“If anyone can tilt the balance in favour of local rice production in Ghana almost single-handedly, it must be Abena Abedi.”
Your first reaction, when she mentions that she’s a rice farmer, is to crack up a bit; but then a second look at her unruffled, indulgent smile jogs you into taking her serious. And by the time you’re through five minutes of conversation, you are already in rapt attention to her story of extraordinary doggedness to turn every challenge into an opportunity for wealth creation.
Currently, she has about 100 acres under rice cultivation in three out grower schemes, in the Volta and Eastern Regions, with an objective to hit 50 schemes by 2018. It all started when she identified challenges confronting rice farmers, in the Volta Region, on whom she had gone to collect data as a part time project and realised she could make some money by providing them with solutions.
It is a compelling narrative that reveals Abena Abedi’s relentless resolve to hit bull’s eye in any endeavour, no matter how illusive the target proves to be initially. A young, sophisticated, well-educated modern lady who hides little about her desire to “be counting lots of money in the near future”, Abena is paradoxically down-to-earth and recognises that she first has to roll up her sleeves and get dirty with some serious work, to be able to make the kind of wealth she so desires.
Fortuitously, it is in the marshy, mosquito-infested paddy fields that she has to break her back and her finger nails to satisfy her innate entrepreneurial instinct.
“My natural appetite has always been to farm but the last thing on my mind was rice farming,” says the young agricultural science university graduate who discarded a suggestion by her professor, a little over five years ago, to pursue an M-Phil programme at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI); “because at the time, I had this perception that local rice was dirty, full of stones and wasn’t something I really wanted to pursue. It was the last of the crops I wanted to consider.”
However, her experience with the rice farmers, in the Volta Region, aroused her distinct business instincts. They had challenges with machinery services for harvesting and for threshing, challenges with the procurement of agro-chemicals in the form of fertilisers, weedicides and fungicides, as well as, good planting material, which all contributed immensely to their poor harvests, poor quality of produce and, consequently, poor returns on all their efforts invariably translating into to poor livelihoods.
Abena calculated she could make some money providing those services to the farmers and taking payment in the form of rice that she would then market herself.
But she first needed money to be able to provide the services the farmers required.
So straight into her first employment, after National Service, she added her second month’s salary to some savings she had made from National Service, borrowed an additional GHC400 from her brother, which all totalled up to the GHC3,500 she needed to acquire a thresher to provide service to the farmers.
She first bought the thresher, a machine used to separate the stalk from the rice paddy after harvesting because the farmers had at the time already planted and were about to harvest.
Then she realised her first mistake. She didn’t have a trained thresher operator who could work in her absence. She improvised by moving to the fields on weekends to do the threshing herself, because she was still occupied by her work in Accra; a drive of about four hours to Ve Golokwati and surrounding rural settlements where the farmers were located.
While the farmers were faithful in paying for this service, she immediately realised another mistake of hers; it was in supplying the farmers with foliar fertiliser, which was also to be paid for in produce.
“Most of those who took the fertiliser defaulted because I was rather weak in monitoring and also wrongfully assumed they would be faithful; I didn’t know some of their farms and because there was some period between fertiliser application and harvesting, most evaded paying when the time was due,” Abena recounts.
But she also observed that farmers’ attitude of avoiding paying for services rendered them was more deep seated than just the case of weak monitoring on her part. it was more of an erroneous perception that those services were ostensibly an extension of government interventions. To them, it’s the usual political game-playing by politicians to procure their support and votes. The farmers, therefore, didn’t see any need to pay for those services.
“Doing both jobs at the same time was quite tough,” she recollects with a hearty chuckle, explaining that she had to transport the rice back to a processor in Hohoe. She subsequently sorted it into grades in order to sell and make her money.
Notwithstanding all those challenges, Abena was able to realise some healthy returns on her investment, judging by the stock of paddy rice she had as payment.
It became more interesting as the days went by, from when she bought the machine, through visiting the farms and observing what happened. “It was a great challenge and at the same time thrilling as I realised that I was about to solve a problem,” Abena says.
For her, the natural progression was in scaling up her operations. And incidentally, having issues with her job at about the same time, she decided “to take this rice thing as a full time job,”
She had learnt a few lessons in her first operation; that harvesting early assured her of a higher percentage of long grains, which she was able to sell at a higher price, as against broken grains.
“I knew that if they had access to a reaper they would be able to harvest early and have a good grain which amounts to premium rice.”
So there again Abena needed money to procure a reaper for her next operation.
She experimented with her family and friends and the feedback was encouraging so she wrote a proposal and showed it to them.
