In conversation with Roland Decorvet, Philafrica Foods CEO
The world will feed itself in Africa where the land is – Roland Decorvet
PHILAFRICA FOODS is headquartered in South Africa where the organisation owns and operates maize mills, wheat mills, an oilseed-crushing, extraction, and refining plant, as well as animal feed manufacturing plants spanning all animal categories.
Philafrica Foods is owned by AFGRI Group Holdings, an investment holding company with interests in a number of agricultural-related companies providing products and services to ensure sustainable agriculture.
The Committee on World Food Security (CFS) defines food security as existing when all people at all times have physical and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food to meet their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
The CFS adopted this definition, but recognises that there are important capabilities that go beyond the availability of food that is nourishing, the resources with which to access this food and the way food is utilised. These include the stability of the food system in terms of prices, quality and safety, the agency of those in the food system, including consumers, to make informed choices, and even the physical ability to absorb the nutrients that are provided by food.
Philafrica Foods has a vision to unlock the potential of African agriculture. With millions of hectares of high potential agricultural lands – and only a small portion currently under cultivation – Africa holds the potential to feed the world. The harsh reality is that most African countries are net importers of processed food products. Philafrica Foods believes that the most effective way to transform African agriculture is to create market pull through large-scale food processing by supporting each stage of the value chain and care for all stakeholders.
The African Professional Magazine spoke to CEO at Philafrica Foods Roland Decorvet about his personal, professional, and entrepreneurial journey thus far. The word Phil means love in Greek hence the name Philafrica, meaning the love of Africa.
Tell us about your early life and your role today
With Swiss origins, I started from the bottom as a sales executive at Nestle in China until I became the Chairperson. Three years ago, I left the business and followed a personal passion at Mercy-Ships a christian NGO managing the largest civilian hospital ship in the world sailing around Africa and helping communities. Following another deeper calling, a year later, I got know the owners of AFGRI and the CEO Chris Venter, and we realized we had the same vision of transforming Africa by investing in food processing and Agriculture but in a different way. The world will feed itself in Africa where the land is.
What does your role mean to you?
The role means vertical integration straight back to the farm gate. It means working closely with smallholder farmers on crop variety improvement and technical assistance. It means staying current on global commodity markets to ensure leading procurement practices. It means implementing best-in-class manufacturing practices and adapting the business model based on how the local market operates. It is doing business differently, disruptively, and with a good dose of love. Love – in the way we treat our employees, in the way we treat our farmers, and in our long-term commitment to the continent of Africa.
What initiative would leave the greatest impact for you and for Africa as a whole?
I am proud to say that Philafrica Foods has entered into a 50/50 joint venture with NovosHorizontes (“New Horizons”), an integrated chicken producer located in northern Mozambique. This forms part of Philafrica Foods’ planned investment of between R1 billion and R1.5 billion over the next 18-24 months in Africa. With a focus on investing in food categories across Africa, and on locally-sourced raw materials, Philafrica is actively seeking investment opportunities on the continent, with NovosHorizontes being the first of many.
NovosHorizontes with a core vision of unlocking the potential – both in terms of labour and land – in Mozambique by supporting smallholder farmers in agribusiness. The joint venture with Philafrica Foods will allow the company to continue its expansion in that country. We saw in NovosHorizontes a trusted partner, a profitable business, and importantly, having the same values as us in terms of transforming the lives of smallholder farmers. Moreover, our expertise in rendering, feed mixing and poultry will drive substantial synergies as the company expands in Mozambique. Currently 60 to 70% of the poultry consumed in Mozambique is imported, and thus there is massive opportunity. We there see immense potential to replace imported products with local production and are pleased to have found a strong operating partner in Mozambique with decades of experience in the poultry value chain.
What would you say are the most critical resources for your successful leadership? How would people describe you as a Leader?
I do not need people who just love Africa, I want people who have a calling and love African people and their survival with regards to food security. Trust, delegation and empowering the people in my team are important for me. If you want your team members to be entrepreneurs, you must treat them like entrepreneurs.
