“I walked outside the Ghana Institute of Management after 2 weeks of executive classes and thought to myself, ‘this is the craziest thing I have ever done, this is never going to work.’”
The journey of Africa Atlantic has been one of tough lessons, hard-earned victories and unstoppable energy–a journey that has held just as much reward as sacrifice. Jon Vandenheuvel, Co-Founder and CEO, describes a moment above in the early days of Africa Atlantic where the task seemed too daunting, too impossible to be realized. But there is no reward without challenge.
Jon met Co-Founder and Managing Director, Kris Klokkenga, in 2008 and the two decided something could be done in Ghana to bring opportunities to farmers and help them become more productive. Kris had been developing ideas, then serving as a factory General Manager for Archer Daniels Midland Company (U.S. Fortune 100) in Tema, Ghana, and the two started to plan and dream about the possibilities. In the spring of 2009, Jon and Kris agreed to team-up, and Jon made preparations to move his family to Ghana. Their view was that so many people talk about big ideas, but rarely do these ideas take off. Better to start with boots-on-the-ground, with a small farm, yet a real, actual farm, than just talk about it. So the two decided to pool their resources and start Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms in the summer of 2009, incorporating the business in Ghana in September.
In the fall of 2008, Jon also met Issa Baluch, a Dubai-based freight and logistics industry leader who was the Founder and Chairman of Swift Freight International, and the President of the International Federation of Freight Forwarders Associations. Issa and Jon formed a friendship that eventually led to Issa’s decision to support Africa Atlantic and to form a strategic investment company called Africa Atlantic Holdings that would help finance the start-up of Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms in Ghana.
When he moved with his wife Vicki and three daughters in the summer of 2009, Jon was joined by Andrew Chandler, a recent graduate of Florida State University and family friend. Andrew moved to Ghana and lived with the Vandenheuvels and Kris Klokkenga in the start-up days of the project, and then later moved to the farm and served as a key early staff member in the establishment of the farm.
Jon and Kris met Dr. Edward Appah, MD, who was born and raised in Ghana and moved to Germany where he trained in medical school and was a successful surgeon for several decades before returning to Ghana to retire and help develop the economy of the Kwahu area. Dr. Appah and his wife, Helen, had a passion for developing their community and arranged for land on the Afram Plains to be identified for potential agricultural development. Jon and Kris formed a partnership with Dr. Appah in October of 2009.
In early 2010, Chandler was joined by another Florida State graduate, Andrew Thompson, and they become a critical team in the early formation of the farm on the shores of Lake Volta.
After months of research, planning, prayers and preparation, the Africa Atlantic dream began to take shape in the form of a small makeshift camp along the fertile shores of Lake Volta. Armed with nothing more than plans and power tools, the Africa Atlantic launch team arrived in 2009, organizing what would eventually become a large scale farming operation complete with tractor fleets and irrigation systems. “Those first few months were just hard,” says Vandenheuvel, “Without the incredible sacrifice of my partner, Kris Klokkenga, along with Chandler and Thompson, the project would never have gotten off the ground. These guys slept in tents, trucks, and shipping containers to get land cleared and get the test crops in the ground.”
Over the course of many months and seasons, Africa Atlantic has built a solid foundation for scaled, commercial farming in Ghana. Vandenheuvel credits the investment and vision of many key partners as crucial to the forward progress of the operation. “From the strategic vision of Issa Baluch, to the amazing farmland on Lake Volta identified by Dr. Appah to the boots-on-the-ground determination of Kris Klokkenga, I knew when these kinds of alliances emerged that we really had something, that things were clicking.”
Issa Baluch joined Harvard University in 2011 as a Fellow and this started the journey that has now become the African Agribusiness Knowledge Centers (AAKC). Working with Harvard Professor Calestous Juma, and MIT Associate Provost Wesley Harris, Issa Baluch and the Africa Atlantic team have formed a research and training initiative in association with MIT and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Science, Technology, and Globalization Project, that will offer technical and entrepreneurial training to youth and professionals. AAKC, located alongside a commercial farm on 25,000+ acres on Lake Volta, will bring the knowledge and access of modern commercial agribusiness into the rural African context.
With expectations to expand to 500+ acres by first quarter 2014, the Africa Atlantic vision is now ready to be more than dream or a wish–but a reality… a reality with some far-reaching implications.