Up Close With Kwami Williams: The Young Entrepreneur Who Grows Money On African Trees
Most people would shy away from rocket science, but not our guest in this interview. From pursuing a degree in Aerospace Engineering at MIT to starting out on a career path at NASA, Kwami Williams has enough evidence to prove he is pretty comfortable with the rocket science world.
But sometimes, truly living out your life calls for leaving your comfort zone, to venture into a new territory, especially when there’s a dire need. That’s exactly what Kwami did in 2013 when he decided to change his life’s trajectory, by co-founding MoringaConnect with Emily Cunningham, in a determined attempt to “eradicate poverty and alleviate hunger by enabling small farmers in rural Ghana to participate in a global market with a demand for high value crops.”
Let’s get a little up close with Kwami, and have him share a little of his world with us.
Can you tell us something about yourself that you’ve never said on social media before?
I mistakenly drank kerosene as a child twice. It was in a Fanta bottle and, I think a Sprite bottle. Guess I like soft drinks.
Seriously? And that happened twice?
Yes. I got hospitalized, but thankfully, I survived. I’m still not sure why I did it a second time though. (laughs)
If you’ve always loved soft drinks, why then haven’t you started a soft drink company? Or you’re probably exploring ways you could make soft drinks out of Moringa?
I’d say I love sugar and that’s what led me to drink kerosene as a child. But there’s a lot you can do from moringa and the crops around us. We will expand our product line in due time but for now we are focusing on our core products: moringa seed oil and moringa leaf powder.
What’s the inspiration behind MoringaConnect?
We like to say the idea came from farmers. We met farmers who had planted moringa trees from seeds shared by aid organizations and NGOs. They were told to eat the leaves to combat malnutrition in their communities and that their seeds would be purchased as the trees matured. However, when funding run out, the promised market disappeared. We met farmers in this situation while on a class trip to Ghana in 2012. MoringaConnect is our answer to the farmers’ question: Can you help us make money from the moringa tree?
I’ve seen statements on your website about the possibility of money growing on trees. How well would you say Moringa Connect is doing that at the moment?
If we were grading ourselves. I would say we have a solid “B” right now. We’ve helped farmers plant trees and earn an income from their trees. To date, we have provided more than $400k to our farmer network for the seeds and leaves from their moringa trees. Our focus this year is standardizing the experiences farmers have, so that across board, people are happy and you don’t have a situation where farmers in a certain region do better than their peers elsewhere. We also want to get our farmers to the point where their yields and income from moringa exceeds our projections for them. Once we do that, then it will be an A+ grade.
How many farmers have been ‘connected’ so far?
From our calculations, our farmer network is about 2,300 strong.
How many regions does that cover now?
We are active in different ways across all 10 regions of Ghana.
Does that mean you’ve visited all ten regions?
There’s just one I personally haven’t been to – Western. But our team has worked in all the regions.
If you are to sum up all that you’ve learnt from visiting 9 regions of Ghana in three points, what would they be?
Ghana and its people are beautiful. We have been blessed with so many resources and have no excuse to have so many people living in poverty. We as Ghanaians have to take responsibility for making Ghana better. It is not the responsibility of any country or international organization.
What are some of the most interesting places you’ve visited so far on your trips?
It was pretty cool to be able to see Burkina Faso from Tumu and Togo from Jasikan. The waterfalls in Wli is also pretty impressive.
What one thing do you think will change a Ghanaian’s perspective if he/she starts to travel around the remote areas of the country?
Glad you asked this. So many of us live in urban bubbles. We assume Accra is Ghana or Kumasi is Ghana, but traveling to more remote parts of the country helps you see that Ghana is so much bigger than your little bubble. It helps open your eyes to the needs of people elsewhere. It challenged me to stop whining about all my little problems and begin to think about how I can help solve someone else’s problems. It is sad that when people visit Ghana they tend to know more about where to go to experience Ghana and we here in Ghana have no idea that those places, people, and experiences exist.
What’s your dream for Ghana?
