This unassuming entrepreneur from Benin has created an alternative to chemical fertilizers that most farmers use in Africa. He is the CEO of AGRECO Sarl and at 22, is looking to expand his company creating impact across West Africa.
THE RISE IN FOOD PRICES AS a result of the war in Ukraine is accelerating inflation in regions of Africa, a new report by the World Food Programme (WFP) outlines. It says that increasing food prices pose a threat to food security in a region dealing with conflict, climate change, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The report further highlights that countries like South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania and Malawi are highly dependent on imported chemical fertilizer, and shortages will create issues for the next agricultural season’s planting and yields.
Despite this bleak outlook, innovators in Africa are trying to change the game. One of those is Djifa Constant Ayihounoun, from Abomey-Calavi, 20km from the city of Cotonou in Benin.
At only 22, Ayihounoun has already secured his place as an entrepreneur, as the founder of AGRECO Sarl, an organic fertilizer and pesticides company.
In 2018, while he was still a student and trainee at an environmental impact studies firm, he conducted a study merely out of curiosity – on the impact of human economic activities on the environment.
“My research allowed me to discover that agriculture alone is responsible for more than 25% of global warming, and therefore has a huge negative impact on the environment,” Ayihounoun says.
This is echoed by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC, 2013) which says agriculture, forestry, and the alteration of land-use account for as much as 25% of human-induced GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions.
He decided to study agricultural practices in depth. He learned that chemical inputs in fertilizers and pesticides have an adverse impact.
Then, he brainstormed solutions.
Ayihounoun decided to focus on providing information to the main players in the industry, who may be uninformed or have no alternatives. He created an NGO called Africa Bio House at the age of 18, in order to raise awareness to farmers in rural areas.
He holds a degree in Entrepreneurship and Management of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) with a specialization in environment and green economy from the University of Abomey- Calavi in Benin.
Through his study he learned that beyond the soil, chemical inputs have a profoundly negative impact on the environment as a whole, on biodiversity, as well as on humans.
“Speaking of the consequence on the soil, we have discovered that one of the main disadvantages of chemical fertilizers is their high content of sulphuric and hydrochloric acids,” Ayihounoun explains. “These lead to the destruction of microorganisms and trace elements that are present in the soil, thus, the first consequence of the use of chemical fertilizers is the depletion of the soil, which leads to a drop in yield, and the exposure of crops to attacks and diseases.”
“Similarly, substances not assimilated by plants are carried away by the rains and poured into our environment and also infiltrate the soil and pollute the groundwater. Chemical fertilizers due to their harmful chemicals have an impact both ecologically and on our body,” he adds.
Ayihounoun says that the first challenge he faced was raising awareness: bringing farmers together and informing them about the impacts of chemical fertilizer. He solved this by making products freely available, for experimentation and gaining farmers’ trust. Another challenge was the certification and approval process required for the marketing of agricultural inputs in Benin.
“The first gratifying aspects are the satisfaction of our very first customers, it gives a feeling of pride and accomplishment to see a producer who is satisfied and very happy to have used our products. The second gratifying aspect is the awards we have received, especially in terms of grants that allow us to accomplish a lot and move forward.”
In 2021, Ayihounoun became an Anzisha Prize Fellow in recognition of his entrepreneurial efforts.
Throughout school he says he was an ambitious and dynamic boy, who did research on the best young people in Africa and the world. He met a mentor who guided him towards an entrepreneurship training center at his university.
“The hardest part of being a young entrepreneur is that people are reluctant to trust you or take you seriously sometimes. Especially in French-speaking communities where the culture of youth entrepreneurship is not yet developed, basically it is the weight of culture and society. Beyond that, the heavy administrative formalities remain a burden for the youngest at their start,” he explains.
AGRECO Sarl’s fertilizers are made with living matter and the recovery of bio-waste from livestock farms and agro-food processing units.
“It enriches the soil with natural nutrients, increases yield and facilitates the conservation of crops. What differentiates it above all from the others is the fact that it has nematicidal and soil-improving properties because it is enriched with azadirachtin and helps fight against soil nematodes that attack the roots of plants. Beneficial for all soils, all crops, all seasons. Above all, it increases the amount of humus on the soil, ideal for soils low in organic matter.”
Soil nematodes are the worms responsible for plant diseases. Some soil nematodes are beneficial, but more study has gone into those that negatively affect plants.
Azadirachtin is used as a general-use pesticide, found in the seeds, bark, and leaves of the neem tree. It is regarded as having low toxicity to mammals and the environment and even bees, when used correctly. Humus is the substance remaining after plants and animals have decomposed through a process done by earthworms, bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms, found in the top few inches of soil.
Ayihounoun’s company is expanding into the northern region of Benin, a big step for them as it means increasing production capacity. Since its creation, AGRECO Sarl has impacted over 500 people.
“Currently, we are concentrating on developing a large clientele and mobilizing resources to launch industrialization.”
The high cost of the certifications, marketing approval for the production process and product is the main reason they are concentrating on organic fertilizers.
Later, they will move on to biopesticides.
They want to roll out their products beyond Benin, namely to Togo, Burkino Faso, Niger, Mali and Senegal.
He says these countries have a huge need for organic fertilizer. After conducting a study in Togo, they believe they could expand there first.
Africa could face challenges head on, with environmentally- conscious and innovative people like Ayihounoun.
The question remains, where will our investments go – to the historically profitable and known, or the new and sustainable?