Making the most out of Ghana’s Coconut Trees: Nii Quansah Annan

One would think that the coastal sounding name that Nii Quansah Annan bears is the reason for him ardently pursuing the possible exploitation of the coconut tree, a tree that grows where all Niis, Qaunsahs and Annans hail from. But that is far from the case. Nii grew up dreaming of anything aviation and aerospace. From airplanes and pilots to space explorations, Nii Quansah’s dreams were coloured and shaped by the patterns of metals that found their way into the skies above the earth, regardless of how far away from the earth they flew.

Nii Quansah has been experimenting with coconuts for a while now and was nominated by Hannah Frimpong who finds Nii’s entrepreneurial strides to be an inspiration to her as a budding entrepreneur. Here are some highlights from my time with Nii Quansah.

Tell us about you.

I am a young entrepreneur who decided to build up a company called Cedar Islands Limited not just as a business, but to have it go along with an entrepreneurship community. I graduated from KNUST with a BSc in Aerospace Engineering. I had my national service with Puma at the Kotoka International Airport and started Cedar officially while I was there. I got retained to work as full-time staff after National Service and got promoted a couple of months on two occasions. I have been working with Puma Energy while running the two organizations I started.

What were your dreams when you were growing up?

I always wanted to work in the aviation industry, with planes, being a pilot. That was all I thought about through primary, to Achimota to KNUST. I opted for geography as one of my electives in high school and was delighted to hear that KNUST was offering Aerospace Engineering. At that time, I heard there were just 5 schools in Africa offering that course. My whole mind was set on aviation and my dreams were gradually coming true.

Why Coconut?

That came to me somewhat as a surprise. I was in my room on one occasion during my final semester in school. The Republic Hall week (one of the most popular hall weeks) was approaching and my roommate said “let’s go sell some coconuts and put some fancy straws on them.” The idea sounded inviting and we wanted to rush into it. The planner in me spoke up and said “it is just a little over a week to the hall week. Can we really work this out?” Before we realised, the idea was scrapped and placed on the back burner.

Later on, I was alone in the room and realised I kept thinking about coconuts. Fresh and detailed ideas started to surface about things that could be made from the coconut plant. I wrote them down and researched to find out what it would take to actualize those ideas. I started planning heavily and when I had a sketch of a plan that could speak for itself, I shared that with my roommate. My roommate is now a partner with me in that business.

From my learnings, I discovered that THERE IS NO WASTE FROM THE COCONUT PLANT! Can you imagine that? It saddened my heart to know that all these years, we have been frittering away our Ghanaian coconut trees. It is tedious and very delicate to work with on certain levels, but perhaps that’s what people are scared of.

We set out to convert raw materials from the coconut plant into marketable and beneficial products. Our first product was the Cedar coconut milk. We are still capturing the market with coconut milk. Our goal is to exploit the coconut plant in Ghana and maximize usage to the highest levels possible.

I have developed a lot of interest in food processing through the research. Food processing makes you tough because it comes with a lot of problems that you need to solve with limited time. Fresh milk products generally have a short shelf life. The coconut milk has taught me a lot. I have become very alert and time conscious — not too different from aviation, I guess.

Are you saying goodbye to aviation and welcome to food processing?

I wouldn’t say that because I don’t intend to do just one thing. At the moment, we have only two businesses, but we hope to have some more. That is why all the brands, although with different products and services, have the same identifying name — Cedar.

Aviation is my passion. I love it. I hope to develop some entrepreneurial ventures in aviation down the line. Perhaps a SpaceX for Ghana? Why not?

What opportunities do you see in Ghana’s food industry?

The food processing part of Ghana’s food industry is an untapped field — that I can say for sure. At this point, I can’t tell exactly why it is so, but it is really untapped. So sad how we export our raw materials and they get sold back to us at higher prices.

We need to give our agricultural sector more attention at all levels. It is our responsibility to focus on Ghanaian owned food manufacturing and processing, right here on the soils of our homeland. A lot of the food processing companies in the country are not Ghanaian owned. Cost intensiveness (especially the cost of machinery) has been a major setback for many. But we still need to do all it takes to invest more in food processing. We really have a lot of raw materials that need to be converted into processed goods by us, not by others.

How has the journey been?

