Making the links

Lydia Madintin Konlan

Ghanaian entrepreneur helps women to find new crops and greater opportunities

In Kpemale, where Lydia Konlan grew up, no one ever came around to tell farmers how to grow better crops. Her parents are small-scale farmers, growing maize, sorghum, and vegetables, including okra and tomatoes, on a four-hectare plot in a small village in northern Ghana. “They had too many challenges with regard to farming,” said Konlan, who is the fourth of their eight children. No one ever trained them on how to succeed in agriculture. Her mother never set foot in a school. Her father’s education ended during middle school.

As she got older, Konlan wondered why no one was coming to help farmers. She decided to study agriculture science in high school. When she graduated, she majored in agricultural extension and economics at the University of Tamale in Northern Ghana.
After finishing that degree, she did research with her supervisor and visited over 3,000 farmers in small communities. Following a year of doing that work, she wanted more training. She went to Germany to study sustainable international agriculture, focusing on rural development economics. After completing her master’s degree, she returned to Ghana with the goal of helping women farmers. She did a six-month internship with SEND Ghana, a non-profit that advocates for women’s empowerment. During that work, she visited 133 communities in Northern Ghana. A subsequent job with a vaccine delivery company further exposed her to the challenges facing women farmers. She then moved to Share Network Ghana. Her work there offered training for women on business, financial literacy, and how to add value to the crops they grow.

That experience led her to understand the need to support women in selling their products. Over $1.4 billion of food produced by small-scale African farmers is spoiled. Some farmers don’t understand what the demand is for what they are growing. Others lack the ability to get their products to market. Konlan decided to start her own business in the fall of 2021. Originally called Rural Agrihub Ltd., it was recently renamed Farmicle Grow. The new name reflects the simplicity and functionality of the company’s farm management platform for seamlessly ordering farm products, Konlan said. The company’s goal is to connect farmers in remote communities with buyers. It teaches farmers when and what to produce and when they can sell their products.

Its first initiative was to market Bambara groundnuts, which are also known as Bambara beans. These round beans, sort of a cross between a chickpea and a pinto bean, are resistant to harsh weather conditions but are underutilized. Konlan found partners who use the beans to make a plant-based milk substitute. In 2022, she supported more than 2,000 farmers in 25 communities in five districts of Ghana to grow this crop. About 50 metric tons of the Bambara groundnuts were grown for export. That experience led her to realize that women farmers were always talking about the same thing: how could they find something they could do for themselves? Men controlled the harvests of major crops and the money that was received when these were sold. Women do not have access to much land.

Konlan then started thinking about ways she could support women. Realizing that many people are already growing vegetables, she looked for alternatives. She came up with the idea of mushrooms. Mushrooms are widely available and used in the south of Ghana, but not in the north. Farmers in the southern part of Ghana enjoy more rainfall and are able to plant two crops a year. Their northern counterparts can only do one crop a year. Konlan got seed funding from the Ban Ki Moon Centre for Global Citizens in Austria, which has allowed her to run a project with 200 women in five communities. The pilot, which runs through August, is a success in terms of its acceptance, a ready market, and consumption of the product within the communities, she said.

Participants initially grew both button and oyster mushrooms but eventually focused just on the oyster variety. The latter type of mushroom is more resilient and able to adapt to the climate. The mushrooms are grown in one-kilogram bags of compost, yielding as much as 75 kilograms. Women can harvest four or more crops from the same bag over the course of a month. It costs 50 cents to make one bag. Women can sell close to $3 worth of mushrooms from that bag.

Konlan won $3,000 from the United College GreenHouse fall 2023 pitch competition. That money will be used to help women set up a compost production system, and to increase the number of women participating in the pilot to 300. Konlan has had conversations with a US company that uses mushrooms to make alternative protein products such as mushroom burgers. That company’s Ghana operation is currently importing mushrooms from South Africa. It would like to process mushrooms in Ghana’s capital, Accra, and then send the processed product to the US. This project is only at the discussion stage. Women taking part in the current pilot do not have the capacity to provide enough mushrooms. Meeting that demand would require massive scaling of mushroom production, she said.

Growing mushrooms is much easier during the rainy season — mostly between May and July — when the weather is coolest. It is possible to grow mushrooms during the dry season. But they need much more care, including irrigation to ensure moist ground, and keeping the surrounding environment cool enough. She realized that to run these sorts of ventures as profitable operations, she needed more business skills. That led to her joining the one-year Master of Business, Entrepreneurship, and Technology program at the University of Waterloo in September.

Women fill bags with compost that mushrooms are grown in.

Farmicle Grow has three part-time staff back in Ghana working on the mushroom pilot, turning agricultural waste into compost.
Konlan has also had a meeting with an Accra firm about sourcing 30 metric tonnes of soybeans. Another project that is on her mind is developing an e-commerce platform and a mobile app to support these efforts. The app would be used by processors, agriculture extension officers, and individual consumers. She is looking to recruit business development and warehouse managers. Transportation is a major challenge. Potential partners want to see that her firm has the infrastructure needed to deliver. Farmicle Grow is a registered business, with an office in Tamale. Tamale is the capital city of Northern Ghana and the third-largest center in the country.

Within five years, Konlan wants to have a well-established marketplace where buyers can get what they want, providing markets for thousands of small-scale farmers. During a previous pilot, she found that ag extension officers had the capacity to reach 500 farmers a month. But they were being asked to work with three times that many. “If we want farmers to be aware of the needs in the market, they should be able to access the necessary inputs to support them in their production processes,” Konlan said. Many farmers in Northern Ghana don’t have smartphones or access to other modern technology. “Farmers need to get to a point where they have access to these new innovations and technologies,” she said.

She wants to set up a dedicated phone number that people can call to hear voicemail messages about ag extension services. Another pilot program that Konlan is involved with targets women growing cowpeas. Cowpea is an annual legume that produces edible beans. It is used to feed both humans and livestock. A university in the Netherlands sponsored this pilot in an effort to find a wheat alternative for making bread. A Netherlands start-up company is looking to partner with Konlan’s firm. Her company would teach women best-growing practices, proper use of inputs, and how to process the dried beans into flour for the European Union market, she said. “Farmers, because of climate change and other issues, they need to adapt, they need to diversify their production.”

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