What am I Doing Here? Part III.I: Taimako Enterprises

I’ve talked about how impact investing, socially-motivated businesses and technical assistance are supposed to work together to improve the lives of people in a community, why EWB Canada is involved in this area and why we suspect it to be a powerful leverage point for large-scale impact, and how this connects upstream to larger patterns in the development world. This time around I’ll finally get into the details of what I have been up to.  In short, I’m currently involved with three main projects and partially involved with a few others:

  1. My main focus is as a technical advisor and embedded business consultant within Taimako Enterprises based in Tamale, Ghana. My role here is to work closely with the ownership and management of this growing, second generation family business to catalyze change and to help them realize their plans for the future .
  2. Through another Business Development Services program, the Mobile Business Clinic, I am coaching a small poultry and animal farming business with their growth as a post-investment, early-stage start-up. (I’ll turn this into its own post once the program wraps up at the end of the month)
  3. Within BDS I am looking at Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) frameworks and internationally recognized social and environmental metrics. The goal is to understand how the social, environmental and economic impacts of many small businesses aggregate to form a lasting positive change in communities and beyond. (This is definitely another post, or even a completely separate blog!)

Taimako Enterprises

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Taimako is where I spend most of my time and where I live. The story of the Taimako’s history, especially as told by the founder, CEO and family matriarch, Madam, Dr. Taimako, is one of the most captivating and inspiring I’ve ever heard. I wish I had a tape recorder with me the last few times she’s told it, but I’ll try to do it some justice here while keeping it brief.

Madam Taimako began as a healer, mid-wife and traditional medicine gatherer in the Northern regions of Ghana. This business soon morphed into the cultivation of traditional herbal plants and shrubs. After losing her husband, the mother of nine faced innumerable odds her, but was able to slowly grow the medicinal/herbal garden and break into the relatively new market for tree seedlings (trees after all have many important medicinal properties). With small steps she was able to expand this seedling business and, in the past decade, Taimako has grown into one of the largest suppliers of timber and fuit tree seedlings in Northern Ghana.

As the tree seedling business was growing, the Taimakos maintained their traditional medicine training and cultivation business, branched into ornamental plants and landscaping, and acquired a large parcel of land from the local chieftaincy to establish a 250 acre Mango plantation (one of the most popular seedlings they produce is mango). Furthermore, in the early 2000s a pronounced need for more senior high level schooling was noticed in the community, especially for those students left behind in the lottery based public school system. This led the Taimakos to establish a low-cost, private senior high school on their property. This school has since grown to an overall enrollment of over 500 students and plans are being formed to build a primary feeder school in the coming years. Finally, as if there wasn’t already a lot happening, the Taimakos are in the middle of establishing a food processing business to capitalize on the eventual output from their mango plantation and the seasonal gluts of produce and grain crops.

Through the years, the business has operated in a fairly informal manner with limited record keeping and management systems in place to track employees, costs and revenues. Taimako was introduced to EWB and BDS through a chance meeting several years ago and a relationship was built after a series of discussions. About a year ago, BDS was brought onboard to help address their self-identified need for improved business systems and overall organizational structure. So, this is where I’ve been working for the past four months as an embedded business consultant.

Below is a quick overview of what I am working on within each of Taimako’s business units with some pictures to bring things into focus.

Seedling Nursery

[pe2-image src=”http://lh3.ggpht.com/-JbyxbsO6-2E/UtTlIRO5KnI/AAAAAAAAExk/8wOcRdO_c44/s144-o/20140111_094450.jpg” href=”https://picasaweb.google.com/115125141620359735160/Taimako03#5968647336400333426″ caption=”” type=”image” alt=”20140111_094450.jpg” ]

This is still by far the largest aspect of the Taimako’s business and produces the most revenue as well as the most challenges. There are three seedling nurseries located in the same general area just outside of town where a dam reservoir provides a year round water source. These nurseries collectively produced well over 1 million seedlings last year (!), with the primary contracts going to the government afforestation program known as SADA. Local mango farmers, municipalities and private businesses make up for the rest of the sales. The varieties of trees currently being cultivated include:

