Olam: Africa’s Potential to Transform Food Security

Africa Advisory Group sat down with Olam International Ltd.’s president and regional head for Southern and Eastern Africa, MD Ramesh. Olam is an agribusiness with operations in 23 countries in Africa and 65 countries globally. The company is listed in Singapore but its roots are in the cashew nut trade between Nigeria and India. The firm has been in Africa for 25 years. Olam handles 40 products globally from farming to processing including rise, cocoa, coffee and certified timber.

Mr. Ramesh shared his thoughts on leadership, the opportunities Africa presents and how business and government can work together better so that Africa reaches its full agriculture potential.

If we change the yield of African farming, the African food security situation as well as probably the world food security situation can change.MD Ramesh, Olam International Ltd.

Q: What does leadership development mean to you?

The cultures across Africa are different in terms of what the leadership requirements would be. One of the big roles leaders in Africa must spend time on is to develop, polish and ready leaders from within the African community to take significantly larger leadership roles than they are today. Which therefore means picking the right people and ensuring they’re educated and experienced, and eventually given the right kind of experiences so they end up being the kind of leaders we wish them to be to take this continent to the greatness it’s destined to be. I think the biggest contribution that Olam makes to all its employees is that we multi-skill them.

Q: How can agriculture development be improved?

The yield for the amount of effort and time that is put into farming is the weakest in the world in Africa. On the one side I can say it’s the weakest in the world and on the other side I can say it’s the largest growth opportunity for farmers in Africa. Given that, there is an urgent need for governments and the private sector to understand that if we change the yield of African farming, the African food security situation as well as probably the world food security situation can change. Half of the world’s farming population lives in Africa. Over 50% of the world’s arable land is in Africa. If we get the yield right we can solve the world’s food problem. We are not doing enough to do that. That in itself is a huge leadership challenge we are facing. We must align policymakers, the private sector and the farming sector to all come together. While this is a challenge right now, there is a huge opportunity in front of us.

Q: What are the opportunities to grow in Africa?

A lot of African food consumption is moving towards prepacked, precooked food that is ready made food bought off the shelf. That’s because it’s convenient and because there’s more and more disposable income coming into the hands of the middle class. In that scenario there’s a lot of scope for Africa to develop its food processing centers in Africa. Today they’re importing from cheaper sources such as China and India and Taiwan and Brazil. All of that should change and all of that wealth should get trapped in Africa itself. All of those are opportunities we think we can take full value from in the near future.

Our view is that it will take about 100 companies like us to really do full justice to the African farming opportunity. Even for us there is huge upside on the farming side, supply-chain side and the processing side.MD Ramesh, Olam International Ltd.

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