An innovative company based in Douala was awarded the inaugural Pierre Castel Prize this year, thanks to a technique that enables urban dwellers to grow vegetables and raise fish using only 10 percent of the water needed for conventional agriculture.
It all started when engineer Flavien Kouatcha tried growing potatoes in his region in western Cameroon. “We saw the reality of the situation for African farmers, the obstacles that are restricting their growth; notably a lack of inexpensive logistical solutions to connect rural farms with urban markets,” Kouatcha, the founder of Save Our Agriculture, explained. “We wanted to find a way to produce food directly in towns and cities, in large quantities and at an affordable price.” To grow food in urban areas, where arable land is in short supply, he came up with aquaponics systems in individual kits. These systems reproduce artificial ecosystems where plants, fish and bacteria live in symbiosis, so that the waste of one species serves as food for another.
Kouatcha created his startup in 2015 in Douala, the industrial heart of Cameroon. On October 15, 2018, his company gained international recognition. Save Our Agriculture was awarded 10 million CFA francs (USD 17,300) as winner of the Pierre Castel Prize, created in 2018. This initiative of the Pierre Castel endowment fund “Agir avec l’Afrique” (Act with Africa) aims to provide support and financial backing to projects initiated by young African entrepreneurs in agriculture, agribusiness, agritech and agro-resources – sectors that have high added value and contribute to reducing poverty in Africa. For one year, the founder of Save Our Agriculture will receive guidance and support in developing his project from André Siaka, former CEO of the brewing company Brasseries du Cameroun, a subsidiary of the Castel Group.
Initially, Kouatcha’s startup made small aquaponic production units for individual use. Since then, “we’ve also developed medium volume units, but the costs remain largely above average purchasing power in Cameroon,” Kouatcha said. The engineer financed the launch of Save Our Agriculture with his own savings. Designed for personal or professional use, kits are priced from 80,000 to 600,000 CFA francs. Since late 2017, Save Our Agriculture has also marketed a prototype in a 40-square-metre container.
In a bid to spread beyond the borders of Cameroon, the firm launched operations in Senegal and Rwanda in 2018. “The way that agriculture has been practiced in Africa until now has not enabled us to efficiently feed our populations,” Kouatcha noted. “We must produce food differently, without farmers needing to have high-level technical knowledge.” Save Our Agriculture currently sells the aquaponics units, but also fresh vegetables and fish from the company’s own farm. In the long term, its business model is expected to focus exclusively on designing and supplying agricultural equipment all over Africa, through a network of certified manufacturers.
Three years after becoming operational, the startup has yet to make a profit. “We should see our first positive net result in 2019, taking into account the investments we’ve made until now,” Save Our Agriculture’s accounting service said.
If Kouatcha acknowledges that his aquaponics project “is not the most straightforward of investments,” he remains optimistic about its potential profitability. Save Our Agriculture’s 11-person team supplied organic vegetables and fish to nearly 100,000 Cameroonians in 2017. “It’s nothing when you think that Cameroon has a little more than 23 million inhabitants. But we consider that the main indicator of our performance is the yield from our systems, the length of production cycles, the simplicity of use, and the structuring and efficiency of internal procedures within our company. Once all these aspects have been fine-tuned, we will start to see exponential growth in turnover,” Kouatcha said.
Aquaponics systems spur vegetables to grow up to three times more quickly than with chemical fertilisers, and with only 10 percent of the water used in traditional farming. The technique also makes it possible to grow food in small spaces in towns and cities, thus eliminating the need for conventional logistics, which consume large quantities of fossil fuels. This means a 20 percent reduction in carbon emitted into the atmosphere, Kouatcha said. His initiative promises to have a positive environmental impact in Cameroon, a country that has committed to a 32 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2035.