Yara International is helping to tackle food security and sustainability issues across Africa through a hunger for innovation and unwavering ethical standards
Writer: Tom Wadlow
Project Manager: Lewis Bush
In 1898 the President of the British Royal Academy of Sciences, Sir William Crookes, said that “England and all civilised nations stand in deadly peril of not having enough to eat.”
Predicting a worldwide famine within a few decades, his speech sent shockwaves through the scientific community, and although this catastrophe did not fully materialise, many parts of Europe suffered from severe shortages of food.
In 1905, seven years after Crookes made his warning, Norsk Hydro was founded in Norway by Sam Eyde and Kristian Birkeland to help solve the problem of emerging famine.
Now known as Yara International, the crop nutrition and precision farming solution specialist employs more than 17,000 people across activities in over 60 countries, generating revenues of $11.4 billion in 2017. In 2018, Yara adjusted its strategy with the goal of being the crop nutrition company of the future, focussing on providing farmers with the best solutions for their crops, not just fertiliser products. This includes innovation in key business areas, a focus on digital farming, as well as growing scalable crop nutrition solutions.
Ten of these 60 countries are on the African continent, with Ig Ferreira serving as Regional Director for Southern Africa, responsible for operations in Zambia, Mozambique, Malawi and its major market South Africa.
“We combine the world’s best agronomic practices and resources with local knowledge to tackle major challenges such as resource management, food security and environmental sustainability,”
“Our work allows farmers to increase yields, improve product quality and reduce their environmental impact, while our environmental and industrial solutions improve air quality and reduce emissions, and are key ingredients in the production of a wide range of products.
“We foster an open culture of diversity and inclusion that promotes the safety and integrity of our employees, contractors, business partners, and society at large.”
For Ferreira, it is this company culture and an uncompromising adherence to ethical standards that define Yara and everything it does.
“We expect integrity and an incredibly high internal ethical standard from all employees and from everyone we deal with, be it suppliers, contractors, customers and even our communities,” he continues.
“Another factor setting us apart from other companies is our safety standards. We go above and beyond to ensure that every employee and everyone we deal with goes home safely at the end of each day.
“Our operations are meticulously scrutinised to ensure that what we are doing is safe, not only for the people working at our sites, but also for surrounding communities.”
Yara also believes in hiring locally, finding the best talent possible in the countries it operates in.
Once hired, employees stand to benefit from the global reach of the organisation, the company offering opportunities to learn from all over the world, especially when training for key positions.
This philosophy of personal development is central to a long-term career in the business and helps to explain Yara’s low staff turnover rate.
Ferreira adds: “I am happy to say that we have an excellent retention rate of all skills and we mostly lose skills in a position either to promotion from within Yara (in which case the skill is not lost) or to retirement, when such skills have been transferred through our succession plans.”
Ferreira has been working in the fertiliser industry since 1986, formally transferring onto Yara’s books when it bought the company he was working for.
In recent years his focus has very much been placed on expanding into, eastern and northern regions of South Africa, the latter area being a particular target for the organisation during 2018.
“It has been a very interesting, challenging and fruitful journey that I have walked with Yara as it has moved from a fertiliser production-focused company to a research-driven, farmer-centric company,” Ferreira reveals.
“The farmers have always been at the centre of what we do, but now we are able to recommend better solutions for them with the research to support the recommendations.”
Yara’s R&D capacity is a key differentiator. Around 70 percent of the world’s usable water is used in agricultural practices, a fact which motivates the company to be at the forefront of technological innovation so that farmers can better utilise their lands.
This enables Yara to supply quality products – in South Africa the firm is certified as a Product Steward by the International Fertilizer Association, which recognises responsible business management processes across a product’s lifecycle, focusing on health, safety and environmental management.
“Commercial farmers in South Africa and in other parts Africa are without doubt amongst the best in the world and use the latest technology,” Ferreira continues. “They constantly look for the best global technology and improvise to adapt or develop specific technology to local conditions.”
Key to this is the close monitoring of trends, no easy task given the nuances of individual markets.
“Trends vary widely from country to country and even within countries,” Ferreira adds. “Commercial producers are in a cost squeeze, having to become bigger and bigger to gain economies of scale – they are extremely well educated and run farms as true businesses. Their demands for technology, reliability, quality and knowledge are high. We focus on these influencing factors in our approach to business.
“On the small-scale side of the business we find farmers are thirsty for more knowledge in order to improve their farming practices and want to use products that will allow them to produce more, better crops, which also guides our approach to the smallholder sector to ensure that the farmer is always at the centre of our business.”
These observations have helped to steer Yara’s offerings for these farmers, the company being a leading supplier of nitrates and nitrate-based NPKs.
For example, it recently developed ProCote, a product which ensures the even coating of trace elements on fertilisers, while further innovation and launch of new solutions is slated for the next one to two years in the Southern Cluster.
A sustainable future
A major focus for Yara’s product development is sustainability, its solutions geared towards supporting responsible agriculture processes.
“Climate change, global warming, population growth and many other challenges have changed the farming environment,” Ferreira says. “It is Yara’s mission to responsibly feed the world and protect the planet.
“In order to aid farmers in bettering their own lives, we use the best quality inputs in our products, and because of this, the effects are seen in the quality and yields of the crops. More, stronger, healthier crops allow for higher income for the farmers.”
And it is this impact which Ferreira hopes will see Yara itself continue to grow in importance and stature across the continent.
Looking ahead to the future, he concludes: “I would really like to see Yara being considered as the number one supplier of sustainable crop nutrition solutions, and practices delivering value to all stakeholders while protecting the planet.
“I would be happy to report back to you that Yara has been able to develop more, and even better solutions so that producers are able to grow more, using less water and not damaging the ground we use to grow in. The efforts going into research and development in order to improve our offerings to our customers while protecting our planet are great, and I look forward to the future.”