Incubating Entrepreneurs and Businesses in African Agriculture: An Interview with Nii Simmonds

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By David Batcheck 

Name: Nii Simmonds

Affiliation: Co-Founder & Program Director The DAIN Network (Diaspora Angel Investment Network)

Bio: Nii Simmonds is a recognized speaker and consultant on African entrepreneurship/SME development and innovation in Africa.


How can the DAIN Network empower Africans to build sustainable enterprises?

Through an agricultural incubator, where people can see ideas that can scale. We’re focused on post-harvest losses, that’s where our target is. The average African crop has about 20-40 percent post harvest losses, depending on the sector and market. In the United States, if you have an idea you have a variety of options: a business incubator or small business development center. We’re trying to take the Silicon Valley incubation model to Africa and use the Diaspora to provide mentorship and technical assistance.

Who are some of the partners you are working with?

We’ve partnered with USAID, the World Bank, the National Peace Corps Association—the alumni association for returned Peace Corps volunteers, the Dutch government, who probably has the most people per capita working in agriculture than any other nation in Europe and they do a lot in terms of sustainable development in agriculture. We’re also talking to the cocoa industry—about 40 percent of cocoa is lost during post harvest loss. We’re targeting the cocoa industry like a laser because we think we can help the African farmer by scaling ideas that help with alleviating post harvest losses.

How does the DAIN Network act as sort of a bridge between investors, assistance, and entrepreneurs?

One of the biggest issues I hear from venture capital and angel investors is they can’t find an idea to invest in. The people that are raising funds are looking at it like this: they want to pump oil through the pipeline, but they don’t want to build the pipeline. Nobody wants to teach entrepreneurship or basic skills where people can scale the rights ideas for investments.

On the flip-side, I have people who have great ideas, but they’re not scaling the right ideas. So that’s where this incubation model comes into play. We also have a mandate that 50 percent of businesses that come through our incubator are women owned or women led. Most of the farmers in Africa are women, and the middle man (usually male) takes all the money.

Are there other areas besides cocoa that stick out to you?

We’re interested in any crop that can utilize some kind of innovation technology that can be scaled in order to employ a lot of people. But it has to attract investors, who are only interested in ROI (return on investment) and nothing that doesn’t meet their investment criteria.

What is the biggest challenge or road block hindering the success of a fair, productive, sustainable agricultural system?

We really need to focus on cooperative farming, so that you can leverage capital. We need to start teaching basic entrepreneurship to individuals so they know how to build sustainable businesses. Because farming inputs are expensive, farmers have to buy fertilizer, seed, equipment—some of these farmers are still using backhoes and rakes that they shouldn’t be using.

What do you see for the future of sustainable agriculture in Africa? What is your dream?

To me, agriculture in Africa is a green field. We have a billion people and in 20 years 1.5 billion people, so we’re in trouble. There are three reasons why we have food security issues: speculation, climate change, and biofuels. There’s going to be a lot of strain on resources. We already have a lot of food in the system, but we have to figure out ways of keeping the food we have from spoiling and innovative ways of growing more food.

David Batcheck is an intern with Nourishing the Planet.

To purchase State of the World 2011: Innovations that Nourish the Planet please click HERE. And to watch the one minute book trailer, click HERE.

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