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BENTONVILLE -- Arkansas executives with ties to Rwanda's agriculture sectors said they established coffee and chicken businesses there years ago for religious reasons. Some acted out of love. Scott Ford, co-founder and chief executive officer of Little Rock-based Westrock Coffee, acted out of enmity.

"It's the anger that comes about when you see injustice done and you're moved to actually do something about it," Ford said during a panel discussion at the Trade with Africa Business Summit in Bentonville.

This week's inaugural event united business leaders, including former Tyson CEO Donnie Smith, to discuss what led them to Africa, why they continue to work there, and why other businesses should consider it a potential market. The event was made possible by Toyin Umesiri, chief executive officer of Nazaru, a U.S.-based trading group with ties to Africa.

Ford, a former president and chief executive of Alltel, took a trip to Rwanda years ago with his wife that led to an interaction with one of the country's political leaders. Ford said he realized that the region's coffee farmers did not make livable wages from their employers. He then purchased an old coffee mill in Rwanda, establishing Westrock Coffee in the process.

What made Westrock successful was its business model that hinged on making sure the coffee growers earned as much as possible. As a privately held business, Ford said this was possible.

"The public markets would not have put up with what my wife did for nine years," he said. To sustain Westrock's infrastructure it took tens of millions of dollars and ultimately no profit gains, he said.

Westrock has now expanded into Tanzania.

One attendee asked: Why use a business model that eats largely into profit margins? Ford said the worker relationship felt different.

"When you're talking about small-plot farmers ... we're talking about people on the margin trying to keep their children alive," he said.

Donnie Smith's relationship to Rwanda came from his days as chief executive officer of Tyson Foods. In 2012, the Springdale company began supporting oneegg.org, an organization that provided preschoolers in Africa with one egg a day. Through the organization, Smith made connections and realized that feed quality was poor in the country of Rwanda, affecting animal quality and the livelihoods of farmers.

"The Rwandans, like many other African countries, have great people, good resources, and need opportunity," Smith said.

Shortly after, Smith helped form a nonprofit called African Sustainable Agricultural Project and opened the country's first commercial feed mill in 2014. With his hand in feed production, Smith began another project to train Africans to raise, maintain and market chickens.

"We supply the capital, build the coop to keep them safe, and we provide them the equipment they need to feed a lot of chickens -- and in about six weeks we have broilers ready for market," Smith said.

There are about 120 growers in Africa taking out microloans to raise 100-bird flocks, support their families and gradually expand and diversify their businesses, adding vegetables and meat and dairy cows to the mix. Smith said the typical rural farmer has a household of five with a monthly income of $27. Through the broiler-raising program, he said farmers can make up $98.

Earlier that day, representatives of Nigeria and South African countries both said they wanted to partner with the state of Arkansas, a leading catfish producer. A large problem has been having quality feed for their catfish, which has affected harvest numbers.

Denise Thomas, of the World Trade Center of Arkansas, said the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff focuses on aquaculture research and in the future could plan a possible trip there with African leaders.

"We can visit the institution and get a tour and really talk to those professors about how to do that, that's definitely a possibility," Thomas said.

Business on 05/12/2018

Print Headline: State execs talk about Rwanda efforts

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