Casey: Hello, Steven, how are you today? Good, good. My friends in South Africa, I’ve been sharing pictures of summer with me and I’m ultimately jealous, but I guess it’s summer there for you.
Steven: Indeed, it is summer. We were just mentioning the winter winds are starting to set in, so by July we will be in the middle of winter. So, we’ve got autumn very much on its way now.
Casey: You’re not sitting by the pool though. Like our other counterparts in South Africa are.
Steven: Not yet, but soon perhaps.
Casey: Would you mind telling the audience a little bit about yourself and the story of Urban Farmer?
Steven: Yeah, with pleasure. So, I’m a young South African. My grandparents were involved in farming many years ago. So, I was exposed to farming from an early stage. They farmed pigs here in South Africa on a mixed farming operation. After finishing school, I went off to one of our local universities and studied animal [00:01:00] science. I’m a chicken dietician by training. So, I went on and did my masters in poultry nutrition before joining a big multinational pre-mix company, DSM nutritional products, and I think they’re known to many of us. I was very fortunate working with DSM. I started out servicing the Sub-Saharan African territory as an account manager, so I was really given an early exposure to the opportunity and potential that the African continent had to offer.
I worked with DSM for six years before setting out on my own. And I started a company, Urban Farmer, back in 2009. The business really was set up with the intention of better servicing the farmers in Africa than I felt we were capable to do within the constraints of a big multi-national. So, I think there were a lot of good customers that I felt, given the freedom of working for myself and offering a [00:02:00] slightly more comprehensive product and service offering, we could serve them better. Urban Farmer started in 2009. The name Urban Farmers can be a little bit misleading…
Casey: …because you’re not growing vertical rows of vegetables. Right?
Steven: Right. And we don’t get the inquiries: people wanting to know whether we can grow lettuce on rooftops. The name came from me and an aspiring farmer trapped within the urban jungle of Johannesburg. So, I always say it was like a tattoo, it was a very good idea at the time, but I’ve spent the next 12 years sort of explaining my way around it.
It’s a name and a business that’s grown from there. And I think today it’s got quite a lot of traction in the African market as a business that is really out there to support the customer. And we really pride ourselves on the level of service that we can provide.
Casey: Well, if the audience really wants to know what Casey thinks of Urban Farmer, I [00:03:00] find it very inspirational, because that means you can come back to your roots. You don’t have to be born on the farm to be a pork producer, and vice versa. If you’re on a farm, but you don’t want to be a pork producer, you know, you don’t have to. And so, to me, it’s a very inspiring message and story. So, it’s a good tattoo, as you said, to live with.
Steven: So that’s pretty much where we started, Casey. I mean, it was a one man show back then. The Urban farmer is extensively a nutrition company. So, at our core is nutrition. And what we tend to do is work with customers and they range from small scale farmers all the way through to commercial feed companies throughout Africa.
Now I tell you the first thing that we do is we help them design the right feed for the markets that they’re operating in, so that it really is to totally introduce our perspective and our experience and help them design [00:04:00] the right types of feeds for the markets and the audience or the customers that they’re trying to support.
And again, that can range from a small-scale subsistence farmer, all the way through to a commercial integration. We put a lot of emphasis on the raw materials available in the different markets. I think that’s a big part of successful livestock production is, I mean, we understand what the cost of feed is in any type of livestock farming operation, so utilizing what’s available is very important. And I would like to believe we introduce the technologies and products that the best businesses in the world have at their disposal. And we make them available to our customers through what we call a macro solution, which is it’s not a completely novel idea, but it’s this idea of a macro pre-mix or a maxi pack. And we would design those in response to the feed formulation. [00:05:00] And then we work with a number of big pre-mix manufacturers in South Africa to actually make these macro packs, which we distribute throughout Africa. More recently, we’ve seen the importance of being present in the market, so we’ve set up subsidiaries now in Zambia, Kenya and Nigeria. These businesses are staffed with local professionals in those markets. They’re able to carry stock in the countries. And they’re able to give the technical support that goes hand in hand with the actual product in terms of sort of delivering a complete macro solution. So a good product on its own is not going to necessarily deliver success at the end of the day.
