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Back to Our Roots
by Nadirah Z. Sabir
Georgia Online News Service
Friday, March 6, 2009
Dahveed Jawara cuts a huge head of green, leafy lettuce from the dark and fertile soil on his private plot about 40 minutes west of Ghana’s capital, Accra. Here, under blue, breezy skies, Tennessee-born Jawara and two workers cultivate a few acres of organically grown vegetables and spices as part of a much larger agricultural enterprise whose harvests are destined for local and international markets.
Jawara is something of a spokesperson for encouraging African Americans to invest in and indeed return to the continent. During the two-hour drive from the capitol city of Accra out to his farm, red clay, reminiscent of Georgia’s own, gives way to coastal sand and later, fertile black soil. “This is my home,” he said. About nine generations after their ancestors were first brought to American colonies, some African Americans have taken their farming skills, resources and spirit back to West Africa. For many, rediscovering roots in Africa is more than a journey to connect with heritage – it is also a way to remain economically viable as farmers at a time when Black-owned farms in the United States are dying out.
Once a cornerstone of national and community economic growth, Black American farming today is in a “miserable” state, said Georgia-based organic farmer K. Rashid Nuri, one of hundreds of U.S. Black farmers who have tried to expand into Africa. The number of Black farmers in the United States has shrunk from about 746,717 in 1900, or about 1 in 7 U.S. farmers, to fewer than 18,000 today, less than 1 percent, according to the Census Bureau. To stay in the ag game, many are looking to commercial production: soybeans and cattle as opposed to family farming, he said. Others are looking at alternative crops and organic farming, farmers’ markets, direct marketing – including community supported agriculture (CSAs), the Internet and global markets. “They’re looking at Africa,” said Dr. Gail P. Myers, a cultural anthropologist specializing in African American farmers. And the motherland is returning the gaze. Ghana, considered to be one of the most stable countries on the continent, is leading the pack.
Entrepreneurial, innovative African Americans and Africans living in the United States are seen more and more as an uncultivated resource. Countries and corporations in East, West and Southern Africa are sponsoring trade expos and tours in an effort to court non-governmental organizations (NGOs), fraternities and sororities, business owners, media and church, mosque, and temple members. Even with a fairly warm welcome, African Americans doing business in Ghana face hurdles in lack of infrastructure, swindles and basic culture shock. Four hundred years away from the continent is a long time, and the terrain is both familiar and foreign.
One of the biggest problems is difficulty in getting a clear title to land. Most land is owned by kings or chiefs who will “give” or lease land. “It’s yours as long as everybody’s happy with you,” said Atlanta-based Nuri, “and nobody comes along to take it back. Alright, so that generally has to do with money. ... Spend enough money, they may give you a chief, they may give you a title and access to some land. Or if you’re doing a project that’s going to create employment in a particular village, build a factory so you’re helping a lot of people, they’ll give you that land. You have to create a vested interest for everybody in your enterprise.”
There are certain places where you can actually get titles to land, but it takes time. In other places, you never get it, he said. It just doesn’t happen. Registering a company takes only a day, but tax exemptions and certifications can be slow in coming. These are the kinds of details ex-patriots convey to newcomers. “There a lot of going back and forth,” said Nuri. “They don’t work on American time.” Nuri was a consultant for a failed agribusiness venture in Ghana in 2005. That effort tanked because his American client needed deeper pockets for reinvestment and really had to be in Ghana to learn to manage a Ghanaian venture. “You can’t do it from a distance,” said Nuri.
Ron Jewell and his adult son, Andre, are far from their hometown of Alexandria, Va. They own African American Trading Co. Inc. (AATCI), which processes and exports to Europe and the United States pharmaceutical crops used as active ingredients in malaria remedies; in Ritalin, a stimulant used to manage attention-deficit/ hyperactivity disorder in children; in a memory enhancer; and in a type of serotonin used in anti-depressant medication. All grow wild in Ghana, whose natural plant resources account for 10 percent of the world’s flora, according to Agribusiness in Sustainable Natural African Plant Products (ASNAPP), a non-profit group that supports the development of high-value natural plant products by African agribusinesses.
