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From Executive Board member of Dutch Plantin in Boekel, it’s a big leap to an idealistic entrepreneur in Abidjan, Africa. Fer Weerheijm took that leap. And not without reason. “I had a vision. Improving the local food production and employment in Ivory Coast by means of coconut substrates. I now know that that’s feasible. The company with which I’m realising this vision is booming.”

“Some called me naive, I would rather call myself idealistic”

As we call Fer, he just so happens to be in the Netherlands. He divides his time between his two companies: Independent Substrate Consulting in Vlaardingen and Agrifer in Ivory Coast. “Actually, I don’t think of Agrifer as a company. It’s my mission. A mission with a company. In 2015, I decided to spend half of my time and assets on improving the vegetable production in West Africa. All by myself, without subsidies or authorities that could delay matters. Naive? I would rather call it idealistic. Today, just under three years later, I’m proud to show you what we’ve achieved so far.”

Twelve dollars for a kilo of tomatoes

It all started in 2008, when Fer visited Ivory Coast for the first time on behalf of Dutch Plantin. “It struck me then how many vegetables were imported and how much consumers had to pay for them. Twelve dollars for a kilo of bad tomatoes, for example. Vegetables are certainly being cultivated here, but the produce is lousy. For starters, there is a lack of proper horticultural training. Although courses in horticulture are offered, at a university level even, they include zero practical experience. Often, graduates – and even teachers – have never set foot on a field.”

Learning to work together

Vegetable growers in Ivory Coast, mostly small farmers with little more than a few hundred square meters of land, do not have the money to invest. In addition, Fer tells us, the deep-rooted West African culture forms quite an obstacle for further development. “If you can’t invest, you could work together with others. But to work together, you must be able to trust each other. And trust is precisely what’s lacking among the people of Ivory Coast. In an unsafe environment, where life is a struggle, people are afraid to lose what they have, and they are jealous of those who have more. Look, in the Netherlands the rules are clear: you work, you do your best, and you receive an income in return. Perhaps some respect, as well. In Ivory Coast, however, the more you do your best and the more you earn, the more your colleagues, family and friends will distrust you. Let alone that they wish to work with you. That mentality is not very easy to change. What I can do? I can use my own company as an example, to show them that there are other ways of doing things. I hire young people and train them myself. In a safe working environment, I teach them how to work together, as well as all the intricacies of growing vegetables on coconut substrates.”

From lasagne to a complete cultivation concept

It didn’t take long for Fer Weerheijm to become convinced that growing vegetables on substrates was the perfect solution for the horticultural sector in Ivory Coast. His company Agrifer introduced the first grow bags and substrates to the country. However, the results were disappointing. “Working with substrates asks a lot from farmers. It requires a much more precise fertilisation and irrigation process. And you need tools like pots and such, of course. They simply had no experience whatsoever with any of this. Then one day, as I was cooking a meal for my children here in the Netherlands, it hit me! Do you know those easy-to-prepare lasagne dinners you can buy in the supermarket? The ones that use pictures to give you step-by-step instructions? That was it! We now offer a complete package to our customers – substrates, pots, seeds, fertilisers – as well as a clear, step-by-step plan that is explained through pictures. And not only that, but our consultants – trained by me personally – visit the farmers every two to three weeks to see how they’re doing and how they can help or coach them. That is truly unique in a country like this.”

Faith in each other and in the future

Today, Agrifer has ten permanent employees and the number of customers is increasing rapidly. “A lot of our customers are agricultural cooperatives, subsidised by the World Bank or the local government. It’s becoming more and more common for me to work with local governments, who are increasingly willing to invest in young people and employment. Agrifer helps to put the different parts of the puzzle together. Thanks to Agrifer and the agricultural cooperatives, farmers can further develop themselves. Also, I’m offering a practical training course to young farmers, consultants and managers that is not available anywhere else in the country. This is where young men and women learn everything about the art of horticulture and how to work together. It’s where they learn to have faith in each other and in the future. Faith and trust, that’s exactly what this generation needs to help this country grow.”