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“Writing a story and changing my father’s land!” – Ako Gunn’s startup in Togo

Food waste is an alarmining phenomenon – huge losses of food are linked to problems during harvesting, storage and the processing. Witnessing these problems and inspired by other students planning to change the world, Ako Gunn wants to launch a startup in his homeland Togo.

Ako Gunn

What is your startup “Proud Togo” about?
Ako: My social enterprise project will be implemented in Togo, a small developing country in West Africa with rich soil. The idea came from some alarming reports that address the global waste of food, in particular of fruit, crops and vegetables. Many food companies are now interested in the same issues. Aware of this, my project in Togo consists out of the re-evaluation of unbakeable and undervalued fruits, crops and vegetables (those left in the fields), in order for them be manufactured and turned into finished products to be injected into the consumer circuits. In concrete terms, through an innovative partnership between producers and local people, my small manufacturing social enterprise will collect, sort, and process these products to make finished products such as juices, purees and jams. They will be designed for our different groups of customers: retail, communities, catering and receptive tourism.

Do you have a set date on which you want to found your startup?
Ako: I want to implement my startup during the third quarter of 2017. Currently, I still am taking my Master courses in Social Business and Entrepreneurship in France and I’m about to finish this upcoming September after the presentation of my thesis in September 2016. My plan is to return in Togo, in December 2016, in order to run and realize a feasibility study for my startup. Then, from December 2016 to March 2017, I will initiate an online crowdfunding through websites or other suitable channels. Behind all this, I set a schedule, a step by step plan, in order to achieve this.

What is the origin of your startup?
Ako: My social venture idea comes from my experiences and what I’ve witnessed across my country Togo and other sub-Saharan countries I’ve been to such as Benin, Burkina, Côte d’Ivoire etc. Firstly, in Lomé, I was involved in a worldwide student’s organization called AIESEC in Togo. I discovered talented people who want to contribute to changing our world. I made my way from my university studies years until I finished my Master at the University of Lomé, Togo. This is where the idea begun.
The big plan is to create a small “holding of social business” with a charity creation and a small and medium social enterprise (SME).
I started realizing a strong desire to do something myself, such as creating an enterprise, in Togo, as Togo is one of developing countries in the sub-Saharan region in Africa. When saying “developing country” it explains almost everything: lack of training, lack of projection of oneself, the economical situation, health issues, food insecurity; even though my country is said to be a high potential agricultural country in West Africa.

My arrival in France two years ago has obviously changed my way of thinking, my mind-set and has turned my entrepreneurial outlook skills into a priority.

Through my reading and research on internet, I discovered this alarming situation of food waste and losses. This waste can be observed during the industrial processing phases, distribution and consumption. Therefore, it was to me like a wake up call to do something. Food waste and losses have become an alarming subject in medias in France and in some other countries as well. And they feed discussions according to international institutions like World Bank and other international NGOs. Food waste has become a very alarming phenomenon everyone talks about. I saw some companies, whilst visiting some commercial fairs, interact with some social entrepreneurs that are trying to tackle these matters.

In Togo in particular about 40 % of agricultural production is lost (sometimes simply lost before it could be consumed), additional 10-15% are lost during processing, transport and storage. Thus, my social enterprise project will be implemented in Togo, a small developing country in West and will consist of the revaluation of unbakeable and relegated fruits crops and vegetables (those left in the fields) in order to be manufactured and turned into finished products to be injected into the consumer circuits. Through an innovative partnership between producers and local people, my small manufacturing social enterprise will collect, sort, and process these products to make finished products such as juices, purees and jams. They will be designed for our different groups of customers: retail, communities, catering, receptive tourism.

My ultimate idea is to create a “Proud Togo” label that will bind all of our partners together into this project: financial partners, customers and the local population.

I want to create a strong link between farmers and investors, so that they are involved in realizing the local manufacturing and processing in agribusiness for fruits and vegetables as a solution to reduce these losses and food waste by creating something with a new value. I want to start in my country Togo, then why not the sub-Saharan region and why not Africa?

What does your startup mean to you and what makes it special?
Ako: This startup could be described as a great goal and ambition that I still cherishing and that I am working on to achieve. I have the desire to contribute to the emergence of a future young generation, which is much more responsible, more humane and has more entrepreneurs. I’m very positive, optimistic and would like to innovate and realize something in my life and for my fathers’ land. I keep a strong desire to participate in writing a new story and new changes to be implemented on my father’s land. My plan is to return to my country to create wealth. Keeping this dream alive is my calling.

What makes this idea special?
Ako: What make this idea special is that Togo is a small growing country with huge agricultural potentials, with an important production of fruits and vegetables. This is a good opportunity to make this dream, this hope and optimism coming truth. However, an average of 40 % of agricultural production is lost. And fruits and vegetables sometimes are lost before they could be consumed, and additional 10 – 15 % are lost during harvesting crops, transport and storage for lack of manufacturing process. Something must be done. In fact, there is a huge potential for creating wealth and implementing a company for manufacturing fruits, and vegetables into juice, jams, mash etc. and for creating employments for others in need and for contributing towards a positive and ambitious logic of wealth creation and youth and young women poverty alleviation in Togo.
Since 2014, the government of my country has set ambitious goals and a “2030 vision”, in which strategies are set to take economic initiatives and inspire investors confidence for the Togo of tomorrow. SMEs and services producing developments are the key factors for economic growth of the Togo that we want to create till 2030. But this tomorrow starts today in my own point of view. Thus, I choose agribusiness because there is a huge potential and my Master programs are directly linked to Social business and entrepreneurships, public policies and monitoring and assessments.

