Agribusiness in Africa: Investor reveals which areas hold the most potential

Chris Isaac, chief investment officer of AgDevCo
How we made it in Africa | 9 September 2020

by Betsy Henderson

Agribusiness in Africa: Investor reveals which areas hold the most potential
AgDevCo is an impact investment firm specialising in agribusiness in sub-Saharan Africa. It has a portfolio consisting of over 40 active investments throughout the continent. How we made it in Africa speaks to Chris Isaac, chief investment officer at AgDevCo, about the continent’s agribusiness opportunities and the investment lessons he has learnt.
Which agribusiness sub-sectors in Africa are you most enthusiastic about from an investment perspective?
We’ve been involved in many ventures over the past decade. We’ve learnt a lot of lessons from our investment mistakes and successes, which has led us to focus on a few areas where we see the greatest potential.
The first is tree crops, particularly avocados and macadamia. There is significant – and still growing – global demand for these crops, and if you can provide the right quality into the international supply chains, then it’s a good business. There are some risks, as there are major new plantings happening in Africa and around the world because prices are good at the moment. However, there are advantages to having export crops that bring in dollar revenue. Southern and East African countries have the possibility of being globally competitive because they can hit particular seasonal windows, they’ve got the right agro-ecological conditions, and you can build profitable new industries, as we’re seeing developing in Mozambique and Malawi.
Another area is livestock for supply to domestic markets, which plays into Africa’s demographics with an emerging middle class, increasing affluence, and a switch towards more protein-based diets. We’re doing quite a lot in poultry, including some innovative work that provides improved breeds to small-scale farmers. We also have investments in pig breeding.
The third sub-sector would be high-quality, competitively-priced basic foodstuffs. African consumers will buy good quality, locally-produced products if you can come in at the right price point. We’re currently involved in maize meal processing and groundnuts. You can find success in this area if you can assure the consumer the food is safe and if it’s well-packaged and well-branded.
Are there any areas you would be hesitant to invest in?
We’ve found you really need to know what you’re doing if you are going into large-scale production of commodity crops – like maize, soya or rice. These are relatively low-margin commodities where there is global competition and significant economies of scale (especially if you look to South America or Asia), so you really need to be sure that you can be an efficient producer and you’ve got the necessary scale. You are also sometimes dealing with unpredictable policy environments, where there may be intermittent export bans or changing tariff regimes, so primary production of low-value commodity crops is really difficult. It can make sense as part of a strategy where you’re vertically integrated and you’re also involved in the processing, but we’ve found it very challenging to make a success of doing straight primary production of those crops.
A similar challenge is if you move into, say, tomato processing or cassava starch – again, you’re taking on global suppliers who often benefit from subsidies, which makes it very difficult to get the cost of production below that of imports. It can be very tough to make those models work.
Explain the long-term impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s agribusiness industry.
We don’t know, is the honest answer. So far, the agriculture sector in Africa seems to have weathered the storm reasonably well. As one of our non-executive directors, Sir Paul Collier, has said, we are operating in a situation of “radical uncertainty”, and so all you can do is try and design strategies that will be more or less robust regardless of the pandemic’s outcome.
Initially, there was quite a lot of obstruction to logistics – borders closing, congestion at ports, supplies not going in or out – which seems to have eased. I would be surprised if we were to see further lockdowns. We were concerned earlier in the year that this was really going to hit our portfolio quite hard; we haven’t seen that yet, but I don’t think anyone knows what is going to happen over the next year or so. Hopefully, growth in the agriculture sector will be able to continue, as it has done remarkably well relative to other parts of the economy thus far.
In a sense, we are dealing with this type of uncertainty in agriculture all the time. You never know if a harvest is going to fail or if prices are going to collapse, so it’s one reason why you need an investment approach that is long-term, flexible, and that allows you to ride out the bumps that will inevitably come.
Covid-19 has focused attention on the fact that the continent is a net importer of food products, which needs to be reversed. It accelerates the trend toward orientating businesses to cater for growing demand in local and regional markets. That said, I don’t think it completely changes the game, and we’re not expecting a complete breakdown in international supply chains. You still have to focus on being internationally competitive and be able to deal with the fact that chicken can be imported from Brazil to southern Africa at very low cost and rice processing costs in Asia are a fraction of what they are in Africa.
Various stakeholders have highlighted the potential for African agribusinesses to tap into the global health and wellness trend by exporting organic products from Africa to Western markets. Do you agree that this is a good opportunity?
At one level, yes. There is value if you have full traceability back to the farmer who supplied the product, and can be sure that banned chemicals haven’t been used, coupled with sustainable and equitable trade relationships with farmers.
For example, we’re involved in sourcing organic cocoa from farmers in Sierra Leone. This achieves a premium in the market, allows us to share more value with the farmers, and it’s a good business. You could see this happening in coffee, tea, and some of the other traditional export crops, which are otherwise very low margin. If you can show consumers they’re getting a quality product and they know the farmers are getting a fair deal, I think there is a willingness to pay for that.
However, if you shift focus to niche crops – such as superfoods and that sort of thing – the challenge that you face is how big the market demand really is and to what extent you can supply that market and earn a reasonable margin without having to invest in a sophisticated marketing operation. Some people do this brilliantly, but they are really marketing businesses rather than farming businesses.
We’ve found that in order to be successful in these markets, you need a certain scale to be able to build a network of farmers and suppliers, and ensure that the company is going to be sustainable, profitable, and therefore able to maintain those relationships with farmers over time. There is a risk with new crops where the level of demand is not proven yet, and we’ve seen too many businesses spring up for a few years, but then don’t manage to achieve long-term sustainability, which risks farmers being left without a market.
What other agribusiness trends are you seeing in Africa?
Besides increasing domestic demand for better quality food and more protein-based diets, we’re seeing companies realising they need to think about vertical integration. The more successful players are becoming involved all along the supply chain in order to ensure end-to-end quality and consistency of supply. Currently, you can’t always rely on there being a steady supply of raw materials – for example, quality feed, if you are involved in the livestock sector. As markets mature, I think you’d see more specialisation again, but right now vertical integration – either through companies building it themselves or acquiring complementary firms – is a sensible strategy.
Which African country are you most optimistic about?
One country that is perhaps under the radar but where we’ve had great success is Malawi. It has a relatively small economy, but a history of commercial agriculture in tobacco, sugar, and to some extent tea, and an investment climate that is very good for agriculture. There’s also a strong overall supportive environment; Malawi has a solid legal system, it’s relatively painless dealing with the authorities, and you can get things done. We started investing there about eight years ago and have businesses in poultry, macadamia, sugar and peanuts that are all doing well.
Describe one of the investment lessons you have learnt over the years.
Perhaps the key lesson as an investor is getting the balance right between sensible caution and being decisive. In the early days of my career, there was perhaps a tendency to see every opportunity as exciting and I might have been tempted to give benefit of the doubt to a business plan. But then as you get more experience, you see more, and you become a little more sceptical. The thing is to not go too far in that direction – it’s too easy to start saying “no” to every opportunity. There are always risks and at some point you have to take the plunge and say “yes”.
One thing that is challenging in the African agriculture sector is that you have to make decisions without perfect information. We are often backing companies that are doing pioneering things and who are the first movers. So, you’ve got to do your due diligence and you can try to look at things from every angle, but at the end of the day, you do have to be decisive and trust your judgement. You won’t get it right all of the time. You are most likely to succeed if you build a team with experienced people who have seen what works and what doesn’t on the ground. We’ve also found that, as an entrepreneur, it’s important you have a business model that incorporates flexibility and allows you to course correct as you go along in order to manage uncertainty.
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