Why does Africa import $50 billion worth of food that it could grow itself? Jon Vandenheuvel can give you the answer in one word.
We recently hosted an evening with Jon Vandenheuvel here at Clapham House. Jon is CEO and co-founder of Africa Atlantic Holdings Ltd, a commercial farm business. Before that, he was a Congressional aide and, later, a corporate strategy and government policy consultant for Fortune 500 companies and trade associations. In 2001, Jon led to a Congressional trade mission to Africa. There, he saw a $100/ton problem.
Countries like Ghana can produce a ton of corn for $350/ton. But they can import it for only $250/ton. The US and other countries subsidize African farmers to the tune of a $100/ton. But even this is insufficient, so Africa imports $50 billion of food annually.
Government agencies (and ministries) call this sustainability. That too is insufficient as sustainability falls far short of what the Bible calls flourishing. God created a sustainable world but on the sixth day added humans to improve it, to make it flourish. Flourishing means profitable farms selling corn for $250/ton rather than being sustained by subsidies.
Jon set out to create a profitable farm. He and his family moved to in Ghana, West Africa, forming Africa Atlantic, a commercial farm business. He raised three million dollars and took out a lease on 25,927 acres on the shores of Lake Volta.
The first crop failed. Irrigation was required. So Africa Atlantic built an irrigation system from scratch. The company had to. Ghana lacks infrastructure—roads, electrical grids, pumps, machinery, pipes, construction equipment—to provide irrigation. Six years later, Jon’s farm is profitable, selling maize to a Dutch firm for $250/ton.
There’s the one word: Infrastructure. Africa doesn’t have it. So it imports $50 billion worth of food annually. The US has infrastructure. That’s why it’s the world’s breadbasket. To date, however, this hasn’t dawned on international relief agencies. They rarely think infrastructure, turning poverty into big business for them.
When we say infrastructure, we mean dense, overlapping networks of institutions. Vandenheuvel listed over two dozen institutions that must be in alignment if Africa is to enjoy profitable farms. Jon figured out this alignment by getting dirt under his fingernails. This is why I’m a big fan of innovation labs—learning by doing. Trial and error.
This is also why I’m not a fan of Christians who are clueless about institutions. An institution is a formal network transcending individuals, binding them in one nature, or purpose. The Trinity is an institution—three Persons sharing one nature. So is marriage.
Younger believers seem to have forgotten this. “It is the fashion to talk of institutions as cold and cramping things,” G.K. Chesterton warned long ago. The truth is that when people are inventive, “they must always, and they always do, create institutions.” Yet younger Christians are “overcritical of the general idea of institutions,” writes Alonzo McDonald—“as if those who come to Christ are restored to the simplicity of an Eden-like existence that needs no structures or organizations.”
Hezbollah’s spiritual leader sees this more clearly than most Christians. “America is not ruled by a person, it is ruled by institutions,” notes Lebanon’s Grand Ayatollah Muhammed Hussein Fadlullah. “We, in the Arab countries or in the East, we don’t have institutions.” That’s because Islam does not believe in a Trinitarian God. In their skepticism toward institutions, younger Christians think more like Muslims.
Christians are more likely to change the world when they start thinking systems and institutions. Jon’s story is worth hearing. If you’d like to hear it and happen to live nearby, get in touch with me. We’ll see if we can host another evening with Jon.
 G.K. Chesterton and Iain T. Benson, The Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, Volume VII (Ft. Collins: Ignatius Press, 2004), p. 286.
 Alonzo L. McDonald, “The Grand Inquisitor Lives—Idolatry in Organizations and Management,” from No God But God: Breaking with the Idols of Our Age ? (Chicago: Moody Press, 1992), p. 138.
 Robert J. Pollock, “A Dialogue With Lebanon’s Ayatollah,” Wall Street Journal, March 14-15, 2009, A7.