CEO Madumbi Sustainable Agriculture (Pty) Ltd
Good morning everyone. A very warm welcome to you all from a sunny South Africa. My name is Michelle Lesur and I am CEO of Madumbi Sustainable Agriculture.
I would like to thank Wisdom Events for giving me the opportunity to share with you today some of my thoughts on the current state of the biological industry in South Africa and the changes which are taking place. Please know that these are my personal thoughts and based on my commercial experiences as the head of a sales and marketing company which has been supplying biological solutions into the South African agricultural industry for the last 16 years.
To give a global perspective, Madumbi as a company is a subsidiary of the Andermatt Biocontrol group; a group of like-minded biological companies looking to change the way food is grown, by providing alternatives to conventional crop protection and pest control products, through the use of sensible biological solutions – inclusive of both biopesticides and biostimulant products.
From a continental perspective, Africa is identified as the continent which has the most potential and opportunity for future growth given its land and commercial resources. Many countries north of our boarders have an agricultural industry which is dominated by smallholder growers. South Africa is slightly different in that it has 3 very distinct groups of growers with their own unique profiles. Group 1 would be the large collection of subsistence farmers who produce only for personal consumption. They generally don’t have the economic resources to purchase biological solutions and yet they adopt many of the sustainable farming practices by virtue of their culture of growing food. Our second group of growers are categorised as urban farmers or intensive growers and they own small pieces of land but grow for commercial gain by selling on to local retail outlets and local restaurants. They use online technology to source information, products and product knowledge. They are young, agri entrepreneurs with a hunger for knowledge and energy for the production of cash crops or high value vegetable crops. And, then lastly, we have our very big commercial growers who produce on large tracts of land, mainly high value crops for export to Europe, America and the East. From a biological industry perspective each of these 3 groups have very different motivations and biological requirements. What is exciting is that the middle group of urban farmers is growing in number and gaining traction from a supply point of view. Within this group there is a more natural alignment and culture fit for the adoption of biological solutions. They are open minded and willing to try new things. The magic for us as suppliers will be to how best to serve them and their biological requirements. To date however our commercial growers still remain the biggest and most dominant market for our biological solutions with 80% of biological solutions being sold into this market.
Within this commercial group there is currently a lot of change taking place.The current synthetic chemical industry, which heavily dominates this sector, is experiencing a significant basal shift. There is a increased awareness and
greater adoption of biological solutions by both suppliers of inputs and growers. In this disruption there is a lot of opportunity for the biological industry to step up, influence and lead integrated programs going forward.
I believe biological solutions, in collaboration with sustainable chemistry, is the way forward to ensure successful crop production and pest management in South Africa. This increased awareness amongst our growers has created an
escalation in competition amongst suppliers for trustworthy solutions which effectively meet growers’ production needs. If a rising tide lifts all boats, then this bodes well for the future of the biological industry going forward in South Africa.
Industry Profile: Pioneer to Competitive
The biological industry in South Africa is currently seeing a very definite shift in profile from the pioneer stage into the competitive stage. This trend being very similar to what is happening globally.
Over the last 15 years in South Africa, biological solutions were very much in their infancy stage. The formulation of commercial products was still being developed, biological concepts were being introduced were just being introduced to the market and there was very little adoption by commercial growers, other than those few deemed as early adopters looking for more sustainable solutions.
Investment was heavily weighted in favour of R&D rather than commercialisation and brand equity. Small South African production companies focused on formulation advancements and the efficacy of their biocontrol solutions. Multinational supply companies, realising the need for new innovative products to add to their basket of solutions, started acquiring small biological companies through various mergers and acquisitions.
In the Pioneer stage, grower demand for biological solutions in South Africa was limited. This was largely due to the growers being unfamiliar with the features, benefits and overall performance of biological solutions together with a lack of understanding of the science which went into the biological products. Biological products were deemed inferior products with little impact on pest management. Growers not knowing how to include them in programs faced application and efficacy challenges as well.
The tide has however turned and we are seeing more activity with regards to the commercialisation and the inclusion of biological solutions. Commercial growers are becoming more aware of biological solutions and there has definitely been a more positive mind shift towards these alternative options; more so with the younger generation who are coming out of our universities and moving into the commercial production of high value crops. The older generation in South Africa generally remain more sceptical and cautious of the change away from traditional chemical inputs.
Integrated Pest Management
With the focus now towards the integration of soft chemistry with biological solutions, South African growers are starting to realise it’s not an either-or situation; that biological and chemical solutions can complement each other in effective soil health, plant vigour and pest management programs. And for this reason, many commercial growers in South Africa have acquired their own internal technical teams to support their integrated programs.
A closer collaboration between suppliers and growers is developing in an attempt to successfully understand the science behind biological solutions and how they fit into traditional, chemically dominant, programs. Transfer of knowledge and the understanding of biological solutions and their unique modes of action on various crops and against various pests and diseases is a critical success factor for crop production and the generation of higher yields. As a supplier of biological solutions, we have to stay connected to the growers and their technical teams. From an R&D perspective we, the grower and supplier, need to be driving biological innovation together.
In this new competitive stage, we are seeing that product formulations have improved significantly and are more stable. This guarantees better shelf life from a commercial perspective. There are also further enhancements to the efficacy of the solutions through correct application methods and better chemistry compatibilities. The result being a greater acceptance of biological solutions working in collaboration with sustainable chemistry to ensure more successful integrated pest management programs.