Casey: So since I’ve started The Sunswine Group, very similar story I think of why we both decided to jump in from the world of corporate America, but the outreach between my different programs, the Real P3 and then Coffee and Careers in Animal Science. I’ve had so many African students and producers reach out to me. [00:06:00] What is stopping pork production or even poultry production, modern day agriculture from thriving in Africa? What are the challenges these producers are facing?
Steven: The challenges are numerous and they’re different, and I think this is something that I’ve had to come to terms with is that we sit at the southernmost end of Africa and we trade into 22 different countries and each of those different markets would have its own unique challenges. So, I think it’s perhaps one of the first mistakes we make is to sort of look at Africa and treat it with a sort of blanket approach as to what those challenges might be.
Casey: So, it’s not like an EU solution. US is the same way, we have our challenges depending on where we live, but yeah.
Steven: But again, whether it’s the EU, the United States or the African union, I think there’s certain things that are certainly common across the different countries; room input, [00:07:00] availability, and costs has to rank up there as one of the highest challenges, the cost of maize and your protein sources is often sort of astronomical compared to what you and I might be used to in the States or elsewhere. I think that is often a big challenge.
Casey: Is the land just not right to grow your own crops, or, I mean, cause that’s another challenge to integrate all that, but is there, I mean, there’s plenty of land in Africa, but is it suited for crops?
Steven: It’s absolutely suited. So I mean, certainly large parts of Africa are very well-suited to producing crops. And it’s just the, I think we’d go to much more deep-seated challenges in terms of governance and the rest and political stability. If you want to look at that. It still surprises me that so much of the crop production on the continent is done by small scale [00:08:00] farmers. Now, I’m talking about individuals with less than a hectare of land that they’re planting. With that, you’re looking at quality inputs from a fertilizer perspective having very poor yields at the end of the day. I’m guessing, but one-two tons per Hectare, that they might yield on a half a Hectare. Very, very high levels of post-harvest waste because there’s not adequate storage. So there’s just, apart from not planting enough, that which is planted is very poorly managed, because there’s not infrastructure. There’s not inputs available, and it’s changing. Some markets are changing faster than others. I think a focus there is really going to untap a huge amount of potential for the continent in terms of production. If we can produce maize at $150 a ton as opposed to $350.
Casey: That’s a game-changer. Right?
Steven: Turn it [00:09:00] on its head completely.
Casey: And do you think that turns the head on investment by China? I mean, I hear talk of China wanting to come to Africa and raising pigs and things. So, is the crops needed before the pigs? Or is there an ability for somebody like large corporations to invest and make money in Africa?
Steven: I think there absolutely is opportunity. I see, from a cropping perspective, there are, there’s now very big commercial corporate farming enterprises operating on the continent. There are very positive initiatives to try and encourage the sort of efficient production amongst the small-holder farming community and the storage of those crops. And the investment is coming from all different quarters, whether it’s from the middle East, whether it’s from China, Brazil, India; there’s a lot of investment on the continent. South African corporates moving [00:10:00] North and investing. So, there’s plenty happening in that sphere.
As I said, the initiative to better improve the yields of the small-scale farmer and arrange and manage the storage of those crops is there, so that addresses one of the challenges. I mean the next one would be just the poor demand for pork on the continent. With that, I mean, it’s to a large degree, you can put that down to the poor purchasing power of the vast majority of the population. They just don’t have the disposable income to buy animal protein, whether it’s chicken, fish, or pork, and that’s kept… the total demand in any one market has kept this sort of production down. If you don’t have demand and production, then you don’t have the expertise, you don’t have the skills, you don’t have the support services, don’t have the genetics. So [00:11:00] slowly, as the purchasing power of the African, the general sort of African population, increases… Then, I think the demand will increase and the sort of commercialization of production will start to get traction.
With that, I think you should see a lot of progress, because what we see as you go into any African country, and you might find pockets of commercial production, there’s not the sort of local product and technical support for the small-scale farmer coming, trying to get into pork production. So we’ve come a long way, but it’s a long way to go.
Casey: Yeah. I was on a call. I’m not going to mention names or where, but it was for Southeast Asia and, you know, somebody made a comment to me that they don’t like Americans coming in and telling them how to raise pork, because we don’t understand how to raise pork the way they do or, you know, their challenges. I was just [00:12:00] mind-blown by that because they’re talking to somebody who’s raised pigs outdoors on dirt and, you know, went to confinement and I can tell you I’ve managed pigs in just about any environment, and the questions I’m getting, and the information wanted is knowledge. With all these virtual options, why can’t we get the knowledge out to these producers?