  • Mango: These trees are sold in large quantities to established mango farmers and government initiatives to develop the mango industry in Northern Ghana.
  • Mahogany: These trees are sold to farmers and land owners for land stabilization. They are also sold to government agencies as part of reforestation programs. Mahogany is also vastly used in the timber industry.
  • Shea: Shea trees are sold to farmers for income generation and to reforestation programs.
  • Ceiba, Kpalga, Ebony, Kacia, Albasia, Luccina, Eucalyptus: These trees are sold for reforestation programs and land stabilization. They are not produced in as large quantities as Mango, Mahogany or Shea.

The main challenges involved with this business are organizing the nurseries and work so that better records can be kept and waste and seedling attrition reduced. I am currently looking into ways of tracking the inputs and outputs and how the overall process can be improved and made more reliable.

Mango Plantation

[pe2-image src=”http://lh3.ggpht.com/-JBmdFbJFeAk/UtTk9zHDKhI/AAAAAAAAExM/zVX5WF9fwZc/s144-o/20140111_115338.jpg” href=”https://picasaweb.google.com/115125141620359735160/Taimako03#5968647156515678738″ caption=”” type=”image” alt=”20140111_115338.jpg” ]

As a way of diversifying their business (if you haven’t noticed, they really like diversity) and using the output from their seedling operation, Taimako establish a 250 acre plantation near Pong-Tamale in 2011. Since the trees are still growing and have not yet started fruiting, the work on the plantation is mostly pruning, manuring, mulching and watering. The latter process is accomplished via a tractor filling a large water tank from a nearby reservoir and laboriously hand watering each of the trees [~100 trees/acre x 250 acres = 25,000 trees x 4L of water /tree, every third day in the dry season (Nov-Feb) – it adds up quickly!]. There was an estimate done by another company for a large-scale irrigation system, but it was prohibitively expensive. What I am currently looking into is how such a system could be implemented piece by piece over the next several years, and what sort of farm record keeping would help facilitate this kind of ROI decision-making (i.e. cost of tractor fuel vs. irrigation system over 10 years).

Processing Plant

[pe2-image src=”http://lh4.ggpht.com/-C3jos4WOqg8/UtQ56ztMQ8I/AAAAAAAAEu8/KCbdsmoA6vw/s144-o/20131026_072651.jpg” href=”https://picasaweb.google.com/115125141620359735160/Taimako03#5968459088647701442″ caption=”” type=”image” alt=”20131026_072651.jpg” ]

This is where I’ve spent most of my time so far. From a previous grant, Taimako established a medium scale food processing facility on their property complete with a solar tunnel food dryer. Though this business has been operational for a few years, it hasn’t really taken off as hoped do other priorities. Over the past year, it has become increasingly clear that a steady flow of cash from this business unit would add much need stability to the overall enterprise. Furthermore, local food production, post-harvest losses, food security and rising transportation costs have been hot topics of conversation in Ghana and around the world lately. This food processing facility should be a win-win for Taimako and the local community if it can smooth out the large peaks and valleys of seasonal food production (mangos, tomatoes, groundnuts, etc.) by extending the shelf life through solar drying, juicing, and other preservation methods. It should also, reduce transport costs and dependence on imported foods (why are we eating tomato sauce from Italy?!), provide a number of relatively well-paying, stable jobs and provide a guaranteed market for local farmers to sell their products.

The building is currently being renovated to meet the latest health and safety codes (tiling, glass windows, A/C) and should be fully operational later this spring. I have been doing market research on the peak season of various crops, looking into the production line design of the plant, and doing some research into solar drying and other preservation methods.