The father-son team also owns The Jewell Spice Company, a subsidiary of AATCI.. Through successive visits to Ghana, they found that produce, spices and medicinal plants grow aplenty in the mineral-rich red dirt, supplying a seemingly never-ending offering of cabbage, rice, okra, avocado, pineapple, mango, greens, herbs, teas and essential oils. “Much of the food is rotting on the vine – no processing,” said Ron, sitting in a white short-sleeve shirt and khaki pants at a conference table in his processing plant in Tema. Throw a seed into the dirt, said one Ghanaian local, and it will grow.
Seventy percent of Ghanaians work a plot or farm. The industry accounts for 42 percent of the national gross domestic product (GDP) and provides employment for more than half of the country. The AATCI purchasing staff gets material from 40 to 45 local suppliers. They’ve been able to take advantage of the Ghana Free Trade and Industrial Zones and have relationships with thousands of local growers. They also can and do call on experts in the Crop Science Department of the University of Ghana-Lagon.
The Jewells probably wouldn’t be here in Ghana today if it weren’t for Ron Jewell’s chance meeting 28 years ago with a South African musician who convinced him to visit Africa for the first time. When he finally got to the continent, Jewell said, he knew he had found his future. After several more trips to countries in Africa, he finally opened his business in Ghana in 1994. He did not have an auspicious start. In that first year, he lost $250,000 to a local partner. The Jewells finally gained traction by selling spices wholesale to global market players and in 2006 began exporting medicinal botanicals to drug manufacturers Covex S.A. (headquartered in Spain, with operations in Miami, Fla.) and Linnea Inc. (headquartered in Switzerland, with operations in Easton, Pa.).The Jewells invested about $3 million in this venture, including more than $500,000 in equipment. They save money on some expenses, but pay dearly for others. “Labor is cheap, but gas is high,” Andre said. The Jewells expect to export 20 containers of product at 13 tons each – which would net them a tidy $2 million. More than a decade after they began, they still think they are only just beginning to get in their groove. Their goal “is to hit $150 million and expand the plant,” said Ron.
According to the African American Association of Ghana (AAAG), the country is home to the second-largest group of African American ex-patriots. (Liberia is No. 1.) Many have lived in Ghana for decades, having come originally at the invitation of post-colonial President Kwame Nkrumah, in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Others came later – all drawn by some combination of reclaiming a lost heritage, serving a continent in need, and the possibility of profit and expansion into the global market.
Today, according to the AAAG, about 5,000 African Americans live, work and play in a variety of industries, including the country’s No. 1 economic sector: agribusiness, led by cocoa and timber, pineapples and papaya. AAAG meets regularly, offers trade and economic development tours of Ghana and acts as a support and resource for newly arrived African Americans. Five-year-old New Generation Farms Ltd., is surviving its entry into the motherland. The enterprise sits on a 640-acre plot of land in Akuse, so remote that Maria and Cliff Daniels had to cut their own roads out of the tangled bush. The couple and their three employees plant, harvest, process and distribute quality mixed feed grain and alfalfa hay bales to increase growth rates in livestock and poultry. Cliff Daniels reaped similar harvests in Arizona and retired from the Agriculture Department, where he was a forester in California.. Maria uses her experience to serve as business manager.
The $1.8 million venture is a subsidiary of the Daniels’ U.S.-based company, Ghanaian Feed Farms Inc., which exports seeds, farm equipment, irrigation systems and supplies to underdeveloped countries in Africa. “It’s scary,” Cliff admitted two years into the venture in 2006. Financially, they were running on fumes. Though it’s a common litany for start-ups, it doesn’t sting any less, particularly for someone so far away from home and family.
“The thing you need to remember is you’re pioneering,” he said. “So get ready for some rough stuff. It’s not easy. You’ve gotta have your mind made up that you’re going to do what you came here to do.” Some of the Daniels’ start-up cash is tied up in a court case involving an initial land deal. Property generally is far cheaper than in the States and sometimes given or leased for “free” by local landowners, but deciphering which extended family member actually owns the property can be tricky.