Steven: So knowledge is critical, and I think what you find, and maybe this is a global sort of phenomenon, is that the young people are the ones who are thirsting for knowledge. The ones who are still in farming are quite often the older generation, and they’re the ones who are fairly set in their ways. There’s a change then under the youngsters – I am generalizing when I say this, but they want the easy way out -, I think, to strike a balance there between doing the hard work that the older generation are doing and inviting and encouraging [00:13:00] the younger generation who are seeking out better practices.
But I think it’s just about a balancing act. And I hear you, when you say that we should be able to introduce knowledge and experience into farming work in Africa. I think what we just have to do is do it in a measured way. And I think even coming from South Africa, we have a different way of doing it. South African pork production is far more commercialized. It’s done on a far larger scale. It’s done differently to much of the rest of Africa. And I think our job as a farmer, we have a sort of collective responsibility as people wanting to see pork succeed on the continent, is about having a good understanding of where are they at and what’s the appropriate technologies and things to introduce that we can slowly bring it about to something that’s more efficient.
And yes, I agree with you, whether it’s a forum, like sort of the [00:14:00] webinars or sort of any digital mobile platform, it is one way to have the reach that is needed to really get the knowledge out there.
Casey: I mean, I still agree. You need boots on the ground too. And you know, a lot of things I see missing: a) grain storage, b) proper feed mills, genetics, biosecurity.
Steven: Biosecurity is critical, and this is one of the challenges with Africa. I mean African swine fever is African swine fever for a good reason. The challenge for any small-scale farmer is to have adequate biosecurity around their operation. And it’s almost too simple because they’re farmed by families. They’re farmed in communities. Very often animals are free ranging and so the idea and the full appreciation for what biosecurity is, how essential it is in terms of managing and protecting your investment against African swine fever, is not fully [00:15:00] comprehended. So I mean, many people will see their whole operation go bust regularly as they sort of encounter the disease and then repopulate and start again.
Casey: But they keep making the same mistakes. And so, is it a lack of knowledge transfer? Is it a lack of physical facilities? I mean, because to stop it globally, we need to stop it everywhere, cause if we keep it on the African continent and we keep it in Asia, it’s just going to eventually be around the entire world. So how can we get some of these biosecurity things under control in countries where the government’s, I guess, not as strong in helping producers.
Steven: Yeah. And that’s the challenge with small-scale production. So, I mean, I think you got to look at anything like good biosecurity, it becomes easier when you have scale. When you do it on a small scale, it’s a challenge. And I think this is something, and I don’t know how [00:16:00] we can overcome it because of the lack of demand and the unsophisticated demand in Africa for pork. An individual who’s keeping five or 10 sows and maybe in a year producing 30 or 40 piglets, he’s able to sell that pig, and that pork ultimately, for the same price as his neighbor, who is invested in a commercial piggery and has to carry all that infrastructure cost: the cost of feeding properly. The other individual, the small-scale farmer, is literally allowing the pigs to free range and eat next to nothing, so provided he can keep them alive for 12 months, he’s going to have something that he can market at 55 kilograms, and he’s going to be paid the same price as the individual who’s made that investment, who’s fed those animals. Until there is a market demand for a more premium quality pork, that balance is always going to make things a challenge in terms [00:17:00] of encouraging people to make the investment in good infrastructure. I wouldn’t even go so far as saying high health sort of herds, but good genetics and healthy animals. There’s a bit of water to go under the bridge before we’re at that point.
Casey: From the standpoint of options for producers in Africa around nutrition, do you guys have as many regulations as the EU and the US when it comes to antibiotics, when it comes to, you know, different feed additives and things? Is it easier to formulate for the producer?
