Tilling new ground on Africa’s Gold Coast

Corn & Soybean Digest | 1 October 2011
By Kris Klokkenga
Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms Ltd (Ghana), a subsidiary of Africa Atlantic Holdings (Dubai), is a farm development and management company building a modern farming operation on 10,000 hectares along the shores of Lake Volta in Ghana, West Africa.

Growing up on a family farm in Emden, IL, I never paid much attention to world geography, let alone Africa. Years later at the University of Illinois I took a class on world population and food production. It was spring 1999 and the world population hit 6 billion. The class was interesting, but I never thought someday I would venture all the way to Africa to live or start a farming operation in the middle of the bush.

After college, I began working for ADM’s oilseed division. In spring 2007 I visited Ghana, West Africa, with my father on a Christian mission trip. Once called the Gold Coast by the British, who colonized parts of Ghana in 1874, Ghana became independent in 1957.

We couldn’t believe the amount of land and the absence of any mechanized farming. I thought, “There has to be a way to be a pioneer and start farming in Ghana from the ground up.”

Cheap land, enough rain for two crops a year and a tropical climate are big pluses. This area was comparable to land in Mato Grosso, Brazil, about 40 years ago. I believed the opportunities well outweighed the risks, so a team was developed and new entrepreneurial themes entered my life.

Ghana imports more than 95% of its major commodities, including sugar, rice, vegetable oil and corn and soybeans to feed its English-speaking citizens. Local corn prices there have consistently been above $11/bu. Demand grows with its population.

A business partner and I formed Africa Atlantic Farms in late 2009, developing a small but modern commercial farm in Ghana in the Afram Plains region on the beautiful shores of Lake Volta, the world’s largest reservoir. We’re now growing corn and installing a Nebraska-built center-pivot irrigation system, and using land-leveling equipment from Illinois.

The co-founder of Africa Atlantic, former US congressional aide Jon Vandenheuvel, says he plans to sell franchise licences to foreign farmers enthused by opportunities in Africa but wary of going it alone. "McDonalds was built around the first restaurant. We too are starting with a laboratory prototype which will then be replicated thousands of times," says Vandenheuvel.
We’ve added a few key investors from the Middle East and the U.S.

Our concentration, at this early stage, is gaining knowledge and experience on a pilot scale without “betting the farm” and taking excessive capital risks in a highly underdeveloped production environment.

We locked in our land with a 50-year renewable lease (which is common in Africa) from a tribal chief. It’s for 12,500 acres with an additional option for another 12,500 acres. We’ve just begun harvesting our first 100 acres of #2 yellow corn destined for local Ghana poultry growers.

Believe me, starting a farming operation in the African bush is tough. The first two years we converted the farm living quarters and a farmstead by retrofitting two sea containers. Spending weeks on end in the bush and sleeping in a steel box (without air conditioning) 4 degrees north of the equator will truly separate the men from the boys, or the sane from the crazy.

Much time, effort and money has gone into our Ghana project, and we hope to expand our farm into the premier commercial farming region. As the world population grows, we believe some of the food needed to feed it can come from Africa.

Looking back, I’m finally able to apply some of the information I learned in that college class on population and world food demand. Ghana continues to teach me something new every day. Hopefully as time goes by, we’ll be able to help this country achieve its hopes and dreams for a better life, by providing insight on one of the oldest and most important industries since the beginning of time, agriculture.

Editor’s Note: Kristopher Klokkenga is a 32-year-old Illinois farmer who co-founded Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms in June 2010, where he’s managing director on Ghana’s Afram Plains. Africa Atlantic is a farm-management/farm-development company focused on production agriculture in Ghana.

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