Irvine’s Group continues to facilitate the growth of local chicken industries across several Sub-Saharan African countries thanks to its support of local growers through a one-stop shop supplier service
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Lewis Bush
Poultry – an economical, healthy protein source and second only to pork in terms of consumption around the world.
A staple part of a huge variety of cuisine, from fast-food and roast dinners to curries and barbeques, chicken in particular is famed for its versatility and relative affordability versus other types of meat.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, there are enormous opportunities to improve nutrition levels in a big way by increasing per capita consumption, an observation made starkly clear when comparing available statistics from around the African continent.
Take Nigeria, for example.
It is the most populated country in Africa yet consumes less than two kilos of chicken per capita every year. Compare this to continental counterparts such as Mali (23.9 kilos) and South Africa (38.7 kilos), and the growth potential is obvious.
Nigeria is typical of many countries in the Sub-Saharan region, and for companies such as Irvine’s Group, there is tremendous scope to further support local chicken industries and thus boost nutrition levels for millions of citizens.
“Chicken consumption in Sub-Saharan Africa is still low, and if you move the needle slightly in countries such as Tanzania, you can very quickly double the size of the industry,” explains Patrick Murphy, the company’s Chief Sales Officer.
“Even if you upped per capita consumption from 1.5 kilos to three kilos, it would make a massive difference for both consumers and everyone involved in the poultry industry. As people become wealthier, they generally consume more protein in their diets, and chicken is a fantastic source of protein.”
Murphy, who is formally educated in the agricultural sphere, was inspired to join Irvine’s for a variety of reasons, not least because it is a family-led, growing business making a real difference to people’s lives in multiple countries.
“Relationships are very important, and this is what we pride ourselves on,” Murphy adds.
Indeed, the business has been forming relationships all over Sub-Saharan Africa ever since it was founded in 1950 in Zimbabwe.
Irvine’s has expanded under three generations well outside of its original homeland, with significant physical presence in the likes of Mozambique, Botswana and Tanzania, with networks of breeders, partners and customers across much of the wider SSA region.
This combines to create a formidable portfolio which includes chicks, nutritional and health solutions, poultry equipment, processed meat, table eggs and parent stock.
This extensive footprint is underpinned by a purpose, vision and set of values that revolves around trust, honesty and empowerment of local businesses on a regionwide scale.
“We want to do as much as we can to support local industries,” says Murphy. “It is not helpful to talk about Sub-Saharan Africa as a whole, singular market without acknowledging that every country is different and has its own ways of doing business.
“For example, Botswana and Mozambique have very different DNAs in terms of how their poultry industries are developed and the social and political challenges they face.
“This is where we thrive. We have the ability to bring a solution to the small-scale farmer thanks to our knowledge of the markets, range of products and supply chain network through our Irvine’s Africa division.”
Murphy cites Zimbabwe as a prime example of Irvine’s impact on local entrepreneurialism, referring to the small-scale sector as the company’s bread and butter.
“Being our oldest market, we have a lot of learnings from here that have helped us adapt, grow and improve as we move into other markets,” he continues.
“We have a client near to us in Zimbabwe who represents our perfect story that we want to get out there. She is a single mother who started growing roughly a hundred chickens a week around five to 10 years ago.
“Now, with the input of Irvine’s, she is growing a thousand chickens a week and has educated her children to help her run the business. It is a story we are proud of and shows what we can do for local entrepreneurs – we are not just selling a product; we are selling a business opportunity.”
Indeed, this is one of many cases where the company has enabled smaller businesses in the industry to upscale and develop sustainably, and it is this smaller-scale subsector which Murphy believes will fuel much of the growth to come.
“The chicken sector in many of the countries we are in is much more informal than the likes of Europe and even our neighbour South Africa,” he says.
“Many people are still buying their chickens from live markets, and the reason for this is that cold chains are not fully developed yet, while retail and QSR industries are still developing. Small-scale farmers feed into this informal market, and we want to join them on their growth journeys as the sector matures and their volumes increase.”
Irvine’s impact is already demonstrable and backed up by numbers.
For example, every year it trains approximately 8,200 small-scale farmers and serves more than 60,000 as customers. This translates into a network of breeder and small-scale growers generating some $355 million in revenue from around 65 million chickens.
