Editor's Note: Agri-Pulse and The Chicago Council on Global Affairs are teaming up to host a monthly column to explore how the U.S. agriculture and food sector can maintain its competitive edge and advance food security in an increasingly integrated and dynamic world.
In the early 1980s, my grandfather, Dr. John Willard, traveled to Kenya on an agriculture mission of hope. During the 1980s, many nations on the continent of Africa were experiencing extreme famine and economic instability. Twenty years earlier, he had invented a product called PlantCatalyst. An all-natural water additive that helps plants better absorb and utilize nutrients. A chemist, professor, and scientist who had worked on many illustrious projects, like the Manhattan Project, he understood the impact of increased efficiency for crops. Farmers are able to grow in a more sustainable way and increase profit-per-hectare. Like many of us, my grandfather was inspired to help break the continuous cycle of starvation and poverty. He believed that all people have a responsibility to assist others in times of great need.
While the product has been successful in the United States, my grandfather was ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts to gain traction in Africa before he passed. His dream lay dormant until I took over as CEO of his company seven years ago. To both honor my grandfather’s vision and enhance our business strategy, I decided to enter global markets. As a US-based small business, this seems to be the right time to maximize our success by leveraging regional partnerships and the U.S. government’s Feed the Future Initiative.
The potential market growth is obvious, particularly in developing nations. Additionally, I know, as my grandfather did, the good we could do in countries suffering from food insecurity, particularly on small scale farms that desperately need greater sustainable productivity to raise themselves out of poverty and grow more nutritious food. Our product has been proven to increase crop yield, and more importantly, to reduce the amount of expensive and environmentally damaging inputs. This means it is not just helping improve the lives of farmers globally, but also increasing sustainable practices. Reducing damaging inputs is particularly critical in Africa where sustainable agriculture techniques, such as crop rotation and fallow fields, have not been widely applied.
In 2016, I took the first steps toward achieving my grandfather’s dream when I traveled to Africa as a guest of an American NGO. They were administering multiple USAID food security grants in Zambia, Mozambique, and in other developing nations. Farming everywhere is a risky business, but especially in these countries. Many locals were worried about the risk of applying new techniques and new products. It is literally life and death for these small-scale farmers living on less than 6-acres and their families. I realized we needed a way to prove that our product did what we promised so we developed a series of research trials. The projects in both countries completed during the next three growing and harvesting seasons showed the efficacy of PlantCatalyst. The demonstration plots showed a reduction in fertilizer amounts by at least 50 percent with no reduction in yield and, in some cases, increased yield by double digit percentages and increased seed germination. I was told that we would be lucky to sell 3,000 liters of our product in Africa, but I am happy to say we sold 8000 liters in our first season.
We aligned our research trials with both the United States Government Feed the Future goals and the Sustainability Development Goal of Zero Hunger. We believe in partnering with multiple international development food security stakeholders in the public and private sectors to both maximize impact and to achieve shared value. Only by working together and exchanging best practices will we empower more smallholder farmers to use new and creative techniques, supporting their economic development. But this is not simply about the great opportunity inherent in rapidly growing African agricultural markets, it is also about making sure that we are feeding more people using sustainable methods.
We expect to see growth on the continent and are constantly expanding our partnerships in the region. We have begun working with others such as iDE Zambia, Winrock, and World Vision. In Zambia, we have signed a partnership with Agrifocus, an agriculture distributor and entered into a partnership with the Zambian Ministry of Agriculture -- this year, the Ministry has agreed to host 80 demonstration plots and train their local extension agents on how to apply our product. We were approved to sell our product in both Mozambique and Zambia and we are establishing additional distribution partnerships in Malawi and Nigeria. In 2019, we fully expect to expand into Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania and eventually into Asia.
While I think our product is the very best at what it does, our capability as a small-sized company to successfully enter into agricultural markets on the African continent does not have to be unique. Other companies – larger and even smaller -- can do it and get in on the ground floor which is a win-win, for profitability and global food security.
I am more committed than ever to achieving my grandfather’s vision of feeding more people in a sustainable way. For us, the last three years have demonstrated the potential for achieving his vision in my lifetime and is consistent with a sustainable business model.
About the Author: John Willard III is the current CEO of CAW Industries, Inc., the company his grandfather, Dr. John Willard Sr., founded to sell his PlantCatalyst product line in 1973. John III spent his early post college years working in the political world serving as a staffer for U.S. Senators Tim Johnson and Tom Daschle as a Clinton Administration political appointee in the US Department of Agriculture under Secretary Dan Glickman. He has been CEO of CAW Industries, Inc. for seven years and has overseen an unprecedented expansion of sales during his tenure.