God has blessed us with so many resources and asked us to steward – care for, protect, cultivate and share them. My dream is that we would be excellent stewards of what we have been blessed with. Said another way, my dream is for Ghana to live up to its fullest potential.
I know one challenge most Ghanaian entrepreneurs face when they return to their homeland after staying abroad for years is the cultural shock in the business and governmental system. What have been some of your biggest shocks?
My biggest shocks were:
- Things move very slowly
- People don’t take pride in their work and often want you to pay/tip them to do something they are already being paid to do
- If you want to build a business with integrity (i.e no bribes) you have to become good at cultivating healthy relationships with people
- Ghana is small enough so you are one or two relationships away from almost anyone
- What the law or paper says should happen are very different from what actually happens
- Twi is spoken a whole lot more in Accra than Ga. Growing up I feel like it was more Ga than Twi
- The dumsor crisis. I didn’t think Ghana would go through a power crisis as bad as that. I thought we had passed that as a nation.
You’ve recently been listed on the Forbes 30 Under 30 Social Entrepreneurs. How does that feel?
I’m honestly humbled that my co-founder Emily Cunningham and I have been listed among so many passionate people making positive impact around the world. The challenge with these awards is it celebrates the founders but honestly, it’s the team we lead and our customers, donors, investors that have pulled it all off. They are also Forbes 30 Under 30! I also see it as affirmation that we are on the right path in making an impact here in Ghana and a challenge to do even more – help more farmers care for their families through moringa, afforest more communities by planting trees, and make all of it sustainable by creating products people love.
Those are thoughtful answers. Now, to the NO GRAY ZONE.
David Tamsey: Road Trips or Boat Rides?
Kwami Williams: Boat rides. I’ve only been on a few and loved them.
David Tamsey: Scuba Diving or Rocky Mountain Climbing?
Kwami Williams: Scuba Diving. There’s so much to see under the ocean. Need to get better at swimming.
David Tamsey: Fufu or Banku?
Kwami Williams: Fufu
David Tamsey: Beef or Goat khebab?
Kwami Williams: Beef khebab
David Tamsey: Mayonnaise or Ketchup?
Kwami Williams: Ketchup
David Tamsey: Taxi Drivers or Trotro Drivers?
Kwami Williams: Trotro drivers. I’m impressed by their driving skills but hate their disregard for traffic laws.
David Tamsey: Boiled Eggs or Fried Eggs?
Kwami Williams: Fried eggs.
David Tamsey: Kelewele or Fried Yam?
Kwami Williams: Kelewele
David Tamsey: If you want to relax near a water body for a weekend, which would you go for? A River or an Ocean?
Kwami Williams: Ocean
David Tamsey: Zip lining or Paragliding?
Kwami Williams: Paragliding, because I haven’t done that yet.
Now to a few random questions.
David Tamsey: What’s your best destination in Africa?
Kwami Williams: Some friends have talked up Cape Verde. I would love to check it out.
David Tamsey: What’s your favourite thing to do in the morning?
Kwami Williams: Favorite part of my morning routine – spend time connecting with God (listening to music, reading the Bible, talking and listening to Him). Sadly, I don’t pull this off every morning but it makes such a big difference in my thoughts, actions, motivations, and emotions throughout the day.
David Tamsey: Were you actually lost on your own school campus when Daisy (now your wife) found you?
Kwami Williams: The question is framed to elicit a yes (laughs). All I will say is I thank God I met Daisy on September 7th 2011 and that we both got into MIT’s D-Lab Development course that day. That course changed everything for me: took me from being passionate about Aerospace Engineering to Agriculture and Social Entrepreneurship; introduced me to the untapped potential of moringa and so many other crops here in Ghana; and created the space to get to know my amazing business partner, Emily, and my better half, Daisy.
David Tamsey: Thanks a lot for your time. Before we end, do you have any shout outs to make? Or some final words?
Kwami Williams: Shout outs to everyone who wakes up each day saying, “I will make this world a better place,” and to the countless people that support, encourage, and guide me and the team at MoringaConnect on our crazy adventure.
David Tamsey: This has been good. Thanks so much for your time.