Back in 2017, coconut milk was not as popular as it is now. We needed to explain so many things about coconut milk every time we had to make a sale. The first time I sold was at a camp meeting. I will share more about that in a moment. I made that first batch of the coconut milk myself. I tried over and over and over for about a year, experimenting and researching.

Multiple mistakes were made. Coconut milk goes bad really quickly. The moment you crack open a coconut, it starts fermenting right away, you just don’t realise it. And it goes bad really quickly. When we started, our coconut milk lasted for just 2 days. Now, it lasts for 10 days. We had to do all this without adding preservatives.

Majority of the experiments took place at home. I would go to the labs at CSIR once in a while to run tests. We compared and then headed back to the books. We still spend a lot of time trying to make it better, that is why we still focus on coconut milk. People are getting used to our coconut milk now.

Now to the story of the first sale. A friend of mine who knew I was making coconut milk wanted me to sell at a camp meeting. The planner in me once again said: “We are not ready for the market yet.” But this friend pushed and forced me to go to the market to get the ingredients we would need. It was just about 3 days to the camp meeting. We worked on the design and the packaging and got 60 small bottles (330ml) ready. My consolation was that — this is just a market research. I still couldn’t bring myself to feeling ready for a sale even after about a year of planning and experimentation.

We started the production around 6 pm in the evening the day before the camp meeting and ended at around 6 am the next day that the camp meeting was starting. I was really exhausted.

I almost missed the camp meeting. I gave people some to try on the bus. Before we got to the campground, about 20 bottles were sold. By the end of that first day of the camp, all the 60 bottles got sold. That push my friend gave me was what actually moved me to get started after all my planning and researching. Here we are today.

Back then, it took 12 hours to produce 60 bottles, but now, we can produce 200 bottles in 12 hours. We have been able to get some machinery and we are looking forward to getting more industrial ones so we could scale.

Where do you get your machinery from? This might help another entrepreneur starting out.

There are machine shops in Ghana where they fabricate machines for the specifications that you want. The ones that we are getting are fabricated. Gratis — a company close to the Tema oil refinery does the fabrication. They are into the manufacturing of industrial machinery. You tell them your specifications and they fabricate for you. It is a Ghanaian company.
The problem is that some people don’t trust made in Ghana machines. They think the finishing is not good. But they still get the job done. We need to support our own.

The machinery you would get in Ghana at the moment are start-up machines. It is hard to get industrial machines here. I am hoping that in the future, we can manufacture our own industrial machines — that will reduce production costs significantly.

What motivated the Cedar Entrepreneurship Community?

I started that off because I was in search of information regarding starting Cedar and valuable information was hard to come by. People established in business were always shallow about the information they would give us, even down to information about how to register a company.
I wondered why they were not willing to help out. I thought the entrepreneurship community could be a way to solve that problem.

Just as a viable seed won’t grow in the wrong environment, the right idea would die in the wrong environment. I wanted to create a community of young entrepreneurs. That is how the community started. It is a virtual community of over 200 entrepreneurs all across Ghana. We share ideas and have discussions.

The members are supportive. The moment someone asks something on the page, the person gets an answer, and most of those answers come in a matter of minutes. At first, I would have struggled for weeks to get that answer by myself.

People working in the registrar generals and other key institutions are on the page supporting one another. We have an entrepreneurship summit we hold annually to bring existing entrepreneurs and upcoming entrepreneurs together.

Every other Friday, we have a business spotlighted on our social media pages. We promote that business and even create a sponsored ad for that business. We put their products on our pages and help that business grow one step higher.

We also have business problem nights where people ask problems that startups face and we all chip in to answer those questions. This initiative has been an answer to many problems. I am glad it is coming up well.

How can an interested person become a part of this community?

Send an email [info.cedarcommunity@gmail.com] or WhatsApp message [+233272558664] and the link will be sent to you to fill the membership form. You will be briefed and then you will be added to the page. You don’t pay for anything.

What are your final words?

The African youth needs to be challenged to do more. It is starting to appear that the youth are channelling their energy somewhere else and not focusing on nation-building. We need innovation in our entrepreneurial ecosystems. There has been too much copying and little originality. The Red Sea is choked — let’s get into the Blue Ocean Strategy. Let’s think about leaving legacies rather than focusing on making money. Our goal should be to make lives better and make the world a better place. If money is your goal, you would make your first million dollars and think you are fine. There is more beyond money. There is a legacy to leave.

principally an interviewer, consequentially a poet, and occasionally voicing opinions