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Sunday 11 December 2016

'Two years experience here is the equivalent of ten in Ireland'

Darragh McCullough meets a Louth man learning the meat business trade in Ghana

Published 16/12/2015 | 02:30

Andrew Agnew from Castlebellingham works as a sales and logistics rep for AgraKepak in Ghana
Andrew Agnew from Castlebellingham works as a sales and logistics rep for AgraKepak in Ghana
A cattle dealer at the mart in the Ghanaian capital of Accra

It's 2013, and 23 year-old Andrew Agnew from Castlebellingham in Co Louth needs a job.

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He's got a degree in agricultural science from Ballyhaise and Dundalk IT, and has experience working on a few farms. But he's a people-person, as evidenced by his time spent helping out local politicians during elections.

"I saw a job online from AgraKepak for a sales and logistics representative in Ghana," recalls Agnew.

"To be honest, I wasn't too sure about it initially. I'd worked for three months with an agri-contractor in New Zealand, but that was the only time I'd ever been away, and that was with a bunch of lads."

Ghana was a very different prospect. Situated on Africa's west coast, the former English colony is surrounded by Francophone Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. It is also one of the poorest regions on the planet.

Against this backdrop, after two interviews and a job offer, Agnew decided to take the plunge. Now that he's reach the end of his two-year stint in Africa, he knows that it really was a chance-of-a-lifetime.

"I really didn't know what I was getting into. I had no idea of the culture, and I had no experience in the meat trade or logistics," he revealed.

"I didn't even know that people ate the kind of stuff that we sell here. We sell container-loads of cows feet for example. There's absolutely no meat on them, but people here chop them up and use them as stock for soups and stews. It's probably one of the better things that I've eaten out here!

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But it wasn't just a cultural education. The young Louthman got a chance to earn his business stripes too.

"I'd say that two years here is the equivalent of 10 years at home because it all boils down to you, and there's nobody on the end of a phone going to tell you how to do it. So when a truck turns over on a road, you make the decision there and then about how to get it going again without the load spoiling," he says.

"Economics is very real here. For example, the Ghanaian currency (the Cedi) devalued by 50pc during the last 18 months, so I'm kinda leaving here an accountant without the papers.

"Even though we are distributors selling to wholesalers, it was up to us to market the product to the end sellers. So that meant getting a couple of cartons of hooves or fish and bringing it down to the market, and having the chats with the lads and getting them interested enough to come back to the depot to meet our wholesalers. I got on great with the locals. They're a bit like how I'd imagine auld farmers in Ireland 40 years ago, but it was still important to treat them with respect."

Andrew's efforts paid off, with sales doubling to nearly 8,000t a year during the last two years, despite import duties of up to 27pc. It meant that turn-around times for clearing a container was reduced tenfold from 20 to just two days.

"Things move very fast out here. You could be talking to a customer for just 10 minutes before they decide to buy €20,000 worth of product. But the next fella might only be buying 20kg." But was it lonely?

"Yeah, it was at times, but I just kept busy. You were working six days a week here really. When a shipment would come in, we'd stay with it until it was safe in our store or gone out to a customer. With no forklifts in the port, it was a case of hand-balling the product out of a container into transport or into the store. A big part of controlling the situation was just being involved.

"That could mean tailing a load as it is transported across the country, but that is what's required. I'd also get home for a long week four times a year, and the likes of Skype is a gift," says Agnew.

Darragh McCullough travelled to Ghana as part of an Irish Food trade mission delegation with Bord Bia

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