How many people will be working within the startup? Which professional backgrounds do they have?
Ako: From now on, I will start with a small team of 4 people. They might become associates. I would need to work with accountant and business development young professionals, business administration young professionals, marketing and communication strategies specialists, quality process and light manufacturing products development specialist.

What are the 3 main challenges you are encountering for your startup?
Ako: In my opinions, these challenges are related to funds or finances, land and the cost of markets entry.
Firstly, my main challenge is how to access funds, how to finance the implementation as I want to contribute towards the feasibility study. I have to meet farmers, fruit and vegetable producers, groups or cooperatives and I would like to conduct some markets analyses and segmentation studies on the field in Togo and other sub-Saharan countries like Burkina-Faso and Benin.

Ako Gunn
Ako Gunn

Secondly, how to get land and equipment in order to establish the SME (regarding the access to land, legal and administrative papers for the startup etc) in my country.
Very soon, I will be enrolled in an internship here in France after my exams. Therefore, I will have to save money in order to buy my ticket to return in Togo and run this first feasibility study, which is very important for the project implementation success.
Thirdly, how to handle the cost of market entry in Togo and in the sub-region and to still build upon my professional competencies and enhance my entrepreneurial skills and those of my collaborators’ team as well. So far there are ideas for raising funds like doing crowdfunding until the implementation of the enterprise.

How do you handle stress?
Ako: Life in Europe is not easy at all for me. Living here is a stress, which I have to handle, as no parents, uncle or cousins are here for you. As a concrete example, I need to work and fund my Master courses in France. I struggled but I obviously made it! Handling stress is simple for me: I socialize with friends, ride my bicycle, listen to music, take walks or run. Other times, I quit everything and I watch some series or movies. That seems be very helpful to me.

What are 3 things you hope for in the future and how do you hope to achieve these?
Ako: I hope I can find the appropriate funds to turn this idea into reality and establish this company, contributing towards the tackling of youth unemployment and young women and youth poverty alleviation as well as local development issues in Togo.
I want to contribute to federate local population, youths, partners in development institutions (international NGOs, United Nations Development program, European Union, Die Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit-TOGO, France Development Agency-Togo, etc.), financial structures or institutions around the Label “Proud Togo”.
I hope decentralization become really effective in Togo as I aim to become a mayor in one of our cities in Togo and to continue working for community development and social and economical infrastructures’ enhancement for the benefit of my fellow Togolese.

To achieve this there must be a strong hope and I need to build the Trust through work, commitment, action for poverty alleviation among youth population, community development programs implementation and social impact we create.

Then at the same time, I hope I can also have a rich professional career working in the field of local development (social, economic and environmental centred) that will benefit my country, increasing growth and prosperity. I must continue setting goals and priorities, continue working on them and give myself the chance to succeed, facing challenges to achieve not only for me but Togo and Africa’s youth development, which needs to be a priority behind it all.

How do you plan to finance the founding of your startup?
Ako: First I would like to found a crowdfunding for the startup and the charity that will help to raise funds in order to run community development projects with farmers, fruit and vegetable producers in rural and peri-urban areas in Togo and create a light manufacturing that will become a value added company that will create, distribute and employ local people, especially young women and youths.
Second: Put own funds towards starting markets analyses and feasibility studies in Togo
Third: Put down own funds for legal and administrative stuffs with the Entreprises Formality Center in Lomé, Togo
Fourth: Look for associates and limited loans and limited corporate investments
Fifth: Apply for scholarships from international financial institutions such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund.
And: Put in place a crowdfunding for my social business holding: charity and Limited and simplified social business (Société Anonyme Simplifiée = SAS French spelling).

In connection with this – can you let us know what the approximate costs of daily life in your country are?
Ako: That’s not a statical case in Togo.  The figures I am putting beforehand come from analysis from Numbeo with some own inputs:
(Last update: January, 2016. These data are based on 41 entries in the past 12 months from 3 different contributors according to all entries from all cities in country.  But I put my own analysis and perception according to what I’ve read. I found that it reflects much better the reality in my country now.)

The cost of daily living in Togo depends on the area you are (rural or urban). But in summary, for an example based on an urban area living, the cost of a daily bare majority survival living for one person in Lomé, could be estimated around 6,757 Francs CFA (Local currency) or 10 €.
The guaranteed minimum wage in Togo is 45,000 Fcfa approximatively 70 € per month, which equals 1,500 Francs or 2.30 € a day. The minimum wage rate is therefore 3 times lower than the actual money required to survive, without any kind of entertainment, without health insurance, without hair dressing, without clothing budget, and living in the lowest housing possible. Nowadays, it’s possible but difficult to have a decent life in the capital of Togo (Lomé) even with 10 €/day; not to mention with the 2.30 €/day official minimum wage daily rate. If you happen to have a partner who is not working, a family or children, which are going to school, I wonder how is it possible for those people to make ends meet without engaging in some doubtful behaviour like bribery, corruption, or any other illegal stuff. One way out for young men for example, is that most of them have converted themselves into motorbike drivers that offer their transportation services for people in order to gain daily income and to survive. Among them, we even could find 80% that hold a University degree.

Do you think that you will be able to make a living from running the startup?
Ako: For sure. It’s honourable and inspiring to realize oneself through work, reflexions and commitments. I dare to hope. I am more than sure that I can contribute towards creating a positive impact in my community, as it has been said: “ the night is long but the day still is coming”.

Information on the Togo

Capital: Lomé
Size: 56,785 km²
Population: 6.5 Million
Human Development Index: Rank 162
BIP per capita: approx. 694 US-Dollar (IWF)
Form of government: presidential system with two chambers: national assembly and senate
Independency: 1960

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Author: Sarah Houben

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