From Capitol Hill to a Farm in Africa

A former congressional staffer's farm in Ghana is a model for African agricultural development.

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A vendor sorts tomatoes at the Agbogboloshie food market in Accra, Ghana Friday June 6, 2008. After three days of wrangling, delegates at the Rome-based United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization approved a declaration resolving to ease the suffering caused by soaring food prices and step up investment in agriculture.

Stephen Hayes is president and CEO of the Corporate Council on Africa.

Jon Vandenheuvel is not your normal Republican activist. True, he once worked on Capitol Hill, but times change and often so does one's worldview. Today, Jon, born and raised in the Midwest farmland, is leading one of the most exciting agriculture projects in Africa. 

His project is not that of a Fortune 500 company or a major agriculture conglomerate, but is built around the simple concept of developing a farm from ground zero. Today, Jon lives along Lake Volta in Ghana attempting to develop a 2500-acre farm, for profit, education and employment.

Jon is a devout Christian, with a more than supportive family. He is not developing the farm for missionary work, nor is he interested in proselytizing others. He wants to develop a profitable farm as a business, and he wants those around him to benefit, to move from subsistence farming to working a large farm, sharing in the income and giving reason for young adult villagers to stay in the area and not migrate to the crowded urban centers of Africa. Currently more than seventy percent of Africans depend on agriculture for a living, one of largely subsistence living, leaving a large portion of the population vulnerable to famine and in perpetual poverty.

Jon's decision to go to Ghana was not from a vision or dream, but through a meeting in Dubai with a wealthy financier, Issa Baluch, who was interested in investing in Africa. The two hit it off and in the course of discussions the idea of farming in Ghana developed. Jon's part of the partnership was to do the labor and the on-ground negotiations, and his partner would invest as long as he felt progress was being made or until he tired of Jon's efforts. 

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Nearly five years later, Jon is still there. There has been little profit so far, and it took a great deal of time just to get permission to farm the land along Lake Volta. In most parts of Africa, land titles don't exist, and those that do are murky, decades old and for all practical purposes, legally unenforceable. Jon had to negotiate for the land with the leaders of the nearby villages, and then implore the Ghanaian government for clear lease or title. 

The clarity is still not there entirely, and the agreements he has negotiated are fragile. Yet, he is there and his farm is growing. And so is interest in his efforts.

Jon has learned every lesson imaginable about the challenges of building a modern farm in Africa. He has not had the benefit of giant agribusiness combines and his investor has continued belief in Jon, but his finances are not inexhaustible. Jon knows for his farm to grow he will need further financing. 

He is employing used equipment on barely usable roads, and has even built a barge to take his grain to market down Lake Volta, partly from necessity, but also to show the potential of Africa's largest manmade lake as a major thoroughfare to marketplaces. Nearly everything has been from scratch and has required communication with Ghanaians in the villages as well as in the capital city.

In the course of developing his farm, he began to record his lessons learned, and list the twenty major risks facing African agribusiness. He divided those risks into four categories: legal, financial, operational and social. He believes any investor needs to be cognizant of the risks and be able to address each and every one of them. 

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Jon's farm is now at break-even financially and he hopes to begin to show a profit soon. In the course of his work, he sees how the farm could be so much more and now is developing it as the Agribusiness Knowledge Center at Africa Atlantic Farms. The Harvard Kennedy School has entered in partnership as a science, technology and globalization project, and MIT has recently joined the partnership as a means to focus on how to create farms that help reduce the migration to Africa's cities. The International Finance Corporation is also now giving the project serious consideration as a model for African agricultural development.

Jon's principal mission is still to make the farm profitable, but its importance has grown far beyond the initial goals and dreams of one man. If it is successful it could become a model for the continent.

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  • Corrected 4/23/13: The original version of this post incorrectly identified Issa Baluch's religion.