“I told them they could each invest in an acre of rice farm, which I would manage for a fee; at the end of the season, I would harvest and give them everything.
“In my mind, I was using them as my test case of setting up my business; in their minds, they were farming so they saw themselves as absentee farmers,” Abena reveals, but this created a problem.
The learning experience for her, here, was that having no background in finance, she should have consulted in drawing up her budget. She naively took all the risks because she needed their money to do something that they otherwise were not really interested in doing. She did her calculations and promised them interest on their investment as an enticement, ignoring the reality that, in project management, things don’t usually go exactly the way they’ve been estimated on paper; that things will often go wrong.
Because she needed to be mobile from home to the farm, she bought a motorbike, for example, which didn’t reflect in the budget.
Cost of labour in the area was another issue. Because the locals were lazy, she had to import labourers andit also was standard practise that they’re housed, fed and transported, aside of their wages.
“Of course, I did not factor all that in my budget so already there was deficit,” Abena says, revealing that she had to actually spend some of her management fees on labour.
She bought a reaper, with which they were able to harvest a portion of the field. And ever the one not to be perturbed by a setback, after heavy rains logged their field and thus delaying the harvest and resulting in a lot of broken grains, she decided an irrigated field would be better for her next expansion.
When she realised stocks of rice to sell, were piling up, Abena sought the services of her university roommate, with a marketing background, to assist in that regard. On realising she couldn’t pay her the contract fee at the end of the period she convinced the friend to work for equity, to which the friend agreed and now owns 20% of the company.
After two years of quibbling about branding strategy, they have finally settled on a plan and name for their rice.
“Through our research at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, we found that most of the huge companies importing rice into Ghana absorbed up to 15% of locally produced rice in their marketing operations by bagging premium local rice under some of the imported brand names and selling on the local market.
“So our position now is; why don’t we also project our product in a similar manner to create space for our product before people get to know it is actually produced in Ghana,” Abena explains.
So they printed sacks in China and have been sorting out their rice into grades, ready to hit the market this Christmas season with their unique brand.
“But all through the period, our anxieties haven’t been only about branding. We have had to diversify our operations. Previously, I was doing a lot of consultancy for free – people called me to see about their challenges and what solutions I could proffer – this time we put them under consultancy and charge for all that,” Abena says.
They also have stepped up supplying more farmers with materials as well as machinery services.
Meanwhile, they’ve begun implementing the decision to diversify away from rain-fed farming by acquiring an irrigated area at Asutuare in the Eastern Region, a government acquired land under Kpong Irrigation Projects, which in turn is under the Ghana Irrigation Development Authority (GIDA).
This is turning out to be a nightmare because of land tenure issues, as locals assault their workers even though this is government acquired land and the their workers and the GIDA seem powerless in enforcing their authority. Abena has decided to use the land in seed multiplication rather than in cultivating for the market.
Another decision out of this challenge has been to go into out grower schemes than into own production. Though the out grower plan was for a later date, going into it now has proved to be even more beneficial and productive than she thought.
Given their challenges with the government acquired land at Asutuare, Abena has a serious word for government in its efforts to promote local rice production, especially with the new scheme of identifying 10 young farmers and advancing them cash to modernise and expand their operations. She argues that if a basic thing as land tenure would pose such a challenge, she doesn’t see how the scheme is going to work for anyone.
Presently, they have three out grower schemes with 22 farmers cropping over a hundred acres in three districts across the Eastern and Volta Regions.
“We also now have our roles clearly cut out. Because I’m a highly technical person, I’ll focus on the farming operations while my partner focuses on marketing and HR operations,” she explains.
With regards to refinancing their expansion activities, they haven’t had to contract any bank loan, but have basically ploughed back much of their earnings into expanding their base and even though they are still indebted, to a small extent, they have acquired more machinery from the Agricultural Engineering Services Directorate (AESD) on hire purchase, where they pay for about 70% of the value and the remaining 30% is spread over a three-year period.
“But of course, those machines are not as robust as you having your money and buying a combine harvester from Thailand,” says Abena who reveals that, that is next on their agenda.
“One thing I realise is that rice farming is capital intensive so if you stay small you will be wasting your time. It’s either you go big or you get out; that’s the rule of the game. And that’s how I intend to play the game; to grow big in the shortest possible time.”
Of course, this bravado can only come from a deep knowing of the workings of the business acquired from playing along the entire value chain of the industry. In all likelihood, this young lady will realise her dream of counting a lot of cash and would succeed in making a big statement for local rice production.
Perhaps a statement louder than anyone has made so far.