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An Olam employee, right, registers a cacao farmer on a smartphone app in Lampung, Indonesia. (Photo by Nozomu Ogawa)
Company in focus

Singapore's Olam spreads 'smart farming' in Asia and beyond

Agri-conglomerate uses transparency and innovation to lower risk of environmental scandals

TOMOMI KIKUCHI, Nikkei staff writer | Singapore

SINGAPORE/LAMPUNG -- On a sunny day in late July in Lampung, a rural farming town in the southern part of Indonesia's Sumatra Island, an employee of agricultural-goods trading company Olam International was busy making the rounds of cocoa farms, collecting data from farm owners.

"How old are your cocoa trees?" he asked. "What is your crop yield?"

He pulled out his smartphone and tapped various details into an app, including a farm worker's age and his photo, plant types, tree ages and harvest volumes.

The app is part of the Olam Farmer Information System, a farmer database that Singapore-based Olam hopes to introduce to 500,000 farmers worldwide by 2020. So far, more than 100,000 farmers in 21 countries in Asia, Africa and other regions have been registered in the system.

Olam manufactures and markets a wide range of agricultural products and food ingredients. It serves 70 markets around the world and deals with more than 47 agricultural products, including nuts, coffee, cocoa, cotton and palm oil.

The company's primary business is sourcing agricultural products from farmers, processing some of those products and supplying them to various global food and beverage giants, including Nestle, Unilever and PepsiCo.

While the company faces strong competitors, including U.S-based agriculture conglomerate Cargill, Louis Dreyfus of the Netherlands and Singapore-based global agribusiness firm Wilmar International, Olam is No. 1 globally in the supplying of cashew nuts, cocoa beans, cocoa products, and dehydrated onions and garlic, and the top grower of almonds. It ranks No. 2 as a supplier of coffee and rice. 

An Olam employee checks the data on an OFIS database in Lampung, Indonesia.

As technology makes even deeper inroads into the way companies operate, Olam is betting on artificial intelligence and big data to expand its initiatives in "smart farming," with the aim of raising efficiency, quality and traceability in production at its supplier farms around the world.

To meet that goal, Olam wants to offer a one-stop comprehensive view on various aspects of farmers' livelihoods. The data collected can be viewed on an online platform that has many functions. For example, mapping out the exact location of a farm makes it easier to find important necessities and tools, such as the nearest water sources and other farming supplies.

By examining the data collected, Olam will suggest the best agricultural practices suited for individual farmers, including the appropriate amount of fertilizers to use and the types of "shade trees" to be planted to provide the best environment for cocoa production. 

Some of these suggestions are generated automatically by the Olam Farmer Information System, while other solutions are made by Olam's agronomists. In some instances, the company provides farmers with seedlings, fertilizers or grafting materials in exchange for crops.

Revolutionizing small farms

The Olam Farmer Information System, or OFIS, is at the core of Olam's drive to reimagine farming through the use of information technology for small-scale farmers, who account for the bulk of the Singapore-listed company's suppliers.

These producers of Olam's main offerings, such as cacao, coffee and nuts, are mostly concentrated in Southeast Asia and Africa, where small farms often have limited funding and access to information on the latest farming technology. That is one of the reasons Olam last year set up its internal digitalization task force to explore transformational digital ideas that can disrupt the agriculture industry.

OFIS falls under what the company calls Olam Direct -- one of the digitization programs the company is currently running. Olam Direct aims to build a platform to create value-added services for its network of 4.3 million smallholder farmers.

Olam CEO Sunny Verghese (Photo by Keiichiro Asahara)

"We are merging all [the existing] systems to be able to develop a digital, direct origination from the farmer," Sunny Verghese, co-founder and CEO of Olam, said in a recent interview with Nikkei Asian Review.

OFIS also plays an integral part in the company's sustainability and social initiatives. The database is able to locate the nearest educational facilities and the social programs that Olam runs, allowing the company to launch new programs in underserved areas.

Olam has said the OFIS initiative not only benefits small-scale farmers but the company, too.

"This is not a charity," said Moray McLeish, Olam's vice president of corporate responsibility and sustainability, who visited the farms in Lampung. By introducing small-scale farmers to efficient agricultural practices, he said, "They can realize a higher price for a better quality product," which in turn "adds value to our final products and differentiates them" from competitors.

The change is already visible. Bapak Thamrin, a 57-year-old cocoa farmer in Lampung, said he is already seeing a rise in his crop yields since he started working with Olam about a year ago using good agricultural practices.

"Once I adopt these practices to all of my land, I think my income from farming will double," he said. With some help from Olam, he has also set up a separate farm for grafting materials to sell to other farmers in the region, which is supplementing his income while he replaces old cocoa trees with younger ones.

From farms to delivery

Since it was established in Nigeria in 1989 as an exporter of cashew nuts, Olam has expanded by targeting niche commodities, such as cocoa and coffee, where there were fewer competitors, building up sourcing capabilities in Africa and elsewhere.

