Monsanto South Africa: Produce more while conserving more

The fickle nature of research and development means that today’s vogue is very quickly yesterday’s news. Within the hugely competitive field of seed production, companies like Monsanto South Africa are constantly striving to make agriculture sustainable.

The company’s vision for sustainable agriculture strives to meet the needs of a growing population, to protect and preserve this planet we all call home, and to help improve lives everywhere.

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The link between research and production is intrinsic, for a global business which has long cultivated and nurtured the expertise of scientists for the good cause of improving farmers’ crop yields.

Kobus Steenekamp, Country manager for South Africa, joined Monsanto in 2001 and has seen how production has evolved:

“We are part of the global Monsanto Group which has its headquarters in St Louis, Missouri, and is publicly-listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Our core business is to provide the technology to increase yields at farm level, to reduce the level of certain inputs and to improve the lives on farmers in a sustainable manner.

“The company first came to South Africa in 1968 and in those days was only known as a provider of crop protection solutions.  The company became established selling herbicides and in the mid Seventies introduced the world-renowned Roundup® brand of products.

“By the late Nineties Monsanto began acquiring local seed companies like Sensako and Carnia in South Africa and since commercial launch in 1997 we have also increasingly concentrated on biotechnology.”

The acquisition of the seed businesses gave Monsanto a maize market share of less than 20 per cent in the maize seed sector. However, with the support of modern facilities and global research, and with new products tailored to suit local conditions, not to mention the ever-popular DEKALB® seed brand and a dedicated sales force, the company has become the leading supplier of maize seed in South Africa. Monsanto also offers cotton (Deltapine®) and vegetable seeds (Seminis® and De Ruiters®).

The emergence of Monsanto South Africa’s biotechnology capabilities has helped the company to also develop into the market leader as an integrated input supplier. An input supplier providing the farmer with integrated solutions for weed control, stalkborer control, high yields and easy management.

Monsanto’s quality products such as Roundup® and Guardian S® have for many years helped to seal its reputation as a market-leading business. Monsanto’s herbicide products include both selective and non-selective herbicides for control of weeds in agricultural, non-crop, industrial, forestry and conservation areas.

Monsanto’s selective herbicides are based on acetochlor which gives excellent grass control and control also certain broad leave weeds. Guardian S®  is one of the safest acetochlor-based formulation available for pre-emergence application in maize. Roundup® has evolved over time and today Roundup® PowerMax™ is the leading glyposate based product in South Africa due to high efficacy and crop safety.

“Our two key business revenue streams are providing superior genetics, with tolerance to a herbicide (Roundup Ready® technology) and stalkborers (YieldGard® II), and crop protection solutions. We sell seeds to the farmer and recommend other suppliers’ products likefertilizersand planting machinery to bring out the full genetic potential of our seed,” states Steenekamp.

“But we also acknowledge that farmers need to stay abreast with new developments in the agricultural sector, products, technologies, marketing, as well as labour issues and Monsanto strives to address this and contribute to sustainable development by bringing new products and technologies that are acceptable and suitable to the agricultural sector. The company aims to strengthen its product portfolio by further integrating chemical crop protection, seed and technology in the marketplace.”

The business is headquartered in Fourways, Gauteng but Steenekamp says that Monsanto has offices and research and development facilities across South Africa. The company’s staff compliment of 300 workers, encompass a broad spectrum of skills, from scientists and agronomists to those involved in producing seeds. Steenekamp is in no doubt that having a global parent company has played a big part in the success of the business:

“We not only have the advantage of access to funding, but also crucially to the expertise, technology and techniques. Certainly using the latest technology can significantly speed up certain R&D processes. On a local level we have our own R&D programmes helping to create the best products available for the local conditions”

Monsanto’s focus on research and development is aimed at enabling the farmer to optimise production but the biotechnology applied serves the entire agriculture sector and has enhanced crop protection and yields through the use of new chemicals that have been developed.

Each new product that is established in the laboratory has to go through rigorous trials in various conditions, to learn which products are best suited to the environment each individual farmer works within.

