His choice of occupation surprised his friends. He went to an elite school in Accra. He continued abroad for both his first and second degrees. He could have stayed and got a far more ‘reputable’ job and earned good money. But he came down to settle with his people and chose the most unlikely job anyone could think of – farming. His reason? He wants to change the narrative about agriculture, an occupation despised by the youth for many reasons. Read on as Abdallah talks to the B&FT’s Inspiring Startups about how everything started and what vision he has for his business.
Abdallah Ekow Manuar Smith had his education at the famous Ghana International School (GIS) and graduated in 2009. He followed it up with a degree in Political Science, International Development and Environmental Studies at the Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, United States. After that he went to Sweden for his masters at Lund University where he studied Sustainability Science. During his Master’s programme he did a project on how solar energy can be utilised in the agriculture sector. It was this project that struck him to begin exploring the idea of using solar to power irrigation systems which draw water from boreholes for farms. He then moved to Ghana to transform that idea into reality.
He met another entrepreneur, Carl Akolatse who is also into energy, and the duo decided to work together. Carl secured a land from a friend to start a solar-powered irrigation vegetable farm with Abdallah. Unfortunately, after two harvest cycles they ran at a loss, as those they entrusted the farm to didn’t take good care of it. That was money gone down the drain for the investors.
But Abdallah wasn’t ready to give up. He used that terrible experience as a learning curve and decided to give it a second chance; but this time he would be in charge and actually go to the grassroots.
Abdallah formed a new company with the name ‘Gaia Greenfields’ and went into agriculture again – this time, adopting a different model. The model is to partner with farmers who do not have access to land. The farmers pay a deposit and start the farm, then at a point Green Fields takes over with the rest of the expenses for running the farm. After harvesting, whatever comes out of it they give the farmers their share based on the agreed terms. With this working model, Gaia Greenfields now has a 10-acre land with coffee, vegetable, pineapple and moringa farms. It sells fresh vegetables to supermarkets in the capital city such as Shoprite, among others.
The vision is big for Gaia Enterprise. Beyond just the planting and harvesting, he wants to develop his farm into an agriculture tourism site where he will build small but comfortable structures for people to come and spend a weekend in the farm and be taken through the experience of farming.
Again, in the near-future he wants to introduce a model whereby the farmers will become co-owners of the company, play a key role in decision-making and be part of the farm’s profit-sharing.
Farming comes with many challenges in Africa, and the foremost is funding. Adding technology to agriculture is capital-intensive; and with banks and financial institutions not being too comfortable with lending to the agriculture sector, players have to rely on either their own money or some kind of grant from NGOs as their main source of funding – and these two are hard to rely on. This has been one of the challenges of Gaia Greenfields.
For someone his age, he was also faced with the challenge of building the business. Things didn’t come that easy for him, because agriculture was an entirely new area that crossed his path.
How COVID-19 has impacted his business
For Abdallah, the pandemic has rather impacted positively on his business. For someone whose goal is to produce for the local market, the restrictions on movements – which effectively stopped imports – has enhanced his market. He has new clients as a result of the situation.
How GCIC has helped
Abdallah says joining the Ghana Climate and Innovation Centre (GCIC) has been the defining moment in his farming career. The organisation has helped him structure and refine his business idea. It also helped him connect with other companies who are in the same industry to share knowledge and skills needed for management of the business. Then the GCIC has also helped him with a grant to build capacity. For him, joining the organisation has opened many doors.
How education has contributed
Education, especially the knowledge acquired from his Masters’ programme he says, is the reason for his going into farming. It awakened his senses to see how he can contribute to nation-building even though he is still young.
What government must do
For him, government’s initiatives such as Planting for Food and Jobs are good ones. But he wants an enabling environment to be created to help all who enter into agriculture have a relatively smooth journey. With such an environment in place agribusinesses, he says, will thrive naturally.
Advice to the youth
Today, the family and friends of Abdallah who were initially surprised to see him go into agriculture are rather proud of him. His example has taught them that agriculture is no longer for the down-trodden, and even those from affluent homes can enter into farming. In fact, some of his friends have even expressed interest in joining him on the farms. For Abdallah, that just gives him the fulfilment he needed – seeing people change their perception about agriculture.
“The youth should know that there are obstacles in every entrepreneurial venture. But when they hurdle those obstacles, the future is bright for them. All I can encourage them to do is to take the first step.”