Cheney retiree helping set up cassava plant in Nigeria

After retiring on March 1, Cheney resident Kent Dold decided to embark on the next phase in life: setting up the farming operation of a $160 million cassava complex in Nigeria.

Dold is a partner in a deal to build a huge agriculture storage and processing complex in the midst of 20,000 acres of cassava fields in the west African nation.

Dold will have a large ownership stake, along with the group out of Rogers, Ark., that developed the project.

A Nigerian company, Mosila Group, which is providing funding and its political connections, will retain the majority stake.

The plant will provide cold storage, processing machinery, shipping facilities, worker housing, training facilities, a hotel, a water-processing facility and two electrical generators. It can operate largely independent of the country’s shaky infrastructure.

Dold is working with developer Allen Wichtendahl, owner of New Vision Technology, a Rogers company that ships used American farm equipment to Bulgaria.

The opportunity is huge, Dold said. Cassava root is a staple for Nigerians, but it spoils within three days of harvest. The country’s farmers wind up losing most of the crops grown for commercial sale because it can’t be stored, processed and shipped quickly enough.

The plant is designed to change that. It can process 600 tons of cassava a day into flour, chips, high-fructose syrup and other products. Refrigerated storage will hold the cassava up to two weeks. Plant waste will be composted and reapplied as fertilizer. The complex is so large and self-sufficient, it’s really more of a city, Wichtendahl said.

“People cannot visualize how big this thing is,” Wichtendahl said. “It’s huge.”

It’s a project unusual enough to provoke skeptical looks in the U.S., Wichtendahl concedes. But it’s real, he said, following the signing of the memorandum of understanding between Mosila Group and Kwara State last month.

Everyone will benefit, Wichtendahl said. The operation will generate $30 million in profit its first year for investors, and even more the second year.

American companies will sell the materials and equipment to build and operate the plant.

Farmers should see much higher incomes for their produce, plus get the training and equipment needed for higher-value agriculture. Kwara State will benefit from wealthier citizens and less-expensive food. And other states will soon ask for such plants, Wichtendahl predicted.

It’s a strange turn for Dold. He worked 23 years for John Deere in a variety of posts in the U.S., most having to do with farm machinery service and parts.

About five years ago he got a call from Wichtendahl, whom he had met through a mutual acquaintance. Wichtendahl wanted a source of used farm tractors for export to Bulgaria, which was struggling with largely unmechanized agriculture. Dold put him in touch with someone at his company.

Nigerian officials heard about Wichtendahl’s tractor-selling operation and called him. He called Dold.

Dold said it quickly became obvious to them that mechanizing production wasn’t the problem; storage and processing were.

Wichtendahl designed the facility and rounded up American contractors to supply most of the pre-fab buildings and other equipment.

Dold, 50, said he expects to spend four to six months a year overseeing operations at the plant. His job is to organize farmers into cooperatives and train them in better farming practices.

Dold, who talks about his family’s experience with Catholic mission work, said he’s not in it to make a fortune.

“We want to reinvest in the community,” Dold said. “We’ll have a medical facility and a school and a library, and provide Internet access. Right now, these folks don’t have any of that. They live in mud huts and grass houses.”

He and Wichtendahl expect the plant and area farmers to employ hundreds, even thousands, of laborers, plant workers and drivers. There might be only 20 non-Nigerians involved at the plant. It will be majority owned by a Nigerian company and largely managed by Nigerians, Dold said.

His job will be to provide his knowledge of farming practices and contacts.

“We will be there a long time, God willing,” he said. “I don’t know the future, but we’ll remain as long as they’ll have us.”