Near the Ethiopian village of Hidi, a navy blue container with its sharp edges stands out among the otherwise well-formed nature of the Mojo valley. If it was not for the container underneath Jan van de Haar’s boots, the scene might evoke biblical associations in the country also referred to as the cradle of mankind. “What I envisioned for 2012 was to be spread over the country, having roughly 100-120 employees,” he says gazing over the valley. The first part of his vision for Solagrow PLC came true. The general manager and his team now run eight farms across Ethiopia, however not with 120 but with over 470 employees.
Here in Egdu, 50km southwest of the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, the company has its headquarters. To Jan’s right, test plots of different crops represent the core of his business: supplying Ethiopian farmers with agro-inputs. If a good local seed variety exists but is not widely available on the market, Solagrow will improve it and make it available for sale. If there are not any good varieties available, the company will import them from the Netherlands. Being a researcher himself, he knows the process of trial and error, studying the complexity of cause and effect to see what triggers certain reactions. This also became crucial when he started Solagrow in 2006. “For me personally I like it. There is no fixed answer. You have to keep analysing to see what’s behind it but this is part of who I am,” he says.
He waves at the farmers and agronomists who have spent the last hours on the demonstrations plots. All activities follow the simple motto of ‘seeing is believing’. “There is this wonderful saying: when you show someone, he’ll forget. But if you let him do it himself, he’ll remember,” he says. Ethiopians are not easily convinced though. In the beginning, a lot of field visits were needed to encourage farmers to try Solagrow’s improved varieties. Even though his expertise lies in potatoes, he soon realised that farmers wanted the full package. Besides potatoes and beans, Solagrow also supports the inputs for linseed, barley, cabbage and onion.
He climbs down the container and goes over to the fields. In his experience, agricultural improvements are not openly shared among farmers, which negatively influences the model farmer approach. “In my opinion, it [the approach] is a great Dutch invention that is not working in Ethiopia,” he says. According to him, every farmer has a story and thus represents a ‘model’. His adventurous and committed spirit seems to have passed on to the genes of his five children, who all moved to Africa with him. Setbacks like heavy rains or clashes between local and western thinking are faced together. “At this moment, Ethiopia is at 30% of its potential. […] If we assist the 30 million smallholder farmers to produce a little bit more, we can gradually overcome food insecurity,” he says in an optimistic voice. Hopefully his vision will be brought to fruition.