The African continent is home to 60% of the arable land on the entire planet; its productive potential is as great as the knowledge, infrastructure, and technology gaps experienced by its farmers. Rizobacter landed in this territory full of contrasts and opportunities, deploying a commercial strategy, plus an almost militant attitude, with the objective of introducing its sustainable technologies. The leading biologicals company arrived in South Africa with inoculants for soybeans over 12 years ago. It achieved a high degree of adherence to the practice and today it occupies 65% of the market share. "Unlike in other countries on the continent, in South Africa, growers have infrastructure, machinery, and access to good input technologies and knowledge; they value quality greatly. In the last two years, we have managed to occupy from 50 to 65% of the inoculant market. Our technologies and quality are highly recognized; there, we are leaders in seeds treatment with biologicals," says Ignacio Ardanaz, Africa Business Development Manager, in charge of a busy agenda that brings together trade agreements and multiple trials of new nutrition and protection technologies for a variety of crops such as soybean, corn, potato, bean, tomato, and peanut, among others.
In the last two years, it has also gained a foothold in eight other African countries: Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria, Ghana, Uganda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, and Tanzania. In these markets, however, the company found a different reality. Commercial farms are scarce, whereas small-scale farms, of just over one hectare, are predominant. Growers practice subsistence agriculture and lack specific training, quality seeds, and access to technology.
To reach them, the company cooperates with local actors, such as distribution companies, and with public and non-governmental organizations that conduct technology transfer programs and support plans for small growers willing to update their family-run farm practices and improve their performance.
“Our presence in these countries responds to a company strategy of reaching all farmers - not just those from the most developed markets. Our purpose is that small growers also benefit from the impact of our technologies,” Ardanaz remarks.
By incorporating rhizobia inoculants on the legume seeds, Rizobacter offers them productivity gains and logistical benefits that have repercussions on both their economy and their sustainability practices for soil and crop care. Habitually, African smallholder producers resort to using urea for fertilization. This product has a high environmental impact because its production process, based on fossil fuels, emits polluting gases; it also causes a high economic cost that affects profitability. Transporting the heavy bags of nitrogen fertilizer to their plots is not an easy task either, since their usual means of transport are bicycles and motorbikes.
Seed inoculation appears as a sustainable practice that covers the nitrogen needs for crop development through the natural process of biological fixation, with no negative impact on the environment. In addition, it helps farmers stabilize their yields in a way that is consistent with their economic possibilities (because of the benefit/cost ratio) and infrastructure, since the bladders can be easily transported in the vehicles at their disposal.
Even though inoculants are the flagship Rizobacter products, biostimulants that favor phosphorus release in crops such as fruit trees, potato, wheat, and barley, are showing an excellent performance that is verified in higher yields and quality.
Alliances, the key to growth
Ardanaz points out that "The demand for new technologies exists; what must be done is find the local partner to penetrate the market." Therefore, it is key to join forces with local actors and build a critical mass to institute a change in the traditional agriculture structure that dominates in the region.
Local companies have their own distribution force, which are in charge of touring the villages and contacting the farmers. But their job is not limited to sales, they are also involved in training, a task in which Rizobacter also participates by organizing local demonstrations and talks on the impact of biotechnologies.
Among the cooperation alliances maintained by the company, is the relationship with WARC, an organization dedicated to training with the mission of lifting African subsistence farmers out of poverty. It is also linked to the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), which aims to solve hunger and poverty.
In Africa, Rizobacter also has strong links with leading multinational companies such as Syngenta, with which it is expanding the commercial alliance to different regions of the continent. Together, they conduct joint testing of technologies that are associated with the treatment of seeds. It is also a strategic sponsor of the Soybean Innovation Lab initiative, a non-profit organization that brings together actors in the soybean value chain with the purpose of developing this crop in African soil. Through this participation, the company has reached more than 24 countries.
“In Africa, agriculture is booming. It takes time, patience, and investment to reach farmers, and Rizobacter is willing to do so," said Ardanaz. His agenda has no rest. For this year, the company plans to reach nine more countries with various products, so as to become a strong player in the take-off of agriculture in a region that needs to expand its production frontier and improve its yields, by implementing sustainable agricultural systems.