(Appeared on the front page of the Fairfield-Sun 11/18)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2010. All Rights Reserved.
Fairfield, CT – A career path change has led to new opportunity and a chance to make a real difference in an economically depressed climate for a former General Electric executive.
Maurice Johnson, 52, a Fairfield Beach Area resident, has had a career-long attraction and focus on Africa and is now applying his business experience to boost the agricultural output and financial well-being of Ghana. It has been a rewarding challenge and a winding road accented with unique interactions among a very different populace than what we are used to in Fairfield County.
Born in Birmingham, Alabama and raised in Colorado, Johnson had always been fascinated with tales of Africa in both adventure books and movies. “It seemed like one of the last untamed frontiers,” Johnson felt, “and I really imagined I could make a difference there.”
So when he graduated from the University of Colorado in 1983 with a B.A. in Development Economics, he joined the Peace Corps and elected to go to Togo, West Africa, for his service term.
As an agricultural loan officer during the two-year stint, Johnson managed a team of 16 field agents. Their objective was to identify innovative, change-responsive farmers with needs and buy (on a loan basis) them a team of oxen and a plow, to replace their antiquated farming methods of using a hoe and shovel.
A typical day involved getting up at 4:30 a.m. and first tending to a farm that was part of their own facility. “There was an ox named Bubba that would kick me every morning,” he recalled with a smile. “We would plow and plant maize, sorghum and millet. These crops were sold at local markets and the revenue went into a revolving cash fund dedicated to re-lending to new farmers.”
As to the results of the loan program, Johnson reported a “99% lend and repay rate and double the crop production.”
The stay was not without its dark spots, however. “One day, one of our oxen wandered into a neighboring farmer’s cornfield and the farmer attacked it with a machete, badly scarring its hindquarters. We had to put the animal down.”
Though Johnson also said he always felt like an outsider, “The laughter and good feeling was always there. They know you’re trying to help out and wanted to work with you.”
Upon his return to the U.S. in 1985, Johnson enrolled at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, D.C. He graduated in 1987 with a degree in International Finance with a geographic focus on Africa.
That same year, Johnson joined the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a firm that invests in private enterprise and emerging markets. As a regional manager for Africa, the Middle East and Asia, he was sent to Togo for a year to run a Free Trade Zone Project. Manufacturers situated in the zone did not have to pay tariffs or duties.
“I had my wife and nine-month-old son with me and there was a coup, in 1991. Since I was affiliated with the administration, I thought it prudent to leave,” he said. “When you’re looking out your office window and there are troops coming down the street hitting people, you know you’ve got to go. The airports were closed so we had to take a bush taxi from Lome to Accra and then flew back to the U.S. from there.”
In 1994, Johnson joined Citibank, managing project finance, and was transferred to Frankfurt, Germany. His workload included financing energy projects, aircraft engines and locomotives in several African nations.
Then, in 2000, he joined GE Capital as Managing Director of Proprietary Trade Execution, managing a global team for customer finance. In the role, he brought financing to projects in Ghana, the Congo, South Africa, Kenya and Senegal among other world locations.
His term at GE, which included a five-year assignment in London, spanned nine years, until 2009. During that time, he also moved to Weston then Fairfield.
“I was offered a chance to change careers, accepted a package from GE and moved on to new challenges,” said Johnson, about his split from the global giant. He confessed that this transition time was a little bit scary and uncharted as he had been used to managing teams and having all the perks of corporate life. He asked himself, “Where do I feel comfortable?” and decided to pursue consulting in Africa.
Johnson signed up for a volunteer program this past September, flew over to Ghana and began working with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to apply the skills he had acquired. He is now the leader to develop a grain market finance program with a goal of helping support grain growers with production and setting their market prices. Johnson explained that the benefits include better food security for local populations. The effort provides cash up front to help farmers buy equipment that will help them yield more crops.
An ancillary project is to provide suitable grain storage. “This is a pretty big deal as it’s a challenge to establish certified storage facilities,” said Johnson. “Current granaries incur significant spoilage and loss, leading ultimately to food shortages at the beginning of the following planting seasons. USAID is helping with improving agriculture on various fronts including better farming techniques and storage facilities.”
The Current Scene
Johnson works out of a house in Accra, the capital of Ghana and a city of about six million. The house has been converted into office space and he works with a team of five Africans. “They provide an enthusiasm and local connections that are essential to the work that we’re trying to do there.”
The situation is not without its site-based challenges. “There is extreme heat (100-degree plus temperatures), electricity outages and surges that often affect computer equipment and communications. These are core tools for us and when they are not available, it’s a real issue.”
Johnson added, “Transportation is difficult, with limited taxis available. All that said, we’re fortunate to have this working environment as the surrounding area is so financially depressed.”
Forward Looking Plans
Johnson said the key to success in Accra will be to get participation from major U.S. corporations that can meet energy and equipment needs. USAID is also in discussions to establish clean energy funds which will be dedicated to establishing systems that can process bio-waste. Ultimately, the goal is to continue to increase food production and help farmers be more profitable.
Ghana: A Proud Nation Seeking to be More Locally Productive
Fairfield resident Maurice Johnson, a consultant working for USAID in Ghana, can tell you first-hand that Africa is a very different place than our local community, but that its people have a special dose of pride that helps them deal with their hardships. They also have a plan to become more self-reliant.
“Africa… you don’t know it until you do it,” said Johnson. “Fairfield’s a lovely town but such a contrast with the areas I’ve experienced. You cannot believe it. They take four pieces of wood, put corrugated tin on top and that’s a house. Multiply that times thousands.”
“There’s such a great determination among the people that just drives you,” he added. “There’s a similar determination in Fairfield, but in Ghana there are much more modest circumstances. For example, because of a lack of electricity, students often come out in great numbers on moonlit nights to study.”
Johnson said that while many in Ghana have so little, they are proud, God-fearing and strong spirited, putting up with such hardships but always keeping their back straight. Referring to his secretary, he said, “Just to go back and forth to work, she commutes along dirt roads both on foot and by a crowded rural van from a very modest home in an outlying area.”
But Ghana has a plan to boost itself and is trying very hard to avoid the pitfalls of an oil-based economy by promoting its agricultural resources, Johnson claimed. In effect, this will enable a society wherein wealth is more fairly distributed among the people.
Johnson reported the discovery of two new oil fields just off the coast which can produce tremendous financial benefits. The downside is solely focusing on that industry at the expense of the country’s agricultural heritage. In effect, farming could be abandoned in pursuit of the riches of this new industry. “The net effect could be social dislocation, social unrest, pollution and mass migration to urban areas,” Johnson suggested.
He said the government recognizes this potential scenario, however, and is collaborating with groups like USAID to support agricultural investment and education. The government’s short-term efforts include forums wherein private business and government will strategize, dedication of funding to agriculture-oriented programs and bolstering of the Ministry of Agriculture in terms of enhanced authority to initiate programs.
“It’s all about the food security,” said Johnson. “This is the mantra of all of that.”