AKILI is a non-profit research and training initiative based in Cambridge, Massachusetts designed to inspire and empower African agribusiness professionals of today and tomorrow, and innovate and network with the global market of ideas and commerce.

Why ‘AKILI’?

Akili is a Swahili word for knowledge and wisdom. Our mission is to connect African youth and professionals with the world’s leading research universities, corporations, and policymakers. In exchange, African agribusiness youth and professionals will share their knowledge and wisdom with the rest of the world. Win-Win.

What is the AKILI initiative?

AKILI started as a fellowship project of its chairman, Issa Baluch, as part of the Harvard University Advanced Leadership Initiative. It has evolved into an initiative of like-minded investors, academics, non-profits, and policymakers seeking to apply global best practices in agribusiness, conservation, and economic development, into workable, achievable steps toward social, environmental and economic sustainability.

Programs & Alliances

AKILI mobilizes strategic events and alliances to promote research, training, and networking opportunities in the African agribusiness sector.

Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative, Harvard Kennedy School

AKILI was initiated by Issa Baluch when he was a Senior Fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative and has engaged in multiple workshops, training events, presentations and lectures in the Harvard Kennedy School. AKILI works closely with Professor Calestous Juma and the Agribusiness Innovation in Africa Project of the Harvard Kennedy School.

MIT Africa Initiative

AKILI is a member of the MIT-Africa Initiative and participates in the formation of research and training activities for faculty and students, including participation in the annual MIT Sloan Africa Business Conference. AKILI has worked closely with the MIT Center for Advanced Urbanism to design sustainable agribusiness areas in Africa.

AKILI – MIT-x Web Education Collaboration for African Universities & Global Stakeholders

AKILI is collaborating with MIT faculty to develop a series of web courses in business, entrepreneurship, and urban planning on the Foundations of Investment for African Agribusiness that will be organized at several universities in Africa, starting in Mozambique and Ghana.

AKILI African Agribusiness Finance Labs

AKILI is designing an initiative to promote financial literacy, bankability and good financial practices in African agribusiness. Seeking to model “good financial practices” as a complement to the already successful “good agricultural practices” developed by GlobalG.A.P. (www.globalgap.org), AKILI will be teaming-up with financial institutions and educators to improve the financial strength and capacity of African agribusiness entrepreneurs and organizations.

Environmental and Social Impact Assessments

AKILI has worked closely with consultants recommended by the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC) to complete an Environmental and Social Impact Assessment in Ghana, and has worked with MIT faculty and students to design agribusiness sites that meet and exceed IFC ESIA Terms of Reference.

African Youth Microfarms

AKILI has organized youth mircrofarms in local village schools in Ghana in collaboration with Joint Aid Management from South Africa and the Ghana 4-H Council. The AKILI microfarm model is designed for training youth in agronomy and entrepreneurship in collaboration with commercial farms.

Workshops, Seminars and Presentations

AKILI has organized workshops and seminars in the U.S. and Africa with collaborators from Harvard, MIT, the Corporate Council on Africa. AKILI principals have made presentations to seminars and workshops around the world, from the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association, Grow Africa, Global AgInvesting conferences, and many more.

Special Thanks to Our Financial Partners

David Phillips, UAE

Carsten Petersen, USA

Matthias Abend, Germany

JP Tseng, Taiwan

Ashok Thomas, Canada

Captain Osman Farah, UAE & Somalia

Ali Jallaf, UAE

A $50 billion per year opportunity cost

Africa imports $50 billion of food each year that it could produce itself, a number that is rising every year; cash that could help bank Africa’s economic transformation; Africa’s small farmers can’t get ahead because they must compete against the infrastructure, cheap finance and subsidies of their competitors in the USA, Brazil or Europe; Many of Africa’s forests and productive fields are being lost through slash and burn methods of logging and farming.

A $50 billion per year opportunity…

Coordination, collaboration, calibration….we believe projects must be coordinated between infrastructure finance and enterprise finance, using global best practices, meeting global quality standards in every aspect of the project; Blended finance packages in collaboration all financial stakeholders, large and small…we believe in matching the right money with the right purpose; a successful project will have grant funding and microfinance alongside private equity and commercial banking; time horizons and investor expectations must be properly calibrated. Research and training are critical, building a culture of innovation and global competitiveness. First Hectares Capital has developed a non-profit affiliate, the Agribusiness Knowledge and Innovation Leadership Initiative (AKILI), help organize research and training programs at the heart of every agribusiness project, with professional workshops on African agribusiness and forestry in the major political capitals and financial centers of Europe, the Americas, the Middle East and Asia.