What is the legacy that you would want to leave by the time you retire?
I would like to see many factories across Africa processing African raw materials while helping millions of people mostly small farmers, allowing them to be empowered.
How do you strike the balance of career, business and interpersonal skills?
I do not have much to prove in my role. I have spent over 20 years in the corporate space and have done it all. All I want now is to create, build a business in a different way – as much as making a profit and industrial growth is important, making a social impact and putting individual businesses and ordinary people’s lives is my calling.
How has the company done in terms of business growth objectives?
The business is doing well so far, we currently have a R5billion business and we looking at acquiring or setting up three to four meaningful business deals per year.
How do you maintain ethics, integrity and professionalism?
It is important to choose and recruit the right people to work with and businesses you partner with. Think long-term in whatever you do. Having a strong work ethic and philosophy that is published for all to see in the workplace is important.
How do you participate in mentorship, if you do?
I am a firm believer that we should employees that treat their work as they would if they were running their own businesses.
How does the company contribute to the community?
Philafrica Foods announced its acquisition of a majority stake in The Dutch Agricultural Development & Trading Company’s (DADTCO) cassava processing activities. DADTCO has pioneered an innovative mobile cassava processing technology that is having a major positive impact on Africa’s smallholder farmers. With existing operations in Mozambique and advanced projects in West Africa, Philafrica Foods is looking to leverage DADTCO’s technology and its management team’s extensive experience to scale cassava processing in sub-Saharan Africa (“SSA”). DADTCO’s vision to unleash the potential of cassava throughout Africa, the technical expertise of its management team, and innovative mobile processing technology, align perfectly with our vision and values at Philafrica Foods.
Cassava is a root crop grown in tropical climates – in Africa it is the second largest source of carbohydrates after maize. Currently eight of the top 10 producers globally are in SSA, with a total of 145 million MTs – 54% of global production – produced annually in Africa. There are many advantages to cassava, amongst these being that it needs less water to grow than maize and rice, making it an attractive crop for smallholder farmers and it can remain underground for more than two years after maturity, reducing the need for large storage facilities. Philafrica Foods will actively pursue close collaboration with donors to make the mobile cassava processing technology available to as many smallholder farmers in SSA as possible.
How is the company doing in terms of Transformation objectives?
If you are in the food business, it is imperative to have the right diversity in the teams and have people who understand the end consumers. Don’t be a politically correct business in your dealings; rather have a smart business that understands the people you serve.
How do you ensure the company is delivering quality customer service?
Service is key, if you don’t perform and deliver on your promise, people will go somewhere else. Food safety and food quality is a must, sophisticated laboratories that will ensure country and universal quality standards in the different markets you are in is vital.
What makes you tick or keeps you awake at night in terms of your role?
My issue is not having enough good and qualified people in our human capital at Philafrica Foods who love people and are willing to travel to the markets we want to venture into.
What have been the highs and lows in your working career?
The China experience where I moved (over 20 years) from being a sales consultant to being the Chairperson of Nestle there was a highlight – my experience at Mercy ships was remarkable. The lows would be when the people you trust turn around to stab you!
How does the organisation take part in developing the profession you belong to?
We have a demo farm with our partners in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, each of our ventures across Africa will have such demo-farms. We have an apprenticeship programme in our farming and training colleges where we have 60 learners in Mozambique and 100 learners in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.
What awards have you or the company won?
Philafrica Foods was only officially launched in April 2017. Whilst I was Chairperson at Nestle in China in 2013, I won the Business man of the Year Award. I also won the Man of Year Award at 2014 in Switzerland (Bilanz Magazine)
When you not at work, what do you get up to, including family life and where can people follow you online?
My wife and four girls aged between 9 and 13 years keep me so busy when I am not at work, I enjoy family life. I am too busy for social media, I prefer talking to people. Our work is at www.philafricafoods.com.
Source: Mzukona Mantshontsho, The African Professional
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