Roland Fomundam grew up in North West Cameroon, traveling to the United States to attend Northeastern University. What he carried with him on his journey, passport in hand, was the realization there was a lack of information flow within his country. He craved the innovative spirit and entrepreneurial drive he saw others fueled by here, hoping to bring it back it to his homeland, where 65 percent of the population is dependent on an agricultural income alone.
“In the United States, we have created solutions,” Fomundam says. “Back home, people aren’t even able to create solutions. We just have an overflow of problems, and no solutions. Here, we have an overflow of solutions, but fewer problems.”
After watching his mother be exploited by Cameroon’s agricultural market system firsthand, he decided now was the time to start developing solutions he could return home with, leading to the start of Jola Venture.
Jola Venture strives to bring value to farmers’ operations by providing access to university-derived technologies. The company’s first patent-pending product, called the SolPod, is a solar-powered fruit and food dehydrator that was designed by a Northeastern Engineering Capstone team. The SolPod preserves food 20 times longer, providing an effective, low-cost solution to the food spoilage common among most developing nations.
Although Fomundam calls Cameroon “the breadbasket of the nation,” he says all of the focus is on pre-production. The problem, however, is that farmers see about 45 to 65 percent of their stock diminish in post-harvest losses. Preservation is one way to solve the problem, and the team’s been testing the SolPod in Cameroon to not only help the farmers, but to educate them, as well.
“The ease of integration into these areas is very challenging,” Fomundam says, admitting he’s dealing with a population that’s not receptive to new innovations, because they just don’t have the education. Before even bringing anything to market, Fomundam focused on developing the voice of these small-scale farmers, trying to discover who they are, what they are saying and how Jola Venture could help. After interviewing 722 farmers, Fomundam realized, “We have very uneducated farmers doing things without proper knowledge.”
Jola Venture’s also worked with other universities, including Iowa State and MIT. At MIT, Fomundam says they’ve been given access to nine additional technologies alone. By September, the team will be returning to Cameroon with two other technologies beyond the SolPod — a solar-powered water desalinator and a corn sheller. Through their partnership, not only do farmers receive assistance, but schools are able to gain access to a field translational lab on Cameroon where technologies are tested, redesigned and then deployed.
The idea’s taken off here. Jola Venture was awarded up to $10,000 in capital from Northeastern’s student-run venture accelerator IDEA, as well as a grant from the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance. This year, they were also a semi-finalist in three contests: the Global Social Entrepreneurship Competition at the University of Washington Foster School of Business, the Rice Business Plan Competition and the Dell Innovation Challenge.
Fomundam admits they are currently looking for investors. As he says, “We’ve created a perfect body with no soul.” What they need now is more money to pump a soul into the idea.
To hear more from Fomundam, check out the video below from one of his recent visits to Cameroon.