Innovation Conversation #16: Jonny Jacobs, Mango Farmer and Co-Founder, Longevity Development

mango treesIn one of my odder finds, I met Jonny in the Kids tent at the Curious Arts Festival in July this year. He’d been roped in to be on a panel discussing the news with children by the host James Campbell (I can heartily recommend listening to children talking about the news — they tend to cut to the chase in a thoroughly refreshing way!) Jonny’s description of setting up a mango processing plant in Malawi was so fascinating that I decided I should ask him to repeat the story, in slightly more grown-up language, for all of you.

Jonny is a firm believer in the power of enterprise to drive social change, and has unique insights into enterprise and transformational development in sub-Saharan Africa, which I found very thought-provoking both in general, and in terms of our own challenges around innovation and enterprise in this country.


 

So Jonny, can you tell me about the mangoes?

Yes, our entry point into African agricultural innovation was through our first business, a mango processing unit. Well, actually it’s more than that, it’s an integrated mango production unit, both primary agriculture and enterprise. And it all came about because on a visit to Malawi, more than ten years ago now, we realised that a vast quantity of fruit was just rotting every year. In fact, about 85% of the fruit rotted on the floor, simply because there was no added value processor. There was no way to extend the life or innovate around what this product could become.

So it really started off as the proverbial two guys in a bar conversation but with each layer that we built, it just got more and more serious. We started by writing to Innocent drinks and saying, ‘how would you like mangoes from one of the poorest countries in the world for your giant masher?’ And they wrote back and said, ‘Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that. You’ve actually got to build a unit and we buy pulp, we don’t buy fruit.’ But with every level that we went through, we learned a bit more, and more people were saying this was a really good idea. One of the things we found is that in a jurisdiction like Malawi, where you have an unemployment rate of around 90%, the first thing we needed to do was build an enterprise, and this is very relevant to what has evolved to become Longevity.

 

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