AKILI’s 2017 Signature Project: MIT-x Web Course on Investing in Food Security in Africa, in collaboration with the Corporate Council on Africa

AKILI’s signature project in 2017 will be the launch of a global course on investing in food security, offered as part of MIT’s Open Learning Initiative.


AKILI has established a strategic alliance with the Corporate Council on Africa for the development and implementation of this project. Donations in support of this project can be made to the Corporate Council on Africa’s AKILI Knowledge Initiative. For more information on how you can contribute to this project, please contact us at [email protected]


AKILI is encouraging partnerships with African and international colleges and universities, corporations supporting executive and professional development, and honors secondary education, to offer this course as part of their Executive Education or academic offerings for business, finance, engineering, agriculture, political science, and other disciplines. For more information on how you can partner with AKILI to offer this course, please contact us at [email protected]

As a son of Africa who has built many successful companies in Africa, I’ve seen the game-changing power of research, training and education to improve lives and create new opportunities for many. AKILI is offering its support to African leaders to bring the best ideas in the world, and the best ideas in Africa, together in new, exciting, and innovative ways.
Issa S. Baluch, Representative for Africa Harvard Advanced Leadership Initiative

Issa Baluch, Chairman

A 37-year veteran of the global freight and logistics industry, Issa founded the Swift Group in Dubai and led the organization to expansion in more than 40 countries throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Asia. He was President of FIATA, the international federation of freight forwarders associations. More recently, Issa co-founded AKILI, the non-profit African Agribusiness Innovation and Leadership Initiative, and was a Senior Fellow of the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University.

Africa’s agricultural potential is unlimited, but the risks are real. Our team has invested millions of dollars in African agribusiness, and several years of our lives, to understand how to mitigate these risks. We want to share the lessons of our experience, and the valuable lessons and best practices of many others in the field and around the world, and make these lessons accessible to everyone. We created AKILI to accomplish this goal, to promote research, training, and innovation, to nurture a culture of learning to coincide with private investments in African agribusiness, and to increase knowledge and understanding at every level that will lead to better decisions and more successful outcomes.
Jon Vandenheuvel, CEO

Jon Vandenheuvel, CEO

Jon is co-founder and CEO of AKILI, a non-profit research and training initiative focused on African agribusiness and forestry. He is CEO and co-founder of First Hectares Capital, an investment company focused on infrastructure finance for African agribusiness and forestry. Previously, he was co-founder of Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms in Ghana in 2009. Jon also co-founded AKILI, the African Agribusiness Innovation and Leadership Initiative, a non-profit developed in association with faculty from Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a visiting scholar during the 2014-15 academic year. Jon’s spent his early career as a congressional leadership staffer and corporate lobbyist in Washington, D.C.

Management & Advisors

Issa Baluch
Issa BaluchChairman
• Born in East Africa
• Founder of Swift Group, Dubai
• Past President, FIATA
• Senior Fellow, Harvard University
Jon Vandenheuvel
Jon VandenheuvelCEO
• Co-founder, Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms (Ghana)
• Leadership staff, U.S. Congress
• Masters, Johns Hopkins University
• Visiting Scholar, African Urbanism, MIT
Elizabeth Uwaifo
Elizabeth UwaifoDirector
• Managing Partner, Radix Legal & Consulting (UK)
• Former Partner, Sidley Austin LLP
Calestous Juma
Calestous Juma
• Professor, Harvard University
• Author, The New Harvest
Stephen Hayes
Stephen HayesDirector
• President, Corporate Council on Africa
James Lutzweiler
James LutzweilerDirector
• Senior Director, Global Public Policy, PepsiCo
• Former Vice President Hunger Impact, AARP Foundation
• Former Vice President, Joint Aid Management (South Africa)

Wesley Harris
Wesley Harris
• Professor, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Kris Klokkenga
Kris Klokkenga
• Co-Founder, Africa Atlantic Franchise Farms (Ghana)
Sidley Austin LLP
Sidley Austin LLP
• Pro Bono Legal Representation (Asia-Africa Agricultural Enterprise Pro Bono Program)