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Agribusiness During Covid: How Leadership Creates Winning Strategies

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The year 2020 will forever be defined by the massive disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic had across the board and around the world, says Dr John Purchase, CEO of the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz). The immediate response in South Africa was a hard lockdown that restricted movement and any form of a gathering of people. 

“Food products and services were deemed essential goods and services, and much of the sector could continue with operations, albeit in an extremely difficult and disrupted environment,” says Dr Purchase, noting too that certain agricultural and agro-processing sectors were deemed non-essential, including alcohol-based industries (especially wine), floriculture, the fibre and tobacco industries and more.

Interestingly, even within the constraints of Covid-19, South Africa maintained an excellent rate of food security. Due largely to pro-active measures taken by industry and government including the Ministerial Task Team, economic damage and loss of jobs was limited as far as possible for most subsectors. Dr Purchase highlights that a cut in interest rates by the South African Reserve Bank (SARB) meant a saving of roughly R5,6 billion for farmers over a 12-month period, relieving some pressure on farmers and agribusinesses.

“From the very outset of the initial hard lockdown it became clear that some authorities had underestimated the hugely significant role the informal sector plays in food distribution and convenient availability through hawkers, vendors, spaza shops, and others.” 

Director of Signium Africa, executive search and agri business talent specialist Annelize van Rensburg and Dr Purchase both agree that to come out the other side of this unprecedented disruption as well as the country did, does not happen by accident. It requires multi-disciplined leaders with experience across a number of sectors in the supply chain, from pitchfork to table fork.

Leadership must effect supply chain innovation  

Both Van Rensburg and Dr Purchase concur entrepreneurship, more than any other single factor right now, provides the backbone of economies, especially where the product they support is one people can’t live without.

However, it is the agri sector with all its essential allied businesses that will enable the informal and entrepreneurial segments to thrive. “For this,” says Van Rensburg, “We need fleet-of-foot leaders who have experience across a number of industries within the agri sector to ensure opportunities are created and taken when they arise.

“To make decisions that can ultimately affect food security requires knowledge that spans everything from the fuel and logistics businesses; in-depth climate and environmental change awareness; financial and banking understanding; right through to socio-political and negotiation skills. This means a CEO or other member of the C-suite that is as agile as they are skilled.”

Citing her long and fruitful association with Dr Purchase, Van Rensburg says prior to being appointed CEO of Agbiz, his experience started with scientific research and went on to include everything from business management to appointments by Government to sharing his knowledge with agri-allied industries.

“Where the term ‘agriculture’ once meant ‘farming’, it is today a catch-all for a chain of industries that touch every sector of life in every country,” says Dr Purchase. “For every small business owner we support by a robust system, we see several future business owners learning on the job and replicating their mindset in others. It is time to embrace entrepreneurs and the economic platform they provide globally.” 

Van Rensburg concurs: “South Africa has shown its mettle in this dark, difficult time. Now we need to support those who show the attitude that determines altitude and assist them to rise above merely working for a wage,” says Van Rensburg. “There is no way to do this without leaders who can be ambassadors of the industry to government, international markets, academia, traders and the all-important informal sector.”

Both these experts in their sectors of the agri business are clear that without the skills and knowledge that went into the decisions that brought South Africa through the first Covid-19 lockdown, the country would be looking at a far bleaker picture right now.

“Even with the challenges left by 2020, the overall acumen showed by leaders in the agri sector, government and all allied industries adapted to existing conditions with great speed and robust solutions,” says Dr Purchase. “If we could do it during a pandemic lockdown, the possibilities are endless during times of open markets and fewer restrictions.”

Co-authored by * Dr John Purchase (CEO of the Agricultural Business Chamber (Agbiz)) and ** Annelize van Rensburg (Director: executive search of Signium Africa)

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