Laeveld Agrochem: Helping South African farmers yields the best farm produce through scientific methods and precision services
Jul. 6, 2020
The African continent has endless agricultural potential, a suitable climate, fertile soil and hard-working people, making it the world's leading exporter of tropical fruits, coffee and vegetables. However, agricultural development across Africa is uneven. Agricultural technologies are also relatively backward in the northern and western regions while southern Africa is more developed with relatively mature plant protection, nutrition, irrigation and agriculture systems, and local farmers have adopted many innovative technologies.
Recently, AgroPages exclusively interviewed Corné Liebenberg, who is the Marketing Director of South Africa’s leading distributor, Laeveld Agrochem (LAC), which is also one of the country's four national distributors. As a benchmark enterprise and producer of various agricultural inputs, LAC also provides agricultural decision-making services based on big data, and has helped farmers succeed in planting.
In the interview, Liebenberg talked about South Africa’s current agricultural development and expressed deep feelings for local farmers and agriculture. He said that the Covid-19 pandemic has made the world understand that food production is key to ensuring the continuity of daily life and farmers are contributing to this, adding that this has given LAC a greater commitment to further guaranteeing farmers’success and profits.
Corné Liebenberg, Marketing Director of Laeveld Agrochem
AgroPages (A): Please explain LAC’s history and current development.
C: Laeveld Agrochem (LAC), www.laeveld.co.za, was established in 1991 and is involved in all aspects of agriculture, from soil sampling, to seed and crop protection, to fertilizer and crop enhancement programs, to precision farming, to any services and inputs required for larger and more profitable yields and producing crops in a sustainable manner while considering environmental impact.
Currently, LAC conducts its business in South Africa and most neighboring countries, and some of our specialized precision services, provided by our partner Agri Technovation, are in high demand, even from citrus farmers in Australia, California and Spain.
Our customers, who are mainly farmers, are highly successful, and their products are in high demand around the world. Their loyal support has made LAC one of the market leaders in the Agri sector.
A: Please introduce your current franchise business model. How many agents are in your network and how does this model promote LAC’s overall development?
C: To react quicker to opportunities in the market and support the decision-making process, LAC transformed from a company with 17 shareholders and 120 agents to a franchise model that now has 120 fully-owned franchises working from 75 depots and warehouses around South Africa, with me and my father being the only two shareholders.
This model enables us to make decisions on the go and adapt quicker to changing environments, as well as to change direction quickly should opportunities arise. We currently service some 6,000 commercial farmers.
A: Who are the main target client groups of LAC? How do you serve this group with your products and special farm services, such as Decision Farming™?
C: LAC targets commercial farmers, from export crop farmers of citrus, grapes, avocados and nuts, to grain farmers producing maize, sojas and sunflower. We only target entrepreneurial and leading farmers that appreciate and use our high-level services and inputs, which are what distinguishes us. The products we sell are merely the means to an end.
We provide Decision Farming™ services using drones, satellite imagining, soil samples, leaf samples, weather stations and daily scouting to help manage their farms through scientifically-proven methods, which is why our customers’ yields are some of the best in their class.
In cooperation with Agri Technovation (https://agritechnovation.co.za/), we supply precision services sought after by countries around the world, and the Vodacom-backed Mezzanine is their partner for their world class platform, MyFarmWeb, where every single data point, measurement and sensor data can be viewed on one simple screen in various layers, enabling users to do all types of comparisons virtually. Through this app, users can access all data when conducting crop inspections, and can use the results of soil sampling data to select the crops or seeds for planting while taking into account all conditions, such as weather, soil type, water quality and available, and soil condition.
All decisions are based on scientific data and information collected and compiled over many years, which consider the needs and requirements of the market. Traceability is current vital for any customer, due to the wrongly perceived dangers posed by chemicals used in producing crops, and LAC prides itself for following programs that require the least chemicals and therefore, have the least impact on the environment.
MyFarmWebTM is part of the Decision Farming™ offering. It is an Internet-based
platform storing each farm’s own geographic data
We now have over 2 million hectares analyzed and mapped, and thousands of customers use our data and inputs on a daily basis. It is virtually impossible to reap the full potential of your land without these precision services. Due to inputs from users, the program is evolving and improving almost daily, and there are amazing success stories from around the word.
A: How is the general situation of the Agri-input distribution market in South Africa? How is the competition?
C: There are three other national distributors similar to LAC, as well as various regional ones. In total, South Africa has over 1,000 sales agents, which are too many. To earn a decent living, there should be no more than 700.
The advantage for farmers is that these agents keep each other on their toes and drive prices down, as the only “weapon” of lesser agents without access to LAC’s full range of products or services is to cut prices. LAC is privileged to have access to the world’s major suppliers, including Syngenta, Adama (both owned by ChemChina), Bayer, Corteva and local giant Villa Crop (backed by International Fortune 200 company Land o’ Lakes), as well as various biological product suppliers, such as Madumbi, and companies like Metson, which supplies kelp and other soil-enhancing products.
A: Is the crop protection market in Southern Africa occupied by products from multinational companies? What principles do LAC follow when looking for and selecting product partners?
