Why you should care

Because Africa needs to produce more food to survive.

The idea came to him on a bus in Rionegro, Colombia. Howard Blight was traveling with a delegation of South African avocado farmers when conversation turned to a hotel back home that was up for sale. “We should buy it,” said one farmer. “And turn it into an agricultural college!” said another. What sounded like idle banter, Blight tells OZY, “set lights off” in his head. A few weeks later, he was presenting the idea to Danie Brink, dean of the faculty of AgriSciences at Stellenbosch University, who mentioned the possibility of a cloud-based college to Blight. “The whole horizon opened up to me,” he recalls. “My budget went from $25 million to $6 million in an instant,” Blight says, reflecting the savings from using a cloud-based model.

To feed the world’s growing populations, food production will need to increase 70 percent by 2050, and the numbers are even scarier for Africa, the continent where 50 percent of global population growth will occur and agricultural productivity is lowest. To boost productivity, a 2015 World Economic Forum report highlighted eight areas that must be addressed (updating seed types, irrigation techniques, fertilizer use, etc.) — and all eight start with improved education. The stage is set for a Blight in shining armor: His company, Agricolleges International (ACI), will roll out its first courses in South Africa in early 2018, and in the next few years he plans to have a curriculum incorporating all of the agrisciences and an expanding footprint across Africa.

The conversation has evolved from wonderment at cloud-based education to working out how we’re going to fix food security in Africa.

Howard Blight

According to Brink, the key challenges facing agri-education in Africa are “the cost and accessibility of training colleges” and existing programs’ inability “to prepare students for the wide range of skills required to sustain agricultural development.” Liezl Vercueil, editor of AfricanFarming.com, agrees: “We get loads of Facebook inquiries about basic stuff like how to inject your goat or clean your poultry housing.” Although it won’t be easy, Brink is convinced that ACI has the potential to fill the knowledge gap and improve food security.

At 67, with a rustic charm and penchant for sending motivational Whatsapp memes, Blight is the unlikely face of what is essentially a tech startup. But if you ask Marysue Shore, president of Global Business Strategies, the boutique advisory firm sourcing investors for ACI, she’ll say that Blight’s background as a businessman, farmer and educator, coupled with his “contagious enthusiasm,” is exactly what makes ACI an attractive proposition. “And he’s invested loads of his own time and money in the business,” she adds. “Investors love that.”

Macadamia hailnetting

Aerial view of Amorentia, Blight’s family farm and nursery. The netting protects the plants from the ravages of hailstorms.

Source Courtesy of Howard Blight

When Blight was 4, his family left Johannesburg to fulfill his mother’s dream of “going farming.” Turns out the farm they bought was ideal for cultivating both avocados and severely dyslexic little boys. Blight and his sister would roam their kingdom, trapping birds and swimming in rivers.

Until the day he was shipped off to a posh boarding school in Johannesburg. What followed was daily canings and poor grades, prompting his dad to send the teenager across the globe, to Millfield School in England. Millfield was — and still is — ahead of its time, and the creative, forward-thinking environment brought out the best in Blight. Mingling with international students (and even dining with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor) “must have planted the seed that I could be anything I wanted to be,” he says. And being poorer than his classmates nurtured his entrepreneurialism: “I made waistcoats out of the monkeys I shot during the school holidays … and I sold them to the Saudi princes for pocket money.”

A4 board room

A rooted cutting of a Beaumont macadamia plant, the most common variety of macademia plant in South Africa.

Source Courtesy of Howard Blight

After three years at England’s Cirencester College, the oldest agricultural college in the world, Blight returned to the family farm, where he has lived ever since. Sound boring? A highlight reel of Blight’s last four decades includes pioneering dragon fruit and macadamia nut farming in South Africa, co-founding a gin distillery, spawning a burgeoning tree crop industry in Mozambique, establishing successful nurseries in two countries, publishing a book about his obsession with elephants and helping to launch a primary school, a farm school and a high school in South Africa.

Cool endeavors, but piffling when compared to what he’s trying to achieve with ACI. Verceuil acknowledges that Blight has set himself a very tall task and pegs internet connectivity and digital accessibility issues as two of the startup’s primary challenges. Only 38 percent of South Africans in rural areas own smartphones and 2 percent of rural families have an internet connection at home. What’s more, remote regions have no internet signal and data charges throughout the country put the internet out of reach of most people. Blight will need to provide handsets, ensure that cell towers are erected and work out a data agreement with a service provider. On top of that, there’s the credibility issue: “There are loads of online courses out there,” Verceuil notes. “Are they worth doing?”

Blight, who will keep a 51 percent ownership of ACI because he “wants to take this thing where it needs to go,” is more aware of the hurdles than anyone, but — to paraphrase the stream of Whatsapp memes he shared — he greets every challenge as an opportunity. In the past few months alone, he has been in talks with Samsung and Huawei about providing smartphones for students’ welcome packs, with the South African Revenue Service about tying ACI into the existing Employment Tax Incentive system and with farmers around the country about signing up as mentors and practical training destinations. Perhaps most significantly, he’s leveraging 40 years of farming experience to ensure that every aspect of every course will help Africans farm more productively.

Blight knows that he hasn’t educated a single student yet, but his first training courses just received government accreditation and he’s convinced ACI will be as big a hit as those bespoke monkey-skin waistcoats. “The conversation has evolved from wonderment at cloud-based education to working out how we’re going to fix food security in Africa,” he says. Not bad for a dyslexic kid who failed Grade 4 — twice.

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