Steven: I don’t know that it’s easier to formulate, but one of the big challenges in terms of formulating on the continent is a shortage of available raw materials. And maybe this is where we’re more similar to the States than we are to Europe. I mean, we’re also typically a maize-soya based diet. In terms of the use of antibiotics and other sort of feed additives, I would say that [00:18:00] regulation is much less strict. Well, no it’s much less enforced. It’s not to say it’s much less strict. Many African countries will sort of base their legislation on what’s happening in the rest of the world. I mean, the more progressive markets will be following some of the more progressive industries in Europe, often to their detriment. It penalizes the “law abiding” producer who won’t use antibiotics and the black market in these types of things is absolutely rife. It’s not to say it’s easier. Do we need antibiotic growth promotants and the like in our feeds? I think our production environments are fairly rough for the most part. So disease is a big challenge; environment is a big challenge. So yes, I think it’s not easy to farm here, the environment is certainly not as clean as in other places. I think we probably get away with [00:19:00] managing with much slower, lower-stocking densities. We’re not having to close up barns. A lot of what we do is very open, just because the temperature allows for that. So, I suppose that’s got some benefits in terms of the respiratory type challenges that you might find in a closed up European or American setup. But, yeah, it’s okay, and I’d say if you were stuck in any African country needing to formulate, you do have access to the products and the technologies that the rest of the world have access to. I know I’m talking from an enzyme perspective and all the other sort of synthetic amino acids and the rest, you do have them available to you. Often very expensive and depending on the supply chain, there’s every chance that there’s been some sort of adulteration or sort of misrepresentation in the process as well.
Casey: So I was going to say, looking at grain quality, in South Africa though, [00:20:00] you say it’s expensive, but it also has that reward financially.
Steven: The grain quality?
Casey: Well, using enzymes, I mean. You can afford to probably pay a little bit more because you have lower quality grains usually coming in from what I’ve seen in the survey work I’ve done in the past and read.
Steven: Absolutely. I think maybe more so in pigs than in other lives. I mean, you really want the opportunity to utilize available byproduct as well. Whether that’s from the brewing industry or the milling industry or… and certainly enzyme technology offers that. I think what we’ve seen is you, you do need to dress it up in the form of a macro type solution where those enzymes and those formulations are provided together. Then you’re always going to come up against the farmer who brings out his notebook and says this is how he’s done it for the last 35 years.
Casey: Of course, I would still argue with some American farmers that [00:21:00] want to go to that 2-3lb VTM that, you know, there’s a reason why I was using 25 to 50 pounds. Right. And we overlook that even in modern more modern systems because we’re always trying to pinch money. I think you’re right, is getting the balance, as you said, the macros, to utilize feed out effectively.
Steven: I think we’ve also got to just recognize that the economics of post-production on the continent are different to perhaps what we know at home. I mean, I don’t say we’ve got it right every time, but I think you have to approach each individual market with an open mind. Producing pigs in that environment might require a different approach to what we see as traditional. The size of the slaughter pig that you’re aiming for, the time, the grow out that you’re targeting, feed conversion that you’re prepared to accept or not accept.
I think a lot of these things do need to be challenged with [00:22:00] experience and open-mindedness and come away with what is perhaps a foreign solution to us, but one that’s going to be the best for the producer at the end of the day.
Casey: I agree. I was talking to a Nigerian farmer, asking me about, you know, US, how long does it take you to raise a pig, this or that. He was like, Oh my gosh, can I do that? What is it going to take for me to do that? And I’m like, baby steps. Right. And in certain conditions we can’t match US or European production, but I also hear producers working with our, you know, our partners that are matching if not doing better. So there is that balance, like you said, of really good producers in Africa and still the ones yet that are just learning how to scale up in the trade, I guess.
Steven: Yeah. I think we’re fortunate in that we work across that spectrum. We also have experience beyond. Africa doesn’t just fit in the middle [00:23:00] geographically. I mean, we look to what’s happening in the likes of the Philippines and China and Canada. And I think through our partners, we’ve got that perspective that we can then bring to our farmers where we offer them something a little bit more and different to what the guy’s doing next door to them. That’s probably one of the big challenges as well is that until recently the frame of reference that a lot of these guys farm with is limited to what’s done next door.
