Their paths crossed at Stellenbosch University, Cape Town, South Africa in 2010 and have stayed together ever since.
She came from the Netherlands to study Sociology and International Development. He from Cote d’Ivoire for a degree in Chemical Engineering.
Now they are a dynamic and award-winning husband and wife partnership – they got married in 2018 – with a shared vision to contribute to reshaping the agricultural landscape in Côte d’Ivoire and other countries in West Africa.
Introducing, Louise Bijleveld and Noël N’guessan. They are the eighth founders to be featured in our series on Africa’s Hidden Gems - amplifying the African entrepreneurs who are leading the charge in tackling some of the continent’s most pressing sustainability challenges.
As founders of Lono, their mission is to offer sustainable and affordable solutions to transform agriculture waste into value. By using Lono’s technology, farmers transform towering piles of agricultural waste into a golden opportunity - nutrient-rich compost, bio- fertiliser and bioenergy. Lono's promise isn't just about innovation; it's about sowing the seeds of a more sustainable and prosperous future for Africa’s smallholder farming communities.
In 2021, the impact of their mission was recognised when Noël was awarded the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation.
A Meeting of Minds: From Housemates to Innovators
In January 2010, Louise and Noël found themselves as housemates in a shared living space of 20 other students.
Louise fondly reminisces about their early exchanges that laid the groundwork for their shared vision. As students of vastly different disciplines, they would often engage in long discussions about poverty and global inequality. Noël, deeply immersed in the technicalities of engineering, and Louise, navigating the complexities of development.
Noël’s unique perspective, shaped by a childhood marked by exposure to diverse cultures in Cote d’Ivoire, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Canada, and to technological advancements, added a layer of depth to their dialogues. For him, that started the question of “why?”. “Why was Côte d'Ivoire behind on certain technological developments?”
Louise explains, “We had a lot of these talks, and then slowly this idea started to form, from his technical perspective, and then my background in Development Studies, that we can really contribute something to solving that problem”.
Before turning this shared vision into reality, Noel went on to study for a Masters in Environmental Sanitation at Ghent University and Louise worked in the public sector in various capacities, including at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the Netherlands for several years. For her, even surrounded by passionate individuals, the work seemed abstract and detached from the realities she and Noël once discussed.
In 2016, they made a transformative decision - turn their long-held aspirations into action by founding Lono. Their mission was clear – to create more income, industry, and value within rural communities across Côte d'Ivoire, aligning their efforts with the concrete and direct impact they had envisioned during their conversations dating back to 2010.
Smallholder Farming Struggles: Côte d'Ivoire's Agricultural Challenges
In Côte d'Ivoire, agriculture is crucial. It contributes around one-fifth to the country's GDP and employs nearly half the population. Known globally as the leading producer of cocoa, Côte d'Ivoire also exports other commodities like cashew nuts, palm oil, bananas, coffee, rubber, kola nuts, and cotton.
However, this abundance comes with challenges. In Côte d'Ivoire, most farmers have small plots of land, less than five hectares each. About 90% of the country's 900,000 cocoa farmers, fall into this category, and they face challenges in accessing formal financial or technical support.
These farmers are leading the charge for fairer prices. However, they produce such low yields from not using enough inputs like fertilisers which means that they don’t have negotiating power. They also face a growing market for sustainably produced crops, all while lacking the capital needed to finance the necessary essential agricultural investments to meet this demand.
As Louise reflects, Lono “started very much from a social perspective”, emphasising the precarious situation Ivorian farmers and their families face in global value chains and amidst climate change.
There’s also an environmental challenge. The agriculture sector in Côte d'Ivoire generates 20 to 30 million tonnes of biowaste waste per year – that’s two to five times the quantity of crops or produce sold. Often this waste is just left to rot on fields attracting pests and harming crops, or openly burned.
For Lono, however, this “waste” holds the potential for local economic contribution and the transformation of the agricultural sector.
The Kubeko System, Transforming Waste into Wealth
To meet the environmental challenges posed by agricultural waste and the economic struggles of smallholder farmers, Noël, Louise and their team designed a groundbreaking solution – the Kubeko system.
This patented technology is a mobile biodigester that smallholder farmers use to transform all types of organic waste into cooking gas and liquid compost. For example, 5 kilograms of waste provides 2 hours of cooking and 50 litres of liquid compost. Lono also offers advisory services on biomass, fertiliser and green waste recycling.
Utilising the untapped potential of agricultural residues has:
contributed to additional income generation for farmers and
led to improvement in soil quality, boosting productivity and reducing the use of water, chemical fertiliser and pesticides.
As Louise explains, “there's so much abundant waste that has all the ingredients for improved agriculture – high energetic value, all the nutrients that can store carbon in soils, and that can improve ecosystems that farmers depend on”.
One notable aspect of Kubeko system’s versatility is its availability in different sizes, catering to the specific needs of individual farmers, large agro-companies, cooperatives and municipalities. It is mobile and so can be placed on plantations and farms where needed. Louise emphasises the significance of this decentralised approach. "Other digesters are quite specific to animal dung or are fixed domes which you can't really change the location of…We really developed our own technology that was adapted to the context and to the people using them.”
In addition, LONO implements larger scale, decentralised compost and bio-energy production sites.
And Lono is a profitable business – something that Louise and Noel consider as vital to fulfilling their mission.
At the heart of Lono's mission lies a commitment to transforming the agricultural landscape of Côte d'Ivoire. The ultimate impact is “that farmers increase their yields and have healthier plants in a sustainable way”.
But getting there hasn’t been easy. Entering the start-up race with zero business experience was their first big hurdle. As Louise quips, “Noël's an engineer and I came from the public sector. And then suddenly we started a company.” Naturally, learning the ropes of starting and running a business meant sometimes tripping over them. Added to that, Louise had moved from the Netherlands to Cote d’Ivoire which meant French lessons, cultural shifts, and navigating the new local business environment.
The second was the show-and-tell challenge. Trying to convince cocoa farmers that compost works when they've got just one season a year took patience and commitment. As Louise adds, “You can’t just turn up with scientific articles and say ‘Look, compost works!’, you have to show them and that often takes a whole season”.
A third mountain to climb – funding! Early on, they scraped funds from friends, family, and a few wise folks who believed in them. Local grants and start-up prizes offered a temporary lifeline, but as the company grew, they had to look abroad for the funding they needed. However, being a fully Ivorian entity meant they couldn’t easily get loans from foreign banks. This added a layer of complexity and made cash flow a constant tightrope.
As if those three challenges were not enough, , they encountered a unique set of challenges in the talent hunt to put together a winning team. They needed individuals capable of straddling two worlds – connecting with smallholder farmers on the ground while also engaging with international partners and investors. This was a tall order exacerbated by the fact that individuals with such diverse skills often commanded salaries that were beyond the startup's budget.
The hiring struggle intensified as Lono navigated the early days without the luxury of hefty financing. The pool of qualified professionals comfortable with both grassroots engagement and high-stakes negotiations was limited and often affiliated with industry giants like Unilever or Nestle. The financial constraints meant the founders had to wear many hats themselves, handling various responsibilities.
In spite of these challenges, while “repositioning” smallholder farmers and breathing vibrancy into the agricultural sector in Cote d’Ivoire, Louise’s and Noel’s North Star is to scale internationally. One way of doing this is by introducing more engineers to bioprocesses, product development, product design and prototyping. This will contribute to overall development of the sector and the economy.
They also envision a future where other stakeholders, from companies and policymakers to industries and research institutes, collaborate to find solutions to the continent’s agriculture challenges and bring about system change.
The Kubeko system stands as a testament to ingenuity – finding local solutions to Africa’s sustainability challenges which can be adopted and adapted globally.
And this Ivorian-Dutch couple, pioneering agricultural transformation encapsulate the spirit of resilience and creativity shaping Africa's hidden gems.
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