jesus Christ by restoring hope" to the Swazi people, he said. He figures another $45-million is needed to get it all done.
In an already Christian country - the majority of Swazis ascribe to some version of Christianity - the children attend a religious school. Mr. Wagner insisted it is not indoctrination, not about "proselytizing."
"My faith is love and action," he said. "It's not: 'Do you know Jesus? You must know Jesus.' "
He does want to change the mores of the country, where male promiscuity is rampant - the king has more than a dozen wives - and is a major cause of the spread of AIDS. "The best way to say it is we try to bring them up, teach values, and break the cycle of sleeping around, perpetuating HIV/AIDS at random," he said. "Right now it's craziness over there."
Mr. Wagner immigrated to Vancouver from Germany when he was 16 and eschewed university for business, taking over his father's printing company in the early 1980s. He expanded aggressively and faced near-bankruptcy in 1988. In the early 1990s, he fully committed to an evangelical faith.
"The years of being on my knees forced me to recognize maybe we've got to do this differently," Mr. Wagner said of his personal spiritual evolution.
His interest in capitalism for personal gain is gone. He pours 60 hours a week into Bulembu, working from Vancouver, visiting six times a year. He makes no money from it, he says; his income is from investments.
"This gives me much more personal joy," he said. "What motivates me, it is complex riddles, conquering the impossible."
Mr. Wagner's journey to Bulembu is one of unlikely moments. Among the most important came two days after he and his partners had closed the deal to buy the town, which was in desperate need of infrastructure upgrades. Sewage was disposed in the river. An employee of Jim Pattison, the Vancouver billionaire who is Canada's fourth-richest man, was making separate inquiries about doing something charitable in Swaziland, where the employee had grown up.
The connection between Mr. Wagner and Mr. Pattison - also an evangelical Christian - was made. Mr. Pattison was inspired by the idea of a charity to take care of orphans while at once building a self-sufficient community. He gave $1.5-million for infrastructure.
"You can label it a coincidence. You can label it a God moment," Mr. Wagner said. "I have lots of those, endless."