C: Major multinational suppliers, such as Syngenta, Bayer and Corteva, still play a vital role, even though their pipeline of new molecules and patented products are not as full as in the past. The market for generic products is steadily growing, and the quality of off patented products coming from the East is also better than in the past, with most multinational research-based companies having factories there as well.
When selecting suppliers and partners, it is vital to choose those that endorse your principles and beliefs and are prepared to back their products even when things go wrong or when there are complaints and potential claims. Product stewardship is vital to them, as they spend many years and hundreds of millions of dollars developing one new product, so therefore it is crucial for this product to be used strictly according to its label and in the correct way, to prevent resistance and other complications. For this reason, we believe that online websites cannot replace the services and inputs the LAC agents provide, starting long before a specific spray program is compiled and long after the produce has been harvested.
A: In addition to agricultural inputs, we saw that LAC offers very diverse value-added solutions and you even filmed your own TV series. What type of company philosophy does this reflect?
C: Our main aim is to offer hope and make an impact. We therefore follow the very common principle of not handing out fish but teaching people to fish. Although land reform without compensation is a very delicate and emotional topic in South Africa, it should never have been an issue in the first place. We have way more than enough arable land, the government owns millions of hectares, and we also have hundreds of thousands of people who wish to be either self-sufficient or earn a living from the land, since South Africa is mainly an agricultural country.
We have seen it is hard to teach a hungry person who’s only concern is where his next meal will come from anything, so we are involved in various feeding schemes handing out Genesis meals (https://www.genesisnutrition.co.za/). Thereafter, we provide a “fool’s proof seed packet,” with one such packet being a bit bigger than my hand containing five different vegetable seeds and all the tools and instructions to plant it successfully, which can yield up to 200 kilograms of veggies at a cost of about R100 or $7. The training part follows this, including the Niche farming TV series that shared more than 200 ideas over five seasons related to various types of produce and farming ideas, where you need very little space or land, not much money and no experience to still be successful.
Earlier, I mentioned that to be financially sound our company targeted successful commercial farmers, enabling us to also spend quality time on smaller emerging farmers, of which South Africa has hundreds of thousands, to train and transfer knowledge and help them become independent and sell-sufficient by using the same efforts and a little bit more, as well as to generate income from their crops. The over-achievers amongst them also have the opportunity to eventually become highly successful commercial farmers.
A: The African continent means opportunities. For companies that want to enter this market, what is necessary to ensure their success?
C: The Covid-19 pandemic clearly highlighted the fact that food makes the world go around, and Africa is not called the breadbasket of the world for nothing. Africa has everything in its favor, from fertile soil, good quality water, hard workers, skills, fair weather, and so on. Various challenges, such as dubious governments and corrupt officials, can be addressed in time, but the day when not enough food is produced they will all sing a different tune, and this is already happening in some countries due to the lockdown.
I recall the very well-known story of the European shoe manufacture’s ship arriving at an African country in search of new markets. The first sailor wired his boss back home with the message, “We are turning around as no one here wears shoes.” The second sailor, I assume to be typically the entrepreneur reading this, wired a message back, “Please send many more ships with stock, as no one here has shoes.”
There are therefore endless opportunities for companies to either enter the market or expand their presence. But Africa is Africa, so you will have to involve community leaders, chiefs and local communities, as without their backing, you will never built a sustainable business. Anyone willing to be creative, embrace technology, put in the hours, and work smarter and not only harder will definitely reap the fruits of success. If one looks at the massive pace at which Chinese companies are entering and investing into the African market, it should embarrass those that are already on the continent, as it has taken companies from this far away to see and realize the full potential before us. Although they can be seen as tough opposition, they will help develop infrastructure, such as dams, airports, harbors and railway lines, which can benefit the whole continent if managed fairly.
A: What is your opinion on Covid-19 on the industry? What is LAC’s development strategy for the post-pandemic period?
C: Covid-19benefited us in all possible ways. First and foremost, the whole world finally realized that food does not come from cans or shops but are produced with the blood and sweat of the dearest creation on earth, the farmer. It also forced people to adapt and use technology better, conducting meetings through Zoom or Teams and making the continent “smaller,” as suddenly borders and distances were not an issue anymore. We learned to appreciate and love whom we have while we have them, and we began to treasure relationships, personal time and friendships more, and we learned to live for today only and not get stuck in the past, which we cannot change but can only learn from. We also learned to not fear or stress about tomorrow, as today is all we have. Without food and farmers there is no tomorrow, and Laeveld Agrochem will remain at the forefront to keep farmers successful, profitable and relevant, and ultimately keep food on everyone’s plate
Regarding our plans post-pandemic. Each year we take the leading South African farmers (approximately 1,000 of them) on a MSC cruise, where we got some of the specialists in various agricultural fields across the world to share the latest news, break-throughs and tips with the group, and they also share ideas among each other. These proofed to be exceptionally successful.
Here is what we did last year https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYF_k-KjiH0, we called it Seil Safari, which is English will be Sail Safari.
Due to the possible fear some people might have developed during the epidemic for lots of people in a confined space, we plan to do this in Mauritius this year, and I firmly belief it will be the highlight of any farmer looking to become the best he can be. During this event we have stands and any reader is off course welcome to join or come and do his own display.
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