The first time I met Manka Angwafo was in the Bubble bar in Makepe, a location run by a friend, Eric. It’s the sort of place young Cameroonians meet up after work. A radiating Manka was there, and we had a brief chat. I must admit I was intrigued by her career path. She left a comfortable job as a consultant with the World Bank in Washington DC to move to a rural area and create Grassland Cameroon Ltd. Her business provides services to help improve food supply chains in Africa through affordable asset-based financing to smallholder farmers.
In December, we had planned to celebrate the New Year with a mutual friend. Five months later, and I’m writing about this amazing woman. At the start of the month, she won the Sub-Saharan Africa award at the Cartier Women’s Initiative Awards. This is an annual ceremony that rewards women who are having an impact on their community. “It’s a wonderful thing! This award motivates me to do even more, better and well”, Manka comments.
Manka’s story is that of many Cameroonians who have grown up in their home country, studied abroad and want to make a useful contribution back home. When she was 17 years old, she flew to the United States to take a university course. She has two Masters Degrees from Tufts (Massachusetts), one in economics and one in international relations.
Following a brilliant career under the supervision of the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa, her direct superior provided her with an opportunity to work on the ground, notably in South Sudan. That’s what made her want to launch a business and, more importantly, have a positive impact on her community. In 2012, she found herself at a crossroads in her career. She could either do a PhD or find a project with really impact. To give herself time to make a decision, she took a month off and went back to Cameroon in 2013 to spend time with her paternal grandmother.
“Every morning, I was in the fields with my grandmother to harvest the corn, and it was a very arduous task. I wondered how she had managed to keep doing this all these years. She’s over 90! You have to understand that it took her three weeks to harvest her plot of land, and 20% of the corn she picked would go off. I realised that one of the major problems for small producers was the lack of financing to purchase quality resources, including farming equipment”, Manka says.
After this short break in Cameroon, she returned to the United States to live with the uncle of one of her high school friends in Iowa. He had a much larger farm than her grandmother. “It enabled me to understand the processes, the production and harvest stages, the machines and vehicles you need and stock management. This experience drove my decision to move back to Cameroon”, she explains.
In 2015, she returned to Ndop, a Cameroonian municipality located in the north-west region. It’s one of the country’s agricultural basins. Manka Angwafo didn’t want to be in Yaoundé or Douala; she wanted to be close to the farmers, understand the on-the-ground realities. “It’s true that moving from the USA to a small African town isn’t easy. I had so much work that I didn’t pay attention to it. The farmers made fun of my routine. For example, I loved running early in the morning, and seeing me doing that through the bush was incomprehensible to them”, the entrepreneur reminisces.
Thus far, Grassland Cameroon Ltd. has helped farmers double their yields, which can total 4.6 tonnes per hectare, thus increasing their income by 200%. We agree that that’s what you call having an impact on your community. Her business has helped some 400 farmers, with a repayment rate of 97%. When you hear her talk, it’s clear that Manka has managed to create a sense of belonging with the farmers. They feel as if they are part of the same family, which is why the repayment rate is so high.
The only cloud on the horizon is the Anglophone crisis that Cameroon has been experiencing over the last two years or so. It forced Manka to make a very difficult decision, that of leaving her town to work in the central region, near Yaoundé, where she is replicating everything she did in Bamenda. Despite everything, the entrepreneur remains optimistic about the future: “Cameroon is the country that feeds central Africa, so I think I’m in the right place. And when you make it in Roger Milla country, you can make it anywhere”.
I’m eager to see how Manka Angwafo and her activity will evolve with climate change and digital technology.