If we can sort of throw that open a little bit for them, and it’s not always to go the way of a much more sophisticated operation. I mean, you look at what, how pigs are farmed sometimes in Asia. And there’s a lot we can take from that and adopt in our world. I mean, I think, Casey, some of the exciting things for me working on the continent is that there is such scope for improvement that even [00:24:00] small things are going to have very impactful consequences for the farmer. I mean, we go into a farm and you’ll see them weaning piglets at 56 days and older. You know what you can do to help them in terms of reducing that. Generally, it’s very often about just introducing those right, the correct feed post-weaning; they don’t have those feeds because they’re perceived as expensive. So they keep the little piglets on the mum as long as they can, because the grower feeds that are available in the market are inadequate to support the piglets. So, introduce a diet and sometimes it’s about changing an industry’s view on what’s acceptable.
I mean, if I can tell you that many industries with sort of three or four diets and it’s a dry sow and lactating a grower and a finisher. And if I told you those were the three diets that you have to feed pigs with, I don’t know where you would put them to be honest.
Casey: I know, because I faced that here too. So [00:25:00] a lot of people think when they see the US: Oh, it’s so industrialized, it’s big. We have a lot of niche producers and smaller producers that still get ignored, right? The States have stopped their extension programs or reduced them. There’s a few states that still have good extension programs out there. Then we look at a lot of the research, it’s all for the larger scale operations. And I think we need to go back and look at niche, smaller production, because not only would we in the US could benefit our producers here, I really think in another five to 10 years, we’re going to have two sets of producers in the US, the large integrated systems and then niche producers. And they’re going to have to be something different, but things that we can learn, things that, you know, people like my dad, he could probably go to Africa and change the whole industry just by going to a few farms. You know, I know we needed to have some of that mindset that comes back and not ignore what we’ve learned in the past to help people today.
Steven: That’s [00:26:00] perhaps one of the greatest challenges. And I agree with you. I mean, you take an experienced stockman, like what your dad would be, and you put him on any farm here, and he’s going to add value.
The problem is flying him across from the States to see a pig farm with five pigs. And I think what we grapple with is how do you make something commercially sustainable as well? It is about sort of then looking at how you can aggregate and consolidate these farmers into groups that you can bring the expertise and your reach is that much wider. It’s not to say that – I mean, I’m speaking more specifically to the small-scale farmer than the pockets of commercial farming – it’s not to say that they don’t want to know. And if I look at the sort of Facebook groups and the like that, I’m talking about tens of thousands of farmers on these groups with an interest and a thirst for doing things better. And I think that for me is the most [00:27:00] encouraging thing about what we do is that we don’t have all the answers, but we have a, call it a “potential customer base,” but we’ve got willing customers who just want to be assisted. Right? And I think we still just grappling with how to do it. But I think if we, when we get that right, Africa is going to be a different looking place in terms of pork production.
Casey: Oh, I agree. So, it’s just learning to change. Right? And maybe that’s going backwards sometimes.
Steven: I’ve also seen it’s the value of investing in in people who are prepared to do it right with you. So, you, if you thought that you could change everything in Africa overnight by yourself, the prospect would be too daunting. But, I mean, I think what we’ve seen over the last years is that you just find a couple of people who do it right and invest your effort in them and their communities here. It’s wonderful to see how that knowledge and experience then spread.
Casey: So that’s my mindset. I’m not [00:28:00] after the tidal wave I’m after the ripples. And so how can we start some ripples that are going to turn into the tidal wave? Yeah. You’re doing that, Urban farmer is doing that and I commend you guys.
Steven: Thank you. Sometimes I have to remind myself that we’ve been doing it for 12 years. It hasn’t been easy. I think for us personally, as a business, if we hadn’t done it across species and across territories, we wouldn’t have survived. I think we’ve benefited that we do work in different sectors; I mean, from the poultry sector to the sort of agriculture and beef and dairy. I think the idea that pork would sustain them in any one market completely would have been a bit early in to do that. But we really now see, and I want to say specifically on the pig side, getting traction in markets as being the market leaders in pig nutrition.
Again, it is the neglected species on the continent. It’s very often seen as the [00:29:00] rubbish bin. I mean, it’s not to say that there’s not lots of pigs. I was in Uganda not so long ago. Their sow herd is probably four or five times what South Africa’s is, just in terms of number of sows, but their output is probably two thirds of what ours are.
In terms of pork production, the inefficiency that exists there between large numbers of pigs for pigs that just might be giving you eight to 10 piglets per year. And again, I mean, not that South Africa is, but I think we probably are, a sophisticated pork producing market. I mean, our farmers here could probably produce as well as anywhere in the world.