From that base, Olam's tech initiatives aim to bring together various stakeholders that span across its products, including the 4.3 million farmers around the globe that it works with. The initiatives are not limited to OFIS but run across its entire supply chain, from upstream farms and plantations to downstream logistics.

In the central African country of Gabon, the company has introduced drones to map out plantations to help detect floods, nutrient deficiency and water stress -- a task that has traditionally required human labor and sometimes a helicopter.

In Australia, Olam's almond farms have cut the use of water by more than 10% by deploying internet-of-things devices on tree trunks that detect tiny changes in the diameter of trees to automatically provide the necessary amount of water they need to stay healthy.

In logistics operations, Olam plans by next March to introduce memory chips when transporting agricultural goods under a program named Olam Inside -- another digitization program Olam is implementing. The chips will contain information on everything from the amount of water used in farming and waste generated to training for farmers and the size of the carbon footprint in transportation. 

Such information is highly valued by global food and beverage manufacturers that make up the bulk of Olam's customers, many of which face pressure from environmental organizations on the sustainability of their businesses and increasing demands from consumers seeking to buy from socially responsible companies.

"The transparency adds value to the end product, allowing Olam to sell the produce at competitive prices to food manufacturers," McLeish said.

Wider trend

Olam's tech initiatives are in line with global trends in the commodities sector. Goldman Sachs predicts that the rise of precision farming, which includes the deployment of drones and data analysis, will expand the overall market for farming tech to $240 billion by 2050.

U.S.-based chemical conglomerate DuPont offers farm-management solutions based on big data aggregated from the field.

Olam, along with Louis Dreyfus and Cargill, is a member of a blockchain consortium that is working with IBM to create a supply chain and trading system for cotton.

Keisuke Sano, a consultant at Nomura Research Institute, said the strength of Olam lies in its ability to adopt smart technology to its wide array of agricultural goods, as well as throughout its supply chain that runs all the way through to the sale of the products.

"Often times, only large-scale farmers with resources that allow them to take risks are willing to work with tech integrators and adopt new technology, because the results are often not immediately visible," Sano said. "Because of Olam's global network of supply chain, the company can roll out and analyze the effects of smart tech on a much larger scale in a more immediate manner."

Building a platform business

Verghese's plans for smart agriculture extend far beyond its original business of procuring and selling commodities. Under its Olam Direct program, Verghese is working to launch an online marketplace where small-scale farmers can sell their agricultural products, as well as search for service providers such as banks, insurance companies and manufacturers of fertilizers and agrochemicals.

The marketplace will be open to farmers outside of Olam's network, Verghese said. He believes Olam can provide opportunities for companies by tapping into its network of farmers, including those in rural regions of developing countries -- a demographic that is often hard to reach. 

Farmers can also benefit by having access to a wide variety of services, such as microfinancing to buy new farming equipment and insurance policies offering protection against crops damaged by climate.

An Olam employee at a cashew warehouse in Bouake, Ivory Coast.   © Reuters

While revenue is still an open question, Verghese is confident that Olam can be the next giant in the agriculture sector, much like Google and Uber are in tech.

"It's a winner-take-all [business]. It is someone who can create that network [who can win]," Verghese said.

Managing risks

Mervin Song, an analyst at DBS Group Research, said that Olam's use of IT and big data can give the company "an informational advantage" that can be helpful in mitigating the risks of volatility in commodity prices. 

Adopting these digital initiatives that benefit both farmers and customers is a means of risk management for Olam. The company's stock price fell last year due to accusations by environmental nongovernmental organization Mighty Earth that its palm oil plantation development in Gabon contributed to deforestation.

Olam has since taken Mighty Earth members on a site visit to Gabon and the two parties struck an agreement for Olam to freeze the clearing of land for new plantation development in Gabon for at least a year, while working together on forest conservation efforts.

"People who attack us get good value from attacking a company like Olam because we are high profile. It is the civil society's job to keep us honest," Verghese said. "But as long as you are doing the right thing, you can defend it and properly explain."

The company's efforts to increase transparency in every part of the supply chain can keep a check on local contractors who are often less aware of the consequences of deforestation activities.

Olam is given some insulation by its three major investors: Singapore's state investment fund, Temasek Holdings; Japanese trading house Mitsubishi Corp.; and Singapore-based conglomerate and Olam's co-founder, Kewalram Chanrai Group. Mitsubishi Corp., the second largest investor in Olam, took a 20% stake in 2015 as a strategic investor.

Temasek, Olam's majority shareholder, came to the rescue when it was under attack in 2012 by short-seller Muddy Waters, a U.S.-based research company known for investigating fraud and irregular corporate activities, which had criticized Olam's accounting and acquisition practices. 

Olam's share price slumped more than 20% soon after. It denied the accusations and filed a defamation lawsuit before deciding to follow the advice of its shareholders to instead focus on its business. It dropped the case. Meanwhile, Temasek continued to support Olam financially by injecting capital through increasing its stