Henri Wientjes, Dutch agricultural entrepreneur in West Africa

When you want to start a series of interviews with Dutch agricultural entrepreneurs in West Africa there is basically only one man you can start with. Henri Wientjes could best be described as the “Paramount Chief” of the Dutch agric community in Ghana. With over 46 years of experience in Ghana, he has seen the population rise from 9 million to 30 million inhabitants, visited literally all the regions of the country and has a wealth of stories, lessons and insights to share. When I first arrived in Ghana for my work as agricultural counselor, he was among the first people I sought to meet and to this date I have always walked away with a better understanding of Ghana and its people. I asked Henri to share his experiences and advice with others who live and work in West Africa or who aspire to do so…

Henri Wientjes

When and why did you come to Ghana?

I studied Tropical Agriculture and Soil Sciences in Deventer, and after that started to look for a job abroad since I always wanted to go overseas. I was offered a junior position in Ghana with one of the traditional Dutch-Ghanaian trading companies. Ghana was thus a matter of chance, not of choice…

I arrived during the time of “Africanization” with a big emphasis on African ownership and heavy state control over the economy. The initial euphoria after independence rapidly faded. After a terrible revolution where the military seized control of the country in 1979, the economy went through a transformation. The new government gave way to more private sector involvement. Most traditional “colonial” trading companies were unable to adjust, and simply faded away.

From the moment I arrived I liked Ghana, and I liked Ghanaians. The liberalization of the economy created opportunities, which I recognized. When you have adventure and real entrepreneurship in your body you look at things in a different way. I saw the new political and economic reality, and together with Ghanaians and some other Europeans I jumped into the vacuum. Amongst other things I went into fertilizer import and distribution with a lot of demonstration fields.

You have seen Ghana change over the decades. What lessons are still applicable in 2019?

First of all, I have also learned the hard way. Some major investments luckily went very well but I have also experienced plenty of disasters. The biggest one was my own “very smart” idea of going into coconut processing. Copra (dried coconut flesh) is an internationally sellable product. You can use the byproduct to make activated carbon, compost, and many other things. The Western Region has huge amounts of coconuts, and people were complaining about an irregular market. You saw coconut husks laying around everywhere as waste. Perfect! So I built a processing plant based on the idea that I could get 10,000 coconuts a day for a competitive price…

But 8 years and 6 million dollars later, the plant stood idle. We couldn’t get the supply we needed, because of several factors. To be concrete, I will highlight two crucial issues. The first problem was a virus creeping in from the West, which reduced coconut harvests. And contrary to previous indications, the farmers weren’t interested in replanting a new and innovative more tolerant variety because the ownership of the land was not clear enough. Lands are owned by a paramount chief and regulated through pledges to families and farmers. So, why would the farmers invest in land that could be claimed by someone else at any moment?

Another complication was the market: very intelligent (mostly female) traders from Kumasi and even further away came to buy full coconuts without the husk at an irregular but convenient time. And since a lot of Ghanaian smallholder farmers are perpetually broke, they needed to sell. These women traders bought the nuts by paying in advance at a very very low price, arranging long supply contracts in a very very clever way. They understood the very intricate and tenacious system much better than I did…

This story has three important lessons: First, you have to know your country and know your Ghanaian! This of course is easier said than done. But you have to pay attention to the Ghanaian customs. Senior people, for example, you respect. You don’t challenge them! That has changed drastically in the Netherlands but in Ghana, this is still important.

Secondly, one has to understand the tribal aspect. But at the same time not over-emphasize it. The Chieftaincy Tribal system has a lot of subtleties, and it can work against you if you don’t understand it. In doing business, I am always curious what someone’s background is. But when you know someone’s status, don’t be too obvious about it, don’t play that card.

And third, don’t think you can waltz in with the perfect solution. When some European comes in and says they have the ideal product, I think: who the hell are you? Ghanaians can judge for themselves what works here. Things might not work here for various reasons, and these reasons may not always be completely fair. But please don’t just persist with your “silver bullet” as the best and only option, because while it might work within your reality, you will certainly hit a wall.

I learned and I moved forward. But another important aspect for potential success that I have to mention here as well, is the fact that I was blessed with trustworthy Ghanaian partners. This is not always a given, unfortunately.

How do you look towards the future of this country and this region?

Let me begin with saying that Ghana is very pleasant and safe. After living here for some 46 years I can confidently say its people are extremely friendly. Ghana is safe for any man or woman, young and old. But it’s also typically African, which has pros and cons. There is a lot of chaos, so don’t come if you’re an organized neat freak! But it is a great place if you like a free society. Besides that Ghana is beautiful! I visited all the regions multiple times, with the undeveloped and inherently beautiful Mole park in the North standing out for me.

However, in terms of agriculture there are huge challenges. Let’s quickly look back again. In the 70s Ghana had “operation feed yourself”. This was the last time the country invested in agriculture. In 1979, Ghana even exported 9,000 tons of maize to Angola. But since the revolution, maize got imported in bigger and bigger numbers. Every year since 1979, rice imports tripled. Even a lot of palm oil – which for crying out loud originates from West Africa! – is imported. Since 1979, no government has really made agriculture a priority. Ghana has become an importing country. The reason? Traders have increasing amounts of money and can potentially influence politics to the detriment of local production. Let me leave it at that…

But the current government wants to change this. I think they are trying to achieve what Akinwumi Adesina [former Minister of Agriculture, current President of the African Development Bank] did in Nigeria: to create an import substitution policy for local production. The government is working on seed law for instance, stimulating local maize and rice production, which then could lead to locally sourced inputs for animal feed production, for example. The present set-up, with a working democracy, an internal market of 30 million people and a rapidly developing hinterland is promising.

But at the end of the day we need much more Ghanaian, European and Dutch private sector investment. In Europe we need to be more flexible and realize that, in spite of the risks, West Africa is very close in proximity, and full of opportunities.

West Africa needs irrigation dams for industrial food crops to create resilience in the sector and in the system, especially in the face of climate change. The Ghanaian market also needs to be protected up to a point of self-sufficiency. But without losing sight of the tricky balancing act of letting in commodities from the world market.

Most importantly, if we can reach the small uneducated farmer and get him or her to adopt new technologies, there is a huge potential. Look at the brilliant work of WUR, AGRA or Kofi Annan Foundation, just to mention a few. The huge potential of CrisprCas, despite the difficult debate around GMO. Together with irrigation and other techniques we should be able to lift the production of rice of maize from 1-2 tons per acre to 5-10-15 tons. With the right varieties, this is even possible on Ghana’s dry and saline soils.

If you are an entrepreneur and you are willing and able to take the time to get to know Ghana well,  coupled with a sharp eye for business, Ghana is surely the place to be and I invite everyone to this very interesting country.