The importance of being "on the ground" in your market
MoringaConnect sources organically cultivated seeds at a fair price from smallholder farmers throughout West Africa to supply quality cold-pressed Moringa oil to formulators of personal care products worldwide. Check out their Indiegogo campaign!
In June, I packed my bags, tools, prototypes, and plans and set off to Ghana for a three-month pilot of MoringaConnect's operations. It is now December and I am still in Ghana. Reason . . . it was undeniably clear that I cannot build a venture in Africa for Africans without being in Africa and I knew the time to take that step had come. A few of the reasons:
1) Many of my assumptions (and even researched data) about how things will work, from something as 'straightforward' as sending a package from Ghana to another country to something more elusive like accessing the resources designated in the country for agribusiness will be partially or completely wrong. For example, there is an agricultural fund meant for agro-processors like MoringaConnect but the fund can only be accessed through designated banks on the ground. Research tells me the fund exists and is looking for companies to provide grants and soft loans to, but through visits to bank after bank, I have learned that to minimize their risk, most banks will not allow me to access the fund until Moringa Connect has about six months of financial transactions in the Ghanaian banking system irrespective of our financial history from accounts in the U.S.
2) Nothing will get done as fast you need it done, or in the way you'd like, unless you are involved (not because you are Mr./Mrs. Amazing but because you feel the urgency and have the concept of the end product in your head – in a way that is different than everyone else- volunteers, contracted professionals, new hires). For me this has meant putting on my mason and electrician hats to make sure renovations were completed in our processing center.
3) Your venture's operations and implementation will go through much iteration with each round and the associated real-time learning accelerating that process. Our extensive research of oilseed processing technologies showed that expensive filter presses are the standard equipment in clarifying oil but having the opportunity to rapidly prototype filtration mockups has allowed me to put together a simple filtration system for less than 5% of the planned cost.
4) You will discover new opportunities to create more value through your venture by immersing yourself in the network of those in that sector. Talking to Peace Corps volunteers in Ghana helped us learn of the benefit of using GPS to verify the land size a farmer is growing so they can better plan inputs. We took that information and integrated it with mapping software that now allows us to not only help a farmer know the exact land area he/she is growing on but also allows us to display exactly where the seeds we buy come from and overlay the pictures and household information of the farmer that point corresponds to. This was not a part of the original value (income and training) we were bringing farmers or the value (traceability) we were adding to our operations and bringing the buyers of our oil.
5) Plane tickets are expensive. I can either buy a round-trip ticket for ~$2,000 or use that to generate income for about seven farmers and produce close to 80 kg of Moringa oil.
6) When the demographic on whom you have an impact lives and works on a schedule, your operations must be aligned with them. I could have returned to the U.S. in August as planned but that would mean losing the opportunity to use August-December (when Moringa seeds in Ghana are at their low) to get fully operational and establish relations with farmers so that come December and January when the first harvests of seeds come, we would be ready to buy seeds, map farms, gather data, process oil, and sell oil.
7) It's the only way you can work through romanticized thoughts, confirm your passion to persevere, and grow my vision for change. It has been such an adventure full of frustrating and exciting moments. With a degree from MIT in Aerospace Engineering, there are times when I have to honestly ask myself what space has to do the with soil. There was the time when a police officer attempted to seize the vehicle I was transporting Moringa seeds in simply because he wanted money, and I have to ask why it takes all this to setup operations here. There are times when I'm touched by the excitement of farmers to interplant Moringa trees because they see the benefit it can bring their families. And there are times when I realize that there are too many unrealized opportunities for impact and business and so I must persevere through each step needed to realize MoringaConnect. For us, our next step is raising $25,000 through Indiegogo to help 70-80 farmers generate income through our seed purchases, produce 1 MT of oil for buyers across North America and Europe and about 3 MT of feed (remains of our extraction) for animal farmers, and pilot new nurseries and farm demonstrations sites to aid in the support we provide our supply base.
I look forward to more learnings and experiences in being on the ground and especially the fruits of my efforts - a well-established and sustainable business transforming the lives of the poorest demographic in our world today- smallholder farmers.