In conjunction with biocontrol solutions, commercialisation of biostimulant products is starting to grow in significance. This is on the back of a shift in focus from only pest and disease management to more sustainable farming by unlocking plant potential through soil and root health. If we as an industry are going to be true to sustainability then we need to focus on a sustainability pyramid which has a solid base entrenched in soil health, plant health and then finally at the apex pest and disease management.
SA Government Involvement
Despite this increased demand for biological solutions, our South African Department of Agriculture, Land Reform and Rural Development (DALRRD) continues to frustrate the registration process which is required to bring new and innovative technology to market.
A lack of resources and a desperate need to update our legislation, being Act 36 of 1947, to take into account the unique registration requirements for biological products versus chemical products, needs to be addressed. The South African Biological Organisation (SABO) and Crop Life South Africa continue to work with government to champion the improvements required for the efficient registration of, not only biological solutions but softer chemical solutions as well.
The registration of biological solutions is not only critical to the integrity of the biological industry, but the supply of trustworthy, superior quality solutions remains critical for future food security in South Africa. South Africa, to date, has not experienced a biological disaster but with a growing population of nearly 60million people needing to be fed healthy food, the registration of new and effective solutions remains important. Should this not be addressed in the near future, export growers also run the risk of not having access to innovative and quality solutions required for improved yields and viable market access. This in turn will frustrate the economic success of our foreign trade markets and in turn negatively affect our economy.
Foreign Influence on the Industry
South Africa’s agricultural sector currently contributes about 10% towards South Africa’s total export earnings with the largest earners being high value crops such as citrus, grapes, nuts and pome fruit. The adoption of biological
solutions in the production of these crops is still largely driven by the consumer within our export markets who strongly influences market access legislation.
Biological solutions have the advantage of being favourable options and more positively aligned to our current market access requirements. Minimum residue levels and withholding periods put biological solutions at the forefront of successful production options.
Local Influence on the Industry
Pest Control remains one of the South African’s critical risk factors for the agricultural industry together with biosecurity, rural safety, disaster management and drought aid. It is for this reason that biological solutions will continue to play a pivotal role in ensuring effective and efficient pest management programs.
The awareness of biological solutions received favourable press during the recent Covid pandemic. South Africa’s agriculture industry did extremely well during 2020, growing by 13% when the overall economy declined by -7% during this same period. Favourable weather conditions and the classification of the sector as an essential service contributed to this success together with strong exports of high value crops such as citrus. The agriculture industry
remains an economic beacon of hope for the country and this success suggests that the future will be favourable for the biological industry as well.
As mentioned previously, we are also seeing a new awareness for biological solutions among the urban and intensive sectors of the economy. This is very exciting for the economic future of our country. With the unemployment rate
in South Africa currently at 33%, the opportunity to provide employment in South Africa lies in becoming part of the food production supply chain. Growing food, and less toxic food, is the solution to improving both food safety as well as food security in our country.
Locally, a strong cohesion amongst suppliers of biological solutions within the industry is required to meet growers’ needs, overcome production challenges and lead innovative technology. We need to be partnering together and leveraging off each other’s strengths.
Previously suppliers acted in silos promoting biological solutions in isolation, often at war with one another to gain market and customer share. Given all the aspects of a complete and all-inclusive Integrated Pest Management program, it is very important that suppliers collaborate, rather than compete, to ensure that the best technology and the most advanced solutions are available for our growers. I believe that collaborative advantage will advance the industry and positively influence the quality and quantity of effective solutions.
During this growth stage of our industry, it is also time for reputable biological supply companies in South Africa to leverage off their competitive edge and market advantage they have developed over time in the industry. Well established biological companies with a proven track record for quality products, backed by science, need to lead the industry, continually striving for innovation and excellence.
Previously, all biologicals were deemed niche products. But there is a new tendency for some biological products to be moving along the spectrum towards a commodity profile with the entry of a number of additional suppliers promoting, if not the same, then similar products with similar technology. Despite this, we are not seeing a lot of new, innovative and niche product technology coming onto the market in South Africa. But instead, rather a lot of “me too” products with varying degrees of quality. There has however been a significant increase in complementary solutions which form part of an effective IPM program, specifically advancements in behaviour and mechanical control solutions.
Going forward, we anticipate biological product brand awareness is going to become more prominent and significant, standing for quality and integrity of solutions. Like the trends in synthetic chemistry, commercial growers are also challenging the premiums they were previously happy to pay for the additional value biological solutions offered. Profitability is going to be linked to the standard of the technical transfer of knowledge in field and the superior quality and efficacy of our solutions within an integrated program.
With the majority of biological solutions being living organisms, our biggest challenge as suppliers of these solutions remains the distribution of these products across South Africa into regions which display very high temperatures. They require special handling as they move from the laboratory through to our farms often at very high temperatures. Our ports are also congested and often frustrate the efficient transportation of these solutions which require refrigeration facilities to maintain optimum efficacy.
Despite the challenges our industry faces in terms of registrations, efficacy and the commercialisation of new technology, the biological industry in South Africa is positioned for substantial growth over the next 10 years. Competition will become intense amongst suppliers with growers’ increased demands for superior solutions which integrate well with sustainable chemistry to meet market access requirements. Transfer of knowledge and the ability to commercialise science becomes critical to the success of an industry which has a very bright future in South Africa.
For me personally, Mahatma Ghandi’s phrase, “Be the change you wish to see in the world” remains our guiding light as champions of biological solutions in an environment which is continually changing. These are exciting times for the biological industry in South Africa and I am glad that I can play a part in influencing both food safety and food security for all South Africans.