Many economists say if Africa is going to develop, it has to get involved in the international economy. So far, the continent lags far behind Asia and other parts of the world in exports. But a young Ghanaian with expertise in business development is trying to change all that. From Accra, Ghana, Joana Mantey has a profile of entrepreneur Reuben Coffie.
Agricultural economist Reuben Coffie thinks he can turn around the fortunes of small farmers and agribusinesses.
Sure, they can feed themselves and sell to the small local market. But what about the promise of greater growth by tapping into foreign markets?
Most of them have small plots of land and use outdated technology. They?re also not sure how to gain access to international markets, where they can get more for their produce.
Coffie says he has a passion for helping small farmers and small agricultural exporters succeed. He?s had six years of experience working with two groups to prove it.
Today he?s working on a project funded by USAID known as the Trade and Investment Program for Competitive Export Economy.
As the team leader of the Smallholder Development component of the program, Coffie is able to work in an organization that shares his vision.
Coffie and his team develop and implement strategies for producers of crops that may have export potential, including cashews, pineapples and pawpaw.
These efforts are plagued by poor yields and product quality ? problems Coffie says he?s determined to reverse:
?What we do," he said, "is build their capacity, build their knowledge base, pass on some innovative ideas, train them in the best techniques to improve what they do and get them to understand requirements of the [export] market, like certification issues."
HARVESTING OVERSEAS MARKETS
Coffie?s programs use posters, demonstration farms and other methods to train farmers in ways to improve their yields.
So far, 15,000 farmers have benefited. The aim is to reach 100,000 more by the end of the project ? which could be extended beyond 2009, when it is schedule to end.
He?s happy with some of the successes so far.
?Many small farmers were not exporting mangoes because they could not get their produce up to international market standards," he said. "With a lot of knowledge and training, a lot of that has changed. Last season, two groups of people in the Yilo Krobo area [of the Greater Accra Region] exported two containers of mangoes for the first time.?
Another success story involves the Kotoko Takpoom Vegetable Growers group in the Greater Accra region. Coffie said its members usually grow cabbages, peppers, tomatoes and carrots on about half an acre of land. They are grown three or four times a year and earn about $30 per harvest.
But Coffie has improved their situation. He told them to grow okra during the off-season. The result has been a stunning increase in earning power. In a year, the farmers may have earned a bit over $100 from growing cabbages, peppers and other common vegetables. But with the okra added to the mix, their yearly income has more than quadrupled, to about $720.
Coffie quotes one of the farmers, Daniel Fuafo, as saying the money will help them pay for their children?s education and help lift them out of poverty.
Coffie said pineapple farmers in Ghana have also been encouraged to shift from the production of the smooth cayenne variety of the fruit to the sweeter MD2 type, which is more popular on the international market.
He said the result is more money for Ghana?s farmers.
SEEING IS DOING
Coffie said officials and extension agents need to show the farmers how easy and practical the new methods are.
He said, ?New concepts are not easily acceptable. You have to package and design them in a way that is easily acceptable. When small farmers see the demonstrated effect of an action, they pick it.?
HARD WORK AND A COMMITMENT TO OTHERS
Coffie used this same concept on a previous project for CARE International. That one, also funded by USAID, involved helping small enterprises.
In one effort, he helped small producers of herbal soap develop a market for West Africa.
In another, he taught employees of some micro enterprises to make furniture from bamboo both for local sale and for export.
?I have a passion for making real change visible in people?s lives," said Coffie. "I thought that there is a huge opportunity to make that difference in small micro businesses by bringing to their doorstep the very fundamental things that make things happen by doing things differently.?
That desire has been with Coffie since childhood, when he had to pay his way through primary and high school. He said he raised money for fees while staying with his grandmother and helping out on the farm, weaving baskets or fishing.
For three years after completing secondary school, he waited ? and worked at home ? until he received a scholarship that paid his way to Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow. There, he earned a degree in economics.
Unlike many graduates who grew comfortable living in the industrialized world, Coffie took a different path. He joined the ranks of many Ghanaians in the Diaspora who come home to help develop the country. Back in Accra, he worked with the Graphic Communications Group and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
Coffie says he?s optimistic that Africa can profit in the global economy ? especially if it develops micro-enterprises that can produce desired goods for the world market.
He says his own experience shows that people can transform their lives. If he has his way, within 10 years he?ll be managing a major economic program that will help people meet that challenge.