Student, farmer, social entrepreneur

25 Feb 2022

LMU computer science student Barbara Böhm used the online semester to found a farm in Ghana. Her approach is based on sustainability, social fairness, and cooperation with smart locals.

Computer science student Barbara Böhm | © privat

When computer science student Barbara Böhm decided about a year ago to buy a plot of land near the Ghanaian city of Cape Coast, it was a return of sorts to her family roots. The mother of the 23-year-old comes from Ghana and spends a lot of time in her homeland. Barbara herself grew up in Germany and visited Ghana for the first time when she was 18.

Maybe the stories she heard about her Ghanaian grandfather, who grew cocoa trees, inspired her decision to found a farm. But Barbara’s primary motivation was to do something good while creating a livelihood for herself and her employees in Ghana. The farm was to benefit people in the local area through long-term jobs, sustainable agriculture, and regional food production. Barbara particularly wanted to give job opportunities to women in the surrounding villages, whether through work on the farm or selling the produce.

A year ago, Barbara started planning in earnest. A good friend living locally helped her find a suitable piece of land and hire her first employees. At the start of the summer monsoon season, coconut palms were planted and okra, water melons, and maize were growing in the fields. “A learning phase,” says Barbara. “The first areas we cultivated were mainly to try things out and obtain our first seed stock.” These seeds will be sowed in the upcoming season.

One step at a time

Looking after the financing, management, and accounting of the project from Munich on top of her studies is a real challenge: “Good time management and having a trusted representative in situ – these things are very important. Also, you need a lot of feel for the culture and regional specifics.” Barbara has to combine the work for the farm with her studies and her part-time job as a tennis instructor. Her formula for success is: “Take everything one step at a time.” And she is glad to have her mother’s energetic support on site.

Whenever her studies permit, Barbara flies to Ghana for a few weeks to be on her farm. She is in her fifth semester, and her time at university has been strongly affected by the pandemic-related restrictions. “I scarcely had any contact with fellow students and don’t know many of them personally.” However, the lack of classroom teaching also made it easier to pursue her project in Ghana. “The online lectures gave me a lot of freedom and flexibility.” It means she can participate in classes from Ghana or simply catch up on a lecture or two in the evenings when she’s been tied up with farm business during the day.

Sustainability and social fairness

Barbara is thinking a lot about strategies for putting the farm on a solid footing for the future. In addition to crops that need to be irrigated and can only be cultivated in the rainy season, Barbara would also like to grow species that cope well with dryness. Coconut palms for instance: “You only have to water them in the early phase after planting, and after that they don’t need irrigation,” says Barbara. Her planning is influenced by climate change, as increasing aridity is a problem in Ghana as elsewhere. An additional advantage is that coconut palms yield fruit all year round, so there is always something to harvest.

Around fifteen workers are now employed full-time throughout the year on Barbara’s farm, with a few extra hands brought in during the main harvesting season. As well as sustainability, social fairness is important to Barbara. On top of their wage, she helps her workers by giving them expensive foods such as rice and oil. She also bought a bicycle for each employee, as many have to travel a long way to work. Now she’s in the process of organizing smartphones for them: “I think it’s very important that my employees have access to the internet and that I can be in personal contact with each of them,” says Barbara. As the farm is not generating large amounts of revenue yet, donations to her GoFundMe campaign are currently funding these initiatives to help her employees.

Barbara’s versatility is also apparent in her choice of subjects at university. Combining a major in computer science with a minor in LLC – Languages, Literatures, Cultures – is unusual. “It occurred to me that linguistics has a lot in common with computer science disciplines such as formal languages and natural language processing.” In the future, Barbara would like to work in the IT sector, ideally in Ghana’s capital Accra, where large IT companies have set up bases and many small start-ups are springing up. But Barbara has no intention of leave farming behind her: “I’d like to bring together a lot of smart people in Ghana and collaborate on innovations for local agriculture.”

Barbara is already trying to get agricultural science students from the university in Cape Coast involved in the project, in order to learn even more about growing tropical fruit, vegetable, and cereal varieties. “I want to combine traditional cultivation methods with new, modern, and sustainable ideas,” says Barbara. She also wants to bring as many young people and women on board as possible.

The plan is for the farm to be self-sufficient in the long term, and Barbara would like to expand her social enterprise. “Naturally, not everything runs smoothly in a project like this, and little difficulties will always crop up,” says Barbara. But her experiences in Ghana to date have been very positive. “The country offers a lot of opportunities for building up successful companies in cooperation with local experts, using the right blend of tradition and modernity.” In this spirit, Barbara also wants to contribute to sustainable development in the area and help local people become more independent.

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