Innovation and education will be the building blocks of continued development in Africa’s agribusiness industry.
How can you bring about culture change in an industry like farming where family businesses have their way of doing things set for generations now?
Often the private sector will find solutions where governments struggle.
Suren Surat, CEO of SKC Surat, talks to AfricaLive about educating Mauritius’s smallholder farmers on best practices, cutting pesticides out of the food chain and how SMEs in the sector can embrace technology to improve profitability and traceability.
The interview provides tremendous insight into how small changes in businesses operations can have a big impact on supply chains and consumers.
AfricaLive: SKC Surat is a great entrepreneurial story; from humble beginnings with a family farm and market stall to its current position as an industry leader in Mauritius with over 600 employees and a distribution network across the Indian Ocean region. What have been the major milestones in your development?
Mr Suren Surat: In the beginning, it was all about hard work and perseverance. At the core of it all was family, and everyone in the family coming together.
The focus was always on giving good service and value to customers. Money and profit were always secondary to that, although if you get the service to customers right, the profit will come.
We are not a small family business any more but those values are still there. When the customer is satisfied we are satisfied.
AfricaLive: What are your ambitions now when it comes to growing the business on the African continent?
Mr Suren Surat: I was still in school when the business was growing. When Shyam Surat really started to grow the business with my father I was only eight years old but I was always interested in what was going on. I was always helping where I could in the evenings and I already had a passion for it.
I joined the company after I left school, by this time we had a big share of the market here. However, Mauritius is a small market. We decided after so many years growing in the local market it was time to look overseas. I went with Shyam to La Reunion island and we looked for a partner there. Luckily we found a good partner there and now we have 45% share of the market on the island.
We are looking at moving into Seychelles and Mayotte which is a French territory and quite an interesting market, and we are looking to Madagascar as well. In the case of Madagascar, people are advising caution as it is such a poor country but we don’t need access to 100% of the population, we only need 3 to 4% and we have a niche market there which can work.
In these markets we are looking at both wholesale and retail, we will be developing small retail stores, not large supermarkets.
AfricaLive: The development of further entrepreneurial success stories and thriving SMEs needs to be at the heart of Africa’s future story. What advice would you give to the next generation of entrepreneurs coming through in Mauritius now?
Mr Suren Surat: They have to dare. They have to be courageous. When you read all the business gurus they will probably say the same thing. So let me say there is another side to it; you can’t invest more than you can afford to lose. At times people will take the personal family house and use it as collateral on a loan, and it is sad to see when it goes wrong. On the one hand, dare and be courageous, but be sensible with it.
AfricaLive: There is also the challenge of developing the “Agripreneurs” of the African continent. What role can you play in developing the agribusiness sector here in Mauritius?
Mr Suren Surat: When a country moves from a poor developing nation to a middle-income nation the young people don’t want to dirty their hands any more. It is normal, people don’t want to get up at 5am to go work in the fields. So, there is that problem we have – people need to eat and for that people need to farm.
We have 150 farmers who farm for us at SKC Surat.
We have a project where we inculcate our farmers – who are third generation now – with best practices to stop putting too much insecticide and pesticide on their vegetables. There is that problem in Mauritius which has been passed down from previous generations. There are many pests like fruit flies in Mauritius and there is a perception that in order to kill the pests the more you spray the better. What is happening though is the food is absorbing the pesticide, which leads to very serious health problems including increased risk of cancer for the consumers, for the people of Mauritius.
The international Good Agricultural Practice (G.A.P) programme intends to put an end to this type of practice. In Europe, for example, you have EuroGAP and products which don’t meet the standards will not be imported.
In Mauritius the government has been trying to address issues such as the overuse of pesticides by introducing MauriGap, however after several years it was clear they were not succeeding. We have more leverage with the farmers though and can talk to them more directly in a way they understand.
For example, any food which has had pesticides used on it should not be harvested for at least 10 further days. However the farmers would come under pressure from the distributors or buyers and the farmers would say “Ok, if you want it today, you’ve got it”. What happens to the consumer that eats that food though? It is a much more complex issue really, but that is a very simplified example of the problem.
We invite the farmers here in smaller groups and talk to a different group of ten farmers each day and talk to them honestly. We say “Look, we don’t like change either. We are all humans and we don’t like to change how things are done! We know you have been farming this way for decades but this is not good for your health, it’s not good for your families health and it’s not good for consumers.” After a few months of this process, we started to see progress and the farmers saying “ok, now we understand.”
We have 60 of our 150 farmers now MauriGap certified, and those farmers are so proud of their certification for best practices and their products have been on the market for a year and a half now with that certification. It took a lot of work to get here though! The government was not able to get that job done on their own even with dedicated teams going out to the farms. We employed three technicians here in order to teach farmers how to record their use of pesticides and more importantly go out to the farms and check if the practices were being implemented. You are talking about changing how people have worked for the past 25 years so it needs to be done like this with constant monitoring and oversight.
Now each farmer has their own certification numbers and when they go into the supermarket they can see their produce and their number, and they do feel a great deal of pride.
AfricaLive: What approach are you taking to innovation and introducing new technology to the sector?
Mr Suren Surat: We have invested in technology to ensure the traceability of our products.
Farmers before would look for cheap packaging. However, almost 30% of produce can be wasted through poor packaging. We provide farmers with crates now that keep the waste down to a minimum.
In addition to this, each of these crates has a barcode, and when we scan these barcodes we know which products are inside and how many kilos of product there is. We then send the same crates on to hotels and supermarkets. If there is any problem with the produce the following day then we can trace the product back to the farmer. This type of thing has never been implemented in Mauritius before.
Thus far we have invested in this on a small scale but now we intend to ramp this up to all our operations across the region.
AfricaLive: What would success look like for you over the coming years?
Mr Suren Surat: Success for us is to keep moving ahead, to keep building on the past while shaping the future for a healthier way of life.