Thursday, 4 April 2013

From Durham to Sierra Leone: The journey, the memories and the business plan

Michael Bernert, left, and Jamie Patrick just got back from Africa.
Michael Bernert, left, and Jamie Patrick just got back from Africa.
Remember Jamie Patrick and Michael Bernert? The undergrad and the grad that left Duke University to take a $150,000 bet on growing cassava in West Africa?

Well, they’re back, and, after bouts of malaria and more than seven months in Africa, they’re ready to call it quits and sell their shares to entrepreneurs in Sierra Leone.

“It’s been an interesting year for sure,” recounts Patrick.

But not one he’ll ever regret.

Shortly after our interview last spring, the Durham pair flew a world away to work directly with farmers in Sierra Leone. The pair had selected five farms for debt financing for their venture capital fund — WAVA, LLC.

“By June, we took an opportunity to create a new large-scale farm with one of our existing portfolio members,” Patrick says. “The result was a new company that now holds a 2,000 acre lease on land prime for growing rice. We had a dry-season crop of peanuts at the end of last year and are currently engaged in planting 160 acres in rice this wet season.”

Patrick says they now control the third largest rice farm in the country.

“Really seeing some great progress there,” he says.

The pair is resting in the U.S. right now, with Patrick finishing his undergraduate degree at Duke University this semester. They both plan to return to Sierra Leone this summer, but it will be to transition their company into a new management structure. They’re either going to put a permanent local management team in place or sell their stakes completely to African entrepreneurs.

“The two of us got to the point where it would take a huge investment for us to be able to make enough profits to support two Americans and to be able to do it in the way we wanted to do it,” he explains. “It would not only take a lot of money, but another five to ten years.”

While the experience was a “fantastic learning opportunity,” the pair is ready to move on to other things.

“The risk is just too high,” he says, adding that he could still go back. “There’s nothing keeping us from waiting two or three years down the road… then coming back to Sierra Leone.”

With five debt investments and one equity investment, the pair say they’ve created seasonal employment for 167 Sierra Leone nationals and produced 144,500 pounds of food from their investment farms.

A financial report showed the team raised $191,000 in 2012 — but expenses and investments totaled $219,000. The management team took no salaries and no distributions to owners were made during the year.

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