Annually, Monsanto spends millions of rands on research and uses laboratory techniques to support its breeding programmes in order to bring new hybrids faster to the market. This is known as marker assistant breeding (MAB). In this technique, specific genes are identified to address a specific problem and the time span of traditional breeding is shortened tremendously by using MAB. This technique has many advantages for the agricultural sector in South Africa, especially with regard to drought and disease resistance, which is of great importance in a country such as South Africa where farmers are struggling with climatic conditions that limits yield.

“We also work with the local growers to produce seed – the farms will produce seeds for Monsanto and we take these to our seed conditioning plant where we are able to clean, grade, treat and bag up the seeds which are sold to farmers.

“The seed selection process can be quite complex and we will segregate various kernel sizes and apply a combination of seed treatments , according to what the farmer requires – it is important to stress that the farmers always have freedom of choice.”

Steenekamp says that Monsanto’s South African customer base is very solid, varying slightly from year to year. Many farmers are of course repeat business, with as many as 4,000 commercial maize farmers receiving the Monsanto service and technology through its distribution and licensing networks. In addition there are many thousands of subsistence and emerging farmers benefitting from the use of bitechnology.

One of the key factors in Monsanto’s sales of seed is of course the price of maize, currently at a reasonably high level, which results in healthy demand:

“At the moment farmers can grow maize profitably which drives the decision to grow more. In a good year we will see 2.8 million hectares of maize planted, but when the price falls this can easily drop to 2.6 million hectares,” Steenekamp states.

Of course such price sensitivity can affect forecasting and Monsanto uses a sophisticated IT system to link forecasting, orders and distribution, which along with storage, involves a third party provider. Storage is a vital process to maintain the quality of the seeds and chemicals and the company operates quality control to ISO standard.

One issue that quality cannot influence however is the farmer’s perennial friend and rival: the weather. Certain parts of South Africa are susceptible to drought, while Steenekamp also cites land reform changes as a major challenge and opportunity for Monsanto’s customer base.

The seasonal aspect of the business means that the company’s sales force are busiest between May and December each year, visiting farmers to identify the most appropriate products and following up on sales to ensure the correct product has been delivered and that there are no problems during the early growth period of the crop.

Monsanto South Africa’s commitment to improved farming has seen the company take some interesting and unconventional steps, when it comes to education, as Steenekamp confirms:

“We run a series of ‘Centre of Excellence Days’ in which we try to demonstrate to farmers the latest types of solutions available to enhance their crops. We talk about hybrids, biotechnology, precision agriculture, seed treatments, herbicides and general pest management – all with the aim of adding value not only to farmers but also to school children

“We also launched a board game called “Dis mos Boerdery™” which is similar to Monolpoly, but with the aim of building up a farming business and encountering real farming challenges along the way. We are trying to give people exposure to agriculture and the importance of farming, whilst also creating awareness of our technology. We allow our employees to be creative and live out their passions.”

“There has to date been very big demand for the product and we have given it out as a gift to clients and have our first big commercial opportunity at a major agricultural show this coming May.”

The board game may deliver fun, but behind the amusement is a genuine wish to educate and enhance lives across the Continent. Last December the company announced a $50 million commitment to African agricultural development.

“I believe public and private sector commitment is necessary and able to support a transformation in African agriculture,” stated Hugh Grant, Monsanto’s Chairman, President and CEO. “As a company committed to improving lives through agriculture, we stand ready to work together with African leaders to turn their ideas into action with the sense of urgency and scale needed to deliver local solutions to meet our global challenges.”

As part of its commitment to support food and nutrition security and agricultural development in Africa, Monsanto will seek increased collaboration among farmers, private industry, governments and civil society groups that can fuel the development of innovations to increase productivity while also strengthening the complete African agricultural value chain.

“There is no single group or simple solution that can solve the food issues facing a growing population,” Grant added. “Rather, through the partnership and cooperation of many, we can deliver improvements that can drive food security, environmental sustainability and economic opportunity in Africa and beyond.”