Casey: They are, I mean, if you look at some of the numbers, so…
Steven: Yeah. So, we can get 30 or so piglets off a sow per year. I mean, and I think it’s that big difference that, [00:30:00] that slowly those differences will be narrowed in the future and not wholesale, but certainly there are individuals who are more than capable of doing that on the continent many times over. It’s just about giving them the necessary products and support to achieve that.
Casey: We’re running out of time, and I’ll give you a chance to turn the table. Is there anything you want to ask me or last-minute thoughts?
Steven: I should’ve been prepared for this, but did you know..? I’m interested, I mean, you obviously have a view on pork production, on the continent and perhaps from today. And what you’ve sort of learnt in recent sort of times, is the African continent where you thought it was from a pork production perspective?
Casey: Yes. I mean, there’s a broad spectrum, right? And there’s broad challenges. But yet, with every challenge there’s opportunity, [00:31:00] you know, how can I help? What’s my goal? My goal has always been to feed the world. It’s not to feed Springdale, Arkansas, or the US, it’s to feed the world.
Steven: And so, if I put the question to you what makes producing pork in Arkansas, such a, I mean, what makes them the lead? One of the leading sort of territories in the world in terms of pork production and anything common that we might leverage?
Casey: Arkansas is more of a poultry state, so I would just throw that out, but we do have sow populations. The region I live in, I’m going to call it the Southwest portion of the US pork production. And we have a lot of the sows, so Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas. The biggest thing is we’re isolated, so we can put a lot of sows down here, hopefully try to maintain higher health and move the pigs up to where the grains are. That’s really ultimately [00:32:00] what I see is Africa coming together and, you know, and it’s even Southeast Asia, it’s raising the sows and pigs where you can, so like those really good producers, that’s going to have the capital investment.
And then can you move those weaned pigs to somewhere where the grains are more affordable or available and then have more of a feed out. Maybe it’s like a cattle feed out lot type operations versus traditional barns like we have. Maybe is that a solution or idea of keeping our sows where we’ve got better management, better biosecurity to keep that herd healthy and then finding a group of producers maybe that could feed out those pigs instead.
And I think there were even some of the people I’ve talked to in Southeast Asia, trying to do the same thing is finding a group of producers that are good at something. Either that’s farrowing pigs, or then the finishing pigs. And maybe that’s a concept that could work, right? You have shareholders in the South in the sows and they get so many pigs. They do [00:33:00] better feeding it, but you know, you can get, and so they’re trying to learn everything from conception to slaughter. And I hear that with some of the people I interview they’re trying to own that whole space, even having the butcher shop on their farms. And I see so many challenges from biosecurity- disease management from that, and then food safety, in my opinion, from all that there, can we segregate and have good expertise in different segments? Right? I would say that’s one thing. The US, and maybe even Europe could, you know, use that concept to really help the producers. But then it goes to your question is how do you put that together? How do you get those groups of producers together to do that?
Steven: I know, and I think it’s a very valid suggestion and I think what we also see is you need to operate with production units where you can have the attention to detail. What we could really do is in a structure like that, you have owner-managed grow out [00:34:00] things, where you’ve got the necessary tension on the unit. It’s not somebody with 5,000 pigs that they grow-out, but that he can really invest the time and effort on a smaller focus group.
We will see the yields coming out of those sorts of grow-out operations for sure. You’ve given me a lot of food for thought. And I think that maybe that wasn’t the intention for the meeting, but I think we’ll definitely take some of what was said today and see where it can find application.
Casey: Yeah, definitely. And that’s what we’re here for. Sharing knowledge, supporting each other. I love the fact that I can talk to my friends in South Africa from gloomy Arkansas.
Steven: That wheel will turn as well.
Casey: No, I know. Then you’ll want to be here, so. But no, I really appreciate your time. Keep up the initiative and if you get a chance, like I tell everybody: hug a pig for me, [00:35:00]
Steven: Okay, Casey, thank you. And yeah, we will certainly be giving you and the team feedback on how we progress here. So, thanks for the opportunity.
We’d like to take this opportunity to thank your sponsors: The Sunswine Group, NutraSign, Swine Nutrition Management and Pig Progress.