A “Fresh” Look at Botswana Agriculture

Our first “official” visit in Botswana was to a hydroponic farm, Langdon Organics, founded and operated by Michelle Adelman. This farm is notable for not only using any soil — which is the definition of hydroponic — but for also growing much organic produce. Langdon distributes to individuals and businesses through their operating company GoFresh, and donates their profits to the Masire Foundation, the legacy foundation of Botswana’s second president.

Langdon was started three years ago, two years after Michelle moved from to Botswana from the US. Not your typical Botswana entrepreneur, she had a long career at Accenture and in private equity before embarking on this adventure. Today, she runs two farms (one near the capital city of Gabarone, and the other up north near the safari parks), which supply up to 5% of the country’s supply of the produce she grows.

We also heard candid thoughts on many of the challenges of growing businesses in Botswana. Employee motivation was especially challenging for Michelle, going through 3x the number of employees she needed just to find the best ones. She spoke about the different incentive systems she tried, from profit-sharing to piece rates to extra vacation time, only to be fighting an uphill battle against many local, cultural concepts of work-life balance. As we heard from her and other business leaders, the free university education provided here can be both a blessing and a curse: upon graduation, many graduates are actually hesitant to start at the bottom of the career ladder. The complications of running a successful business and training competent management were compounded by an estimated 40% youth employment rate and a low cost of living, reducing incentives to work and complicating the viability of many careers.

Michelle was admirable for her experimental approach to tackling some of these problems, both as a business owner and a fairly politically involved individual in the Botswana community. At the same time, the farm is an exciting proof-of-concept point for many environmentally sustainable farming techniques in land with only 2% arable land and increasing water insecurity. With a business model based on locally delivered produce overcoming Botswana’s poor transportation infrastructure and importing many of its supplies, Langdon Organics certainly has many challenges to address going forward. However, many of us (myself included) walked away from our morning on the farm intrigued and inspired by the groups and individuals who were trying to grow and diversify Botswana’s economy in a socially and environmentally sustainable way.

The MIT Sloan group, Michelle Adelman, and employees of Langdon Organics pose in front of hydroponically-grown lettuce and other produce.

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