The plant is currently slated to produce the following products:

  • Unimix Tombrown (mixed ground corn, soya, rice and groundnuts – used as a sort of morning porridge)
  • Dried mango, pineapple, banana, and coconut chips
  • Ground ginger and chili powder
  • Roasted groundnuts and groundnut paste (peanuts and peanut butter) and roasted sesame
  • Cassava, yam and plantain flour

So there you have it, Taimako in a nut shell! There is quite a bit going on and I’m constantly learning some new thing or another which is a blast. Beyond the more technical work on the business units themselves I am also working with the Taimakos to establish the accounting and record keeping systems befitting of an operation this size. We are also discussing company culture and philosophy in the way they organize their policies towards the community, the environment and their workers (they are already way ahead of what most businesses are doing, but want to be more deliberate about it).

I want to write a lot more about the role of a technical advisor and embedded consultant and some of the advantages and challenges with this approach, but I’ll save that for a future entry. In the meantime, don’t hesitate to question, comment, challenge or suggest a new topic.

Here are some more photos:

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6 Replies to “What am I Doing Here? Part III.I: Taimako Enterprises”

  1. Sounds like fascinating work JH! So changing to a costly irrigation system, how would that affect employment on that business segment? If the current system is labour intensive, would this mean a loss of jobs? Also what kind of risks exist around challenges of repairs and maintenance and would that affect the business’ ability to produce an optimal crop?

    1. Kevin, super good points! I love it! What was proposed by the irrigation system company was in fact a costly, complex system. What Taimako has instead elected to look at is a very simple piece-by-piece modular system to get the job done over the course of a few years. (It would basically look like buying a portable pump and some pipe the first year, buying a water tank the second year and extending the system with pipes, pumps and tanks until it reaches all areas of the farm). There are definitely issues with this approach as well, so what I’m looking at is what info is needed to make these kinds of decisions, who is going to collect it, and what other things might come up in the future (increased maintenance costs and risk, as you’ve mentioned).

      As far as jobs vs. economics vs. the environment this gets to the very crux of the issue of socially/environmentally motivated businesses. So far I haven’t taken a critical look at this subject on this blog, but it’s definitely something to get into. Are X less menial labour jobs worth Y tons of GHGs worth Z dollars of extra revenue? How can you quantify these trade-offs and who makes these decisions? No one in the world has this completely figured out yet, and that’s why I’m excited about at least getting the conversation going. Stay tuned..

  2. What a great post, Jonathan. I finally get an idea of what your main goals and objectives are and how you are using your talents to help these small business. In your section about the “Processing Plant”, what do you mean by “post-harvest losses”? Does this mean food is spoiled before it reaches the plant? Also, is the use of solar panels common over there? Thanks again for a great post and for describing the problems you are helping to solve so clearly. Hope you are well and healthy.–Darlene

    1. Hi Darlene, Post-harvest losses are exactly what you’d guess: food that is wasted or spoiled on its way from the farm to your plate. This is especially important since all the time, money, water and carbon have been already invested in the food. You can read more about the situation in Ghana here: http://www.modernghana.com/news/468875/1/ghana-loses-ghc700000-in-post-harvest-loss.html

      As for solar panels, there are a number of stores that sell complete systems (mostly from China). I haven’t actually seen many installed, despite the constant sun and regular power cuts, which leads me to believe that there are other issues (above and beyond cost) which are holding up adoption. Same goes for N.America you could say. The solar panel on the dryer was installed by the German company who built the unit. It basically acts as control system for the exhaust fans: when the sun is out, the fans move more air to lower the temperature and prevent over-drying; when it’s cloudy you want heat to build up inside so the fans move less air.

  3. I think your integration of the various systems and philosophies is amazing. The educational aspect is a piece which will help carry everything forward through future generations. I hope someday “the developed world?” can rethink peoples lives, food security and the ownership of production. We need to produce, preserve and distribute in our own North American communities. The last canning facility closed in Kelowna long before we were in the fruit growing business. I’m so glad for your blog…being a visual learner I have a little trouble processing when you try and tell me over the phone but hearing your voice is it’s own blessing. Wish I could visit sometime and show your clients how loved you are and how proud of you we are.

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