More important is the fact that $141 million of this income is profit which goes back into local communities, testament to the efficient operating processes and business knowhow which Irvine’s has helped to impart on its customers.
One of the greatest obstacles Irvine’s helps its clients address centres around logistics.
For Murphy, this represents one of the most significant challenges facing the poultry industry, especially with companies who require smaller volumes of chicks, nutritional and health products, packaging and other equipment.
All of these needs can be supplied by the group through the aforementioned Irvine’s Africa subsidiary.
A customised equipment and procurement operation, it operates a large warehouse in Johannesburg, from which it can distribute across the region in a timely manner thanks to the volumes it has in stock.
“Irvine’s Africa’s philosophy is a pretty simple one,” says Murphy. “It is a volumes-driven business, and ties in all of our buying power and passes the savings onto our clients.”
The division draws on a multimodal network of road, sea and air transport, able to move any of the products made by the Irvine’s Group family of businesses and partners. Crucially, the service is flexible and customisable, meaning smaller farmers can order precisely what they need at a cost that will suit their budgets.
Knowledge is another challenge identified by Murphy, not least when it comes to recruiting for Irvine’s itself.
He says: “If you look at markets like the US or South Africa, these are huge chicken markets with technical expertise readily available. Our markets are developing and finding people with poultry skills can be difficult.
“We try and overcome this by employing people with a strong willingness to learn and combine this with technical training from both within the group and our partners such as Cobb, who send over experts to help us.
“We’re also not afraid to bring in other external expertise. For example, we drafted in an expert from Brazil to get our project in Tanzania off the ground, and very much want to transfer his knowledge to local people in the poultry business. Brazil has some very practical and extremely bright people when it comes to animal husbandry.”
With expertise such a valued commodity in the Sub-Saharan African poultry and agribusiness field, it is vital for companies such as Irvine’s Group to continue imparting their knowledge onto local entrepreneurs.
This can be achieved in many ways.
For instance, Irvine’s in-house consultant nutritionists help to develop an uncompromising approach to quality and an intimate understanding of market trends, while its team of husbandry experts offer a hands-on approach to engaging with customers and teaching the secrets of successful poultry rearing.
All of this is backed up by activities at in-house and collaborating laboratories, work which ensures standards remain as high as possible across the board.
“We must also ensure our own processes meet global standards,” adds Murphy. “The chicken industry is a very technical one. For example, breeder operations are meticulously designed and our hatcheries are fully environmentally-controlled and able to produce quality chicks in a cost-effective way.
“Global best practice is something we pride ourselves on, no matter what market we are entering.”
This ongoing investment into its own capabilities will prove vital as Irvine’s moves into its next phase of development.
In Botswana, an exciting chapter is emerging in the form of a new feed mill.
A facility which will add to the breeder and hatchery capacity already present here, it will contribute to the company’s nutritional portfolio which includes proteins, soya-based commodities, feed additives and in-feed medication.
Murphy adds: “This typically makes up around 60 to 70 percent of a grower’s cost base, so ensuring a quality, affordable supply is crucial to their success. We can provide that relationship.”
This expansion aside, the immediate priority for Murphy moving forwards is to consolidate Irvine’s Group’s market position across the territories it serves.
“Having recently moved into Tanzania it is important we bed down in this market and strengthen our presence,” he says. “We are still a family-owned and family-run business, and I think it’s one of our strengths as it gives us the agility to act quickly on new opportunities when they arise.
“The company is becoming a lot bigger and this inevitably means we need more corporate structure, but the family DNA is still strong. Craig Irvine represents the third generation of the enterprise and I continue to work very closely with him.”
The balance between growth and agility, coupled with ongoing nuances and challenges faced in individual market countries, presents an interesting dynamic for Murphy and the Irvine’s team.
Indeed, for the Chief Sales Officer, the ever-changing nature of the industry is why he remains as motivated to succeed at the company today as he did when joining more than 10 years ago.
He concludes: “First and foremost I’m an Afro-optimist.
“It is a fantastic place to be. Yes, Africa has its ups and downs, but you cannot ignore the potential of the people here and the tremendous resources the continent has to thrive. It is not going to be plain sailing, but this is why I love the job.
“We have got to become more self-sufficient from a food production perspective, and the poultry industry is going to be fundamentally important to this shift. We are on an upward curve.”