Even with years of research, the Jewells have lost money traversing unfamiliar terrain. They have been able to withstand the deep learning curve of doing business in Ghana for many reasons, including their family’s 38-year-old janitorial and facilities management company back home. It has grossed about $20 million over the last decade.
Over the years, the relationships they’ve nurtured, the stability of the West African nation, and solid economic incentives, including low cost of living, made English-speaking Ghana the top choice for the Jewells. Ghana is also the only African country to offer African Americans the “right of abode,” a part of a tentative, ongoing effort to ease travel and immigration. Here, entrepreneurs attempt to build industry from the ground up or be a part of maturing existing enterprises. “But you’ve got to have the capital,” Daniels said.
American farmer Jawara is also the public relations manager for Africa Up Ltd., a publishing company, and owner of Yes Development, an agricultural development and investment company. He earns about $200,000 annually from farming, he said. Part of his safety net lies in being a part of a larger group invested in doing business in Africa .
On his plot in Kasoa, he and his employees grow cabbage, lettuce, mustard greens, neem (a tree that produces medicinal oils and insecticide) , licorice, lemongrass and more. He is part of a larger Hebrew Israelite community that farms organic produce on about 50 acres, trains locals in different villages, owns restaurants and distributes produce in markets in Europe, Israel and the United States, including the Soul Vegetarian restaurants on North Highland Avenue in Midtown and another on Ralph David Abernathy Blvd. in the West End. Like most agribusiness owners from the West, Jawara is committed to the best of both worlds: combining traditional practices and modern innovations. For instance, he uses solar energy and reservoir and well water for irrigation. He spins out a never-ending list of possible off-shoot ventures, “I need tractors, which are duty free right now.” He said he’s looking to partner with other African American investors/farmers.
Overseas investors are expected to come with $50,000 in cash or equipment to show they’re able to invest; or $10,000 with a Ghanaian partner, according to the Ghana Investment Promotions Center.
Clearly, even those who come with the best of intentions and savings can struggle. Those who jet in hoping to get something for nothing will likely fail. Don’t mistake a sweet, helpful, casual cultural disposition for simple-mindedness. It takes true savvy and perseverance to succeed on African soil. Nuri was hired by David Miller, author of the Miller Report, which was commissioned by the Clinton administration to document discrimination against African American farmers. On the basis of that report, black farmers eventually won a fairly empty victory against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on charges of systemic and longstanding discrimination in lending practices. Miller asked Nuri to help him purchase and operate the Ghana Cotton Company, which produces about 60 percent of the national output of cotton.
A politically connected member of a centuries-old cotton-farming family in southwest Georgia, Miller was invited to the table by the Ghanaian government because of his family’s history, said Nuri. The deal was three years in the making when Nuri came on board. By then, Miller had set up a U.S. holding company and an operating arm in Ghana named GhanAmer Farms. By the time Nuri came on board, it was too late. Miller, he said, hadn’t done proper due diligence, the Ghanaians didn’t really want to sell the company, and bills weren’t being paid Ten months later, the deal had fallen through and Ghanaian officials were the ones looking to recoup lost funds on the enterprise. (Attempts to reach Miller for comment were unsuccessful. )
After that deal fell through, Nuri stayed in Ghana another 11 months working as a consultant for others. Soon after, he returned to Atlanta to pursue his own urban ag venture in “the greenest city in America.” He’s cooled to doing business in Africa, or at the very least, is far more circumspect.
Ron Jewell, who has worked successfully with Nuri and was familiar with the failed Ghana Cotton Company venture, said it is a sobering reminder of the risks of trying to return to Africa to run a business – and an indictment of African Americans who try to take advantage of Africans.
“Know why you’re here,” he said. “Keep your focus. Don’t come here thinking you’re just going to get rich off the backs of slaves.”
Nadirah Z. Sabir is a former staff writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.