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Venturing forth: Building a starch business from scratch

27 February 2017

The article at a glance

From gas to tapioca: venture founded by former commodities traders helps farmers in Gambia. At first glance, there might seem to be …

From gas to tapioca: venture founded by former commodities traders helps farmers in Gambia.

Cassava (Tapioca) field

At first glance, there might seem to be little in common between the humble cassava plant and the high-stakes world of commodities trading, but the founders of a new venture in Gambia beg to differ.

Aspuna Group, founded by a trio of former Executive MBA students at Cambridge Judge Business School, recently signed an agreement with Gambia’s Ministry of Agriculture to organise cassava farmers into cooperatives and develop a crop multiplication centre – based on the founders’ knowledge of commodities trading from their previous careers in the UK and Germany.

Aspuna, whose name derives from the English word “Aspire” and the Wolof word “Aduna” meaning “world”, was part of a cohort that in January 2017 finished the Cambridge Social Ventures programme, part of the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge.

“The tools and expertise needed to analyse commodities such as precious metals or natural gas are basically the same as those affecting agricultural commodities like cassava,” says Aspuna co-founder Maria-Yassin Jah, previously a gas market and trading analyst in Duesseldorf with E.ON Global Commodities, the trading arm of German energy company E.ON, and with energy consultants Platts in London.

Maria is a dual citizen of Germany and Gambia, and her father and other extended family members now live in Gambia. “It gives me a great sense of purpose to develop the country, which is very much a home for me,” she said.

Aspuna was founded in 2015 by Jah, Luis Prazeres, and Vladimir Maly, who met while studying for their EMBA in Cambridge in 2013-2015. Prazeres also hails from a commodities background, at JP Morgan and professional services firm EY.

“My background is in market risk management and quant trading in many commodity markets, particularly agriculture,” says Luis. “These sorts of skills transfer well to our work at Aspuna as we’re trying to achieve the best price for farmers while building a sustainable business model.”

Cassava (also known as tapioca) is processed into starch that is used locally in Gambia as a food staple, but also has an export market with international pharmaceutical and food companies. Health-food outlets are a major target given the rapid growth in this sector, and because health food consumers in Europe and the United States are increasingly interested in niche agricultural products. Pharma firms use starch to bind active elements in pills and to make capsules.

The agreement with Gambia’s agriculture ministry includes two line agencies, the National Agricultural Research Institute and the Department of Agriculture. The crop multiplication centre is testing 16 different cassava varieties, and only the most suitable will be distributed to farming communities taking part in Aspuna’s supply scheme. Superior cassava varieties produce larger roots with more starch content, and are more resistant to pests and diseases.

Aspuna also secured two grants from the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development and the African Development Bank, which support the construction of the factory and purchase of machinery, which will be installed in the next few months. The starch-processing factory is expected to be operational in mid-2017, with first samples delivered shortly thereafter. Aspuna hopes to produce 500 tons of cassava starch in the first commercial year, with sales and marketing activities based in London.

“The products of African producers often do not reach European markets because they lack the sales capacity to sell face-to-face,” says Maria.

To support the establishment of an efficient supply chain, Aspuna has partnered with Cambridge-based tech company AGRIinsight, which developed an interface that allows Aspuna to upload and visualise data and to communicate with smallholder farmer suppliers.

The aim is to geo-locate all farmers in the Aspuna supply scheme. Mapping activity has already begun in the village of Sanyang, 15 kilometres from the factory site, with the aim to map all feasible supply communities this year.

This article is part of Venturing Forth, our new series on the aspirations and challenges of ventures connected to students, alumni and others associated with Cambridge Judge Business School.

This article was published on

27 February 2017.