AfricaLive: What was your motivation for starting Skylink Agro Solutions, and what would you say is the DNA of the company?
Stephen Wilson: I grew up in a farming community where opportunities were minimal. I saw my parents go through the trouble of processing cassava into ‘Garri’ and other food products. The market for our subsistence farm products was small, yet that was how we fed and got our school fees. Although I was trained as a teacher, I stepped out of that profession to help the local farmers especially, in my rural cassava growing area.
I wanted local farmers to improve their products and find ready markets that would pay well. I went into research to find out what other by-products could come from cassava outside the local staple ‘Garri’. My research efforts led me to set up this company, and my initial task was to process cassava into other things. I was able to provide a market for my local people to sell cassava so that I can process it into other products.
I then took accounting and business administration classes to be able to administer the business as it grows. Since we began, we have positively impacted the lives of local farmers who can now operate with the knowledge that there is a ready market for their products.
AfricaLive: We are aware that you are about to launch a new factory this year. What else do you have lined up, and what is your plan both in the short term and long term?
Stephen Wilson: We have made significant advancements since we started, and just recently we were accepted into the government’s ‘One District, One Factory’ initiative. Though we have not been able to secure government funding yet, we have made progress on the setting up of the new factory. Initially, we thought that the government wouldn’t require much in the way of collateral to issue out funding. The opposite was the case.
We opted to reinvest the margins we made from sales to build our factory instead of waiting for government funds. We have not been able to move on schedule, but we will probably get that done by early next year. Once the new factory is up, we will be able to produce more units at a cheaper cost, which will make us very competitive both in Ghana and across the globe. The plant will be great for the broader community. Local people will add to their income, and jobs will be created.
AfricaLive: Agriculture is a leading sector in Ghana’s economy. What do you consider the primary opportunities and threats in your industry within Ghana and West Africa?
Stephen Wilson: The agri-business sector contributes about 40 percent of the country’s GDP, and this cannot be downplayed. Despite its massive mark on our economy, it is still a growing sector. Those who venture into it will get good returns. The population of West Africa is set to explode by 2030 according to data estimates from multiple sources; this means a large market and many opportunities in the food production sector. Many threats hinder the industry, though. One of the most common challenges is funding.
Without funding, business expansion is not possible. Stagnation in business will lead to collapse within a short time. We also have a problem when it comes to the mechanisation of agriculture because most farmers still depend on the old ways of farming. Climate change also hits us hard because we depend on seasonal rains to farm due to a lack of irrigation systems that can enable all-year-round farming. Aside from the farming part, we also need to standardise our products so that we can penetrate and compete with big international players.
We have taken action by adopting frequent tract farming. Our program involves training farmers whenever necessary to increase their yields and have better produce. We realise that we have to promote farmers because we have shared goals. Training and improving farmers that provide our raw materials means high-quality yields, and a great product for us. Our frequent interactions have yielded significant results that have benefited both parties. We plan to extend our services to other farmers who may not even be in our niche area of production.
AfricaLive: When it comes to production, do you believe Ghana should move past just being a raw material producer and look more into value addition, what would you describe as that value addition?
Stephen Wilson: The transition is long overdue because we must change as the world moves on. If we continue to focus on raw materials, we will keep our revenues low and economies small. Our government must pay attention to the value add agenda now than ever before. The government has done well so far with its setting of factories in strategic places all over the country, and this will help us create products that can be consumed by the international community.
AfricaLive: What is your view on the role of technology in the agriculture sector, and what technologies are you employing at your operations?
Stephen Wilson: With the globalisation of the world, you cannot do business without the use of technology. We have tapped into technology deeply with our production processes highly automated. We depend on machines slowly now as opposed to the old days of farmhands doing all the work manually. If we want to compete globally, we have to incorporate e-commerce as well, which we are doing. So technology is an integral part of what we are doing and how we plan to reach a broader market.
AfricaLive: The official launch of the African Continental Free Trade Area agreement (AfCFTA) is set for next year. Can the Ghanaian agribusiness sector take advantage of it to develop as an export hub?
Stephen Wilson: The trade area agreement is a huge opportunity, and we were chosen as the headquarters for the secretariat for a reason. We are more politically stable than most countries in Africa, and I believe we can be a significant export hub. If we set up more industries to turn our raw materials into finished products, we can set ourselves up to benefit from the increased intra-African trade. We trade more with Europe than we do internally, and the agreement will open doors for us to boost continental trade relations. Agribusinesses have to be ready for the opportunities of the future in West Africa.
Our government is conducting numerous training all over the country to get us ready, and I believe we will be able to compete favourably. We are currently working on certifications to ensure we are adequately tooled as floodgates of trade opportunity prepare to open. Our plans going forward include the building of an ultra-modern facility to boost production and revenue, as well as increasing our product lines for more diversity.
AfricaLive: As you prepare for a brighter future, what markets do you want to gain exposure in?
Stephen Wilson: We have always wanted to make an entry into the EU market as well as America. We are just about to overcome the certification barriers that have kept us from accessing these markets. Once we have tooled properly, we will make our move. Here on African soil, we are targeting Nigeria and other markets in the sub-region.
AfricaLive: What is your message of confidence regarding your company, as well as your country?
Stephen Wilson: We have grown in leaps and bounds from a tiny cassava processor to a respectable exporter with limited financial resources. As long as we keep the standards high, we will only continue to grow and prosper. Ours is a company any investor would look at favourably. Successive Ghanaian administrators have done well to keep our country politically stable and investor-friendly. The current regime is laying the foundation for an industrialised and even more successful Ghana.