Quitting A Fulltime Data Science Job To Build A Farm In Ghana: David Selassie Opoku

David Selassie Opoku was in SOS Hermann Gmeiner International College in 2006 when he and 4 other students were selected to take an exam for a United World College (UWC) scholarship. By God’s grace, David passed the exam and interview which gave him the opportunity to attend the last two years of high school at UWC Costa Rica. Being on a campus community with students from more than 65 countries brought David an exposure to diverse ways of learning, problem-solving and a deeper appreciation for different cultures and people. He attended Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, USA where he studied Biology and later obtained a masters degree in Computer Science at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, specializing in Machine Learning, Data Mining and Bioinformatics. David worked with UNICEF in New York City within the Vaccine Delivery program where some of the projects he worked on interfaced with GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, the World Health Organisation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Returning to Ghana was always in David’s mind, so when he got a technology fellow opportunity from Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) to teach and advise upcoming technology entrepreneurs in Africa, he jumped on board and came to work for a year and a half. His career paths after that year were with Open Knowledge Foundation (as Training and Curriculum Lead) and Open Contracting Partnership (as Data and Partner Support Manager). In David’s 5-year span working in the data space, he has trained journalists, government agencies, civil society organisations and data enthusiasts in over 30 countries across 5 continents.

David decided at the tail end of 2019 to quit his full-time job in the data space and join his father, a farmer for over 40 years who had always implanted (pun intended) the facts about the immense potential of farming that is yet to be unlocked in Ghana.

Mr Opoku (David’s Dad)

Why did you decide to quit a full-time job as a data scientist to build a farm?

We have always been a farming family, and growing up I saw the potential of farming to degrade or elevate an individual’s and a community’s socioeconomic status and dignity. My dad also had a way of asking my elder sister and I how what we studied academically could be applied to the farm. To some extent, the farm and food in general has always been our family’s “playground” to the extent that today my sister also works as a food scientist and runs her own food company, Poks Spices.

My dad’s passion and creativity with farming has had an infectious influence on all of us not only as a source of livelihood but as an avenue to tackle many societal challenges. One thing he says that continues to stay with me is that “we have left our food production to the less [formally] educated members of our society but then complain about the quality and safety of the food we get”. This combined with our conversations on challenges faced by farmers and farming communities, stirred a growing interest. What I became aware of was that many of the problems I had studied academically in biology, bioinformatics and computer science, as well as worked on professionally in the data science space could not only be applied to the food space but could lead to better opportunities for several actors across society. From improving breeding techniques through a better understanding of genomics, building more accessible, offline tools using computer science techniques, and using data to identify possible areas of vulnerability for farmers and farming communities, there was so much to chew on around food systems especially in resource-constrained environments like Ghana.

Despite having had this revelation for several years now, I was always afraid of the uncertainty of diving into this full-time. I spent a lot of time praying about this, sharing with my close friends and family, and even trying to find a way to do both at the same time. I remember a conversation with a friend in 2018 who also mentioned that there may never be a better opportunity than now to work with my dad. In June 2019, I informed my team that I’d be leaving and left officially in December 2019.

For me, this is a walk of faith knowing that God has called each one of us to accomplish something specific and I strongly believe mine is in the food space. Ultimately, I hope I can contribute to making food production the most attractive and sustainable profession globally.

What unique innovations and solutions do you find Growing Gold Farms offering to the agricultural landscape in Ghana?

Agriculture and the food system in general is very complex with several nuances that evolve with time and changing populations. At Growing Gold Farms, we believe in the power and wisdom of different food actors, and aim to create better access to tools, skills and networks that will make the space smarter. Not to give away all the details of what we are working on, but we are exploring ways to leverage on low technical and technological techniques to drive better data intelligence and network coordination in the food space. We aim to redefine what the Ghana smallholder farm looks like, as well as the tools and skills required to consistently produce tasty, healthy and affordable food in a way that is sustainable for the individual, community, environment and food businesses.

How difficult has it been building up the farm?

It has been very challenging. Despite (my father) having over 40 years of experience in farming, we have still spent a lot of time and money learning things from scratch. Finding information about best practices has been by word-of-mouth with many of the agricultural agencies or experts not able to provide the necessary information required to make an informed decision. As an example, we hadn’t initially budgeted for a wire fence around the 9-acre farmland we are currently cultivating but after we couldn’t get the owners of the sheep and goats that were invading our farm to keep them on a leash, we had to invest more than 20% of our initial budget into fencing. Another expensive case was with setting up our irrigation system. It turns out that most companies who drill boreholes usually do so for household or commercial purified water clients and did not have a sense of how much capacity the borehole should have for vegetable farm producers. Additionally, it was assumed that a source of power would be present which became a major challenge after the borehole was drilled. We ended up starting out with a diesel generator which drained a lot of money for fuel and maintenance for several months. We eventually came across a solar pump solution (which has been amazing) from talking to other farmers in the space but we had already burnt through a lot of funds that could have been avoided.

Finally, raw food production, despite being the source of many raw inputs for other industries and businesses is very risky. This has made it challenging to secure the right funding from financial institutions or investors despite many initiatives aimed at supporting farming.

What do you think about Food Security in Africa in general?

I believe Africa has all the resources, talent and God-given gifts to be the most food-secure continent in the world. Unfortunately, we have not invested in a long-term vision of making that one of our strengths and currently seem to be working on piecemeal approaches that do not get to the heart of the issue. I believe we need to redesign our educational, labour, research and infrastructure systems to optimise network coordination, data intelligence and culture as a food powerhouse, not just a continent for food extraction. Unfortunately, Africa on aggregate is food-dependent and the current pandemic highlighted our lack of food resilience. I believe Africa can be the leader in food innovation and productivity in the next 30 years if we focus on solutions that leverage our strengths in smallholder farming. The goal is that when there is ever a food crisis anywhere in the world, Africa should be the first to respond with food resources and solutions.

How are you utilizing your expertise in Data Science within the Agricultural sector?

As I mentioned above, a huge pain point of the food system is the inability to coordinate different actors, information and resources effectively. This combined with a lack of insights on weather, market prices, soils, new research makes the agriculture sector more of a guessing game than a predictable science. I agree there is an element of uncertainty and art that will always exist in this sector but believe data can play a role in reducing many of these inefficiencies. The first way is to help us understand the current state of the agricultural sector such as how resources and information flow, which actors are central, where we can intervene to create more resiliency. Another application is in gaining insights to help a farmer decide whether it makes sense to produce specific products given her current resources, target market and expected profits.

What are your plans for scaling Growing Gold Farms?

I think about this in 4 stages. We want to demonstrate that we can grow tasty, healthy and affordable food for Ghanaians (and other resource-constrained environments) consistently and sustainably. We then want to create a network of distributed smart, smallholder farms that can scale and replicate this model across the world. The next stage is to diversify farmer incomes through micro-processing of raw materials into additional products, and finally turn these farms into spaces of tourism, learning and research for communities.

What are your final words?

I believe food is one of God’s ways of expressing love to us. Being able to play a role in that experience for people is something that brings me and the Growing Gold team joy. For us, it is another way to remind people that they are loved and there is still a lot of hope in the world even when so many things say otherwise. We get excited when we hear stories of others in the space who are driven by this and we hope more creative, educated or passionate problem-solvers will join this journey. I’m always happy to share and learn from others tackling this challenge. Follow our journey on Instagram: @growinggoldgh

Please nominate someone for me to interview.

Natalie Fordwor of WonderspacED who is creating exciting learning experiences, spaces and content that lets children explore and discover their environment.

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

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