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Photo by George J. Tanber
Photo by George J. Tanber

Photo by George J. Tanber

Letter from Ghana

Young Visionary Leads New
Age Farming Movement

  ACCRA, Ghana – The soil is fertile, the climate ideal. But, somehow, this west African nation of 32 million cannot feed itself.

  This dilemma is what motivated Desmond Koney to find a way to flip the script.

  It’s early on a Tuesday morning at Complete Farmer, the company Desmond founded and leads. The previous day he drove round-trip to the corporate farm in eastern Ghana, a 12-hour journey, some of which on roads Americans would not consider ATV worthy.

  He’s exhausted. A typical full day awaits. He’s casually dressed; has a round, friendly face somewhat masked by oversized bifocals; wears his hair short and sports a thick beard, uncommon here.

  I ask: “Why the beard?”

  He laughs. “I’m 32. In Ghana, it’s hard to get older people to respect you when you are young,” explaining that most of his business dealings are with people senior to him and that the beard adds a few years.

  As a young adult, Desmond hadn’t expected a future in business, much less one related to farming. One of four children, Desmond’s father owned a 60-acre pineapple farm. His mother operated a small bakery.

  Desmond saw no future in the family farm but had a keen interest in mechanical engineering, which he pursued at Nkurmah University of Science and Technology.  Meanwhile, his father, believing the uncertainty of pineapple farming would not help his children’s future, left for Los Angeles in 2013. Within a year, he was dead, felled by a heart attack at 54. He had been working as a janitor.

  The day Desmond received the crushing news he was scheduled to take his last exam before graduation but was reluctant to do so.  His professor interceded. Desmond, somber now, remembers: “He told me this was a call to manhood and that I needed to look at it from a spiritual perspective.”

  His father’s death tempered his zeal for a career in engineering. He and a younger brother decided to continue the family’s pineapple business.

  “I felt like we should keep the farm going as a tribute to him. He worked so hard but didn’t live to see it pay off.”

A different direction

  Fate intervened. A friend from high school had an intriguing idea for a biogas system that would provide clean and energy-efficient gas to kitchens utilizing organic wastes. Desmond was intrigued and, tapping his mechanical acumen, designed a prototype. One major problem surfaced.

  “We didn’t know how to build it,” he says.

  Needing help, he found a businessman, William Senyo, who mentored Desmond on how to proceed. It didn’t take long for the protégé to act: Desmond left for China seeking a manufacturer to build his system. He was 22.

  “When I introduced myself to the business people I met, I could tell what they were thinking. ‘Who is this kid who came to China without speaking the language or knowing anyone.’”

  Desmond shakes his head at the distant memory, marveling at his boldness at the time. But, as is often the case, the journey was a life experience. Desmond learned the skill set required to attract investors and ended up selling the concept to a Chinese manufacturer.

  Back home, he plowed his nest egg into the farm. But in his absence the business had been mismanaged beyond repair. In 2016 it closed.

  “That was the lowest point in my life,” Desmond says. “It wasn’t just about me losing money. It was losing my Dad’s legacy.”

  He took some time to regroup. As he did he considered what he learned from his recent experiences. When his father managed the farm it was profitable, largely because of the significant markup of pineapples in foreign markets. Its demise was an operational issue.

  He recalled his Asia trip and how efficient the Chinese were in running their manufacturing plants.

  “One day a light bulb went off in my head. I wondered: ‘What if I could build a farm like a factory?’”

New business model

  Desmond, still possessing some of his biogas stash, recruited two friends, one expert in IT, the other in operations. They spent hours developing the blueprint for what would become the Complete Farmer.

  Desmond recalls the thought process: “We knew that in Ghana farming was more of an art than a science. So the question became: How do you bring structure to this occupation? From that we understood that it was an engineering challenge. The more we delved into the problem the more it became clear. Farmers were harvesting their crops, hoping there was a market for their food. The founding basis for the Complete Farmer model was: How do you get Ghana farmers to grow their crops to meet market specifications?”

  The company officially launched in August, 2017. The journey between then and now has had more ups and downs than your favorite roller coaster.

  Their first clients were large, commercial farmers, many of whom had failed and were looking to reboot.

  “We showed them the best crops to grow and how to sell them,” Desmond says.

  Phase 2 involved helping Ghanaians living abroad invest in local farming. Since Ghana’s reputation as a safe haven for investors was less than stellar, the pitch focused on trust as well as expertise.

  The company’s early success was buoyed by an unexpected gift of $50,000.

  “We entered an investment competition,” Desmond says. “We didn’t win but one of the judges from a Japanese bank liked us.”

  The next phase was the most difficult. Unlike in the U.S., where land is a precious commodity, the opposite is true in Ghana. As a result, small farmers – 20 to 50 acres - can’t get loans from banks and insurance policies are unreliable. Complete Farmer’s plan was to match investors with small farmers, providing them with enough capital to buy supplies and equipment.

  Things were progressing nicely until a global financial crunch in 2018 sent the company into a tailspin.

  “That,” he says, “was a very tough time.”

  Desmond laid off most of his staff and shuttered his office. The five remaining employees moved into Desmond’s three-bedroom apartment where they continued a bare-bones operation funded by his remaining savings.

  “The people who stayed with me were developers who could have found jobs elsewhere. I made sure they got paid and there was food in the fridge.”

  Although we’ve only known one another for an hour, Desmond is surprisingly candid on the negative impact this period had on his well-being.

  “I would sit in my room thinking about all the responsibility I had and could hear myself screaming out loud.”

  At his lowest point, Desmond considered giving up. But each time he thought about the relationships he had built with the farmers as well as his colleagues and realized: “I just can’t let these people down.”

  He sought help from his mentor, William Senyo, who advised he seek therapy. Which he did.

The comeback

  The bounce back was almost as sudden as the fall. Seemingly out of nowhere, a Japanese investor, Rena Yoneyama, turned up, liked what she saw and the company’s account was $200,000 richer. This sparked interest from investors from Kenya and Nigera and an additional $1.8 million was raised.

  “After that happened, we took off,” says Desmond, smiling at the recollection.

  The core group had never stopped working so the gameplan to move forward was mostly in place. However, one omission soon became clear.

  “To that point we had only been consultants. But we realized we needed to start farming ourselves if we were going to truly change this business.”

  The property he visited yesterday – a 4,000-acre farm – is the result of that thought process. Desmond describes it as a working and experimental enterprise utilizing science and technology. Farmers are retained by the company to plant, maintain and harvest common Ghanaian crops such as chili peppers, sweet potatoes, casava, soy beans, ginger and pineapple.

  Thanks to Desmond’s mechanical engineering chops, a solar energy-powered robot he developed roams the field performing tasks such as soil testing, pest and weeds detection, mapping and crop inspection. Complete Farmer staff, which includes an interesting mix of agronomists, engineers, IT programmers and operations managers, among others, compile the test results and analyses into digitized data files. The data is utilized by a team of 152 agents spread all over Ghana who work closely with more than 8,000 farmers – Desmond prefers to call them growers – who have signed up for the company’s program.

  Not surprisingly, Complete Farmer’s emergence has created considerable buzz about the young entrepreneur who is revolutionizing farming in Ghana. His payroll, up to 42, includes Chief Operating Officer Nannette Boakye, a Ghana native, Columbia University graduate and former Amazon manager; and Chief Technical Officer Peter Yefi, whose resume includes stints at IBM and Carnegie Mellon University.

  Desmond, who possesses a calm demeanor, gets excited when discussing Complete Farmer’s future.  During my brief stay here I’ve observed the overcrowded streets of the capital and talked with young people who have left their villages, presumably for a better life, but are struggling in the city. Desmond would like to help reverse this trend.

  “We’re really trying to get young people to see farming as a career where they can make a good living,” he says. “Our role is to lessen the burden of them getting involved by helping them secure land through the local tribal chiefs and with buying equipment.”

  Desmond, who dreams large, sees a future in which the Complete Farmer model can be implemented elsewhere on the continent and turn Africa into a global provider.

  “I’ve traveled across [the continent]. I’ve seen the land and how productive it is. If we can tap this potential, there is no way anyone in the world should be hungry.”

  Our interview complete, Desmond and I walk through his two-story building, past a number of his employees - busy on their PCs and phones - down the stairs and out into a courtyard. Along the way, we talk about his father. I wonder how he would feel if he could see his son today. The irony is not lost on Desmond. His father traveled to the U.S. hoping to make a better life for his children. In the end, the better life was here all along.

Editor’s note: Fourth in a series of articles from a reporting trip to Ghana Sept. 15-22, 2022

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