The Airbnb for Farms Finds Fertile Soil in Ghana
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this new land model could change how people grow across the continent.
By Nick Dall
- Desmond Koney’s Complete Farmer platform takes a “crowdfarming” approach to agriculture with investors backing made-to-order produce.
- Koney has plans to scale the model, which uses tech to optimize production and has already supported thousands of small farmers, across Africa.
Just months before mechanical engineering student Desmond Koney was due to graduate from college, his father died suddenly, leaving Desmond a struggling pineapple farm on the outskirts of Accra, Ghana’s capital. Until that pivotal moment in December 2012, agriculture had not featured in the younger Koney’s plans, but after a college lecturer pointed out that this could be his “call to manhood,” he decided to honor his father’s legacy by turning the farm’s fortunes around and using the profits to support his mother and siblings.
Things didn’t turn out to be nearly so simple, but today the 29-year-old Koney is poised to revolutionize the way people farm, not just in Ghana but across Africa. His company, Complete Farmer, which was born out of his desire to “run farms like factories,” combines what Koney describes as an “Airbnb land model” with a “crowdfarming” approach to capital investment to deliver made-to-order produce to clients around the world. Complete Farmer has successfully completed 12 projects and currently has plantings of an additional 3,500 acres of chili peppers, ginger, sweet potatoes, soybeans, yellow maize, sesame seeds, groundnuts and tigernuts destined for India, China, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands and Germany.
In 2012, though, Koney’s first attempt at becoming a pineapple farmer “failed woefully,” he says, due to theft, unavailability of fertilizers and the lack of a reliable market for his produce, among other factors. After 18 months, he and his family were forced to give up on the project.
Luckily, Koney found work as a teaching assistant at his alma mater — a role that didn’t just put food on the table but also had him helping students build solar go-karts, robotic farm assistants and more. Still, the failure of the farm haunted him. Then, a NASA-sponsored competition, which challenged participants to find ways to grow food on Mars, prompted him to experiment with vertical farming and hydroponics.
What Alibaba did for manufacturing in China, we want to do for agriculture in Africa.
That idea was moved to the back burner in 2017, when the engineer in Koney became fixated on figuring out how to run African farms like factories. Armed with a business model that involved using sensors and drones to monitor every stage of the production process, he and two friends entered a pitch competition. They placed third, and a member of audience liked their pitch enough to offer them $50,000 and a spot on the MEST incubation program for African entrepreneurs.
After securing 60 acres of land, the “three city boys,” as Koney refers to himself and his co-founders, moved to the “middle of nowhere” to put their model to the test. At the end of a challenging year that saw the farm flop and his co-founders leave the company, Koney was tempted to call it quits. But his mentors at MEST pointed out the value of everything that he (and his sensors and drones) had learned and urged him to continue.
Good thing too, because in 2018 Complete Farmer enjoyed its first successes with soybeans and chili peppers. Since then, Koney has leveraged the power of data to come up with detailed planting plans for eight common West African crops that can be grown for a desired outcome. Soybeans, for example, that are going to be turned into soy milk are very different from those used for animal feed.
Complete Farmer’s international clients are not the only beneficiaries of its groundbreaking model. Dozens of Ghanaian landowners have offered the company a total of 22,000 acres. To date, 2,800 small-scale farmers have been employed to carry out various projects, which are bringing considerably higher yields for maize (22 percent above the national average) and soybeans (18 percent).
What’s more, attracted by the generous returns offered by the company, enterprising crowd farmers from around the world have contributed a total of $700,000 to pay for seed, fertilizer, machinery and labor. One such investor is Romain Grand, a Paris-based sales director who has put a total of $180,000 into several Complete Farmer projects over the past two years. He recently received a $40,000 payout and has an additional $200,000 invested in ongoing soy and sweet potato projects.
Grand traveled to Ghana before making an investment. For aspiring crowd farmers, though, signing on is as easy as signing up on the Complete Farmer website and putting down, for example, $750 per acre on ginger crops. Grand, who scouts the world for opportunities, says he has found no other investment of equivalent risk that offers such impressive returns — less so one that helps the planet by improving food security and agricultural efficiency. While it’s been smooth sailing so far, Grand says he’s prepared if something should go wrong on one of his farming cycles. The fact that all of Koney’s farms are insured against natural disasters gives him peace of mind that, barring human error, he wouldn’t lose it all. “Desmond is the reason I invested in this company and not others,” he says. “I’ve watched him grow over the years.”
Koney, meanwhile, is trying to work out how to ensure that the business itself flourishes. While he’s pleased with recent growth, he is also concerned that demand from international buyers currently outstrips investment by crowd farmers. He’s working on a new app that will enable friends to buy farms together; he’s also exploring other sources of investment. Another obstacle is the fact that much of the land on his books isn’t ready for planting yet and that soil preparation machinery is expensive and difficult to come by in Ghana. He hopes to buy a tilling machine in the next year or so.
Longer term, Koney’s plan is to scale the concept across Africa. “What Alibaba did for manufacturing in China,” he says, “we want to do for agriculture in Africa.”
Talk about wanting to honor his father’s legacy.
- Nick Dall, OZY Author Contact Nick Dall