ROCKVILLE – Local company Agri Smart Inc. announced plans for the largest joint public-private partnership in Africa, a 1.2 million acre farm in the Ivory Coast.
Agri Smart, located on Research Boulevard, is leasing the land from the Ivorian government and providing mechanized farming equipment in return for being able to farm in the soil rich West African nation.
The mechanized farming equipment could be a huge boon to the developing African nation which largely farms its crops by hand.
Plans include growing palm oil trees to extract their oil, a valuable resource used around the world for cooking and biodiesel. The farm would also grow corn and soybeans.
Funding for the project has come from some private investors. There is also a potential $10 million loan on the line from the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which is still in the process of being negotiated.
Agricultural scientist David Sasseville is heading the planning for the farming for the project.
“We have the top farming experts in the world,” said H. David Meyers, chairman of the board of Agri Smart.
After years of planning, the first phases are set to begin within the next 90 days, according to Meyers, who plans to make his company public.
Meyers said he expects the investment to be worth billions of dollars in the next few years and described his venture into the Ivory Coast as partially based on an altruistic initiative.
Agri Smart would create 10,000 jobs and provide health services to about 500,000 people in the Ivory Coast, he said.
However, the farming of palm oil trees has been a contentious issue for some environmentalists.
The practice has led to deforestation in Malaysia and Indonesia but Meyers contends his plan is environmentally friendly as palm oil trees are native to the Ivory Coast.
The idea began on a farm in Iowa while visiting his girlfriend’s family farm.
Meyers would accompany his girlfriend Brenda Eisenhauer, the late school administrator of Quince Orchard and Poolesville High Schools, to her farm.
Meyers noticed Iowan farmers earned more money producing corn for ethanol rather than for consumption.
“I said, this should be done in a foreign country,” Meyers said.
Then a stranger approached Meyers.
Meyers was partying with his softball team at Timpano, a restaurant on Rockville Pike, as he usually does on Thursdays, when Michel Ludugnon recognized Meyers and asked him about investing in the Ivory Coast.
Meyers told Lunugnon, who is from the Ivory Coast, he had an idea, but said he would tell him if he could set up a lunch with a friend Diabate Daouda, the Ivorian Ambassador to the United States.
“Well, they went wild with the idea,” said Meyers about his meeting with Ludugnon and Daouda. “They thought it was the greatest idea since sliced bread.”
Meyers has since made 10 trips to the Ivory Coast, setting the stages for what he expect to eventually be a multi-billion dollar operation.
But Meyers he said hopes not only investors see dividends but also the people of the Ivory Coast will benefit from entrepreneurship.
“I think hope is very important for people who live in third world countries,” Meyers said.
Meyers said his is motivated by a belief to help people through entrepreneur capitalism, paraphrasing a quote that is often attributed to founding-father Benjamin Franklin.
“We have an opportunity to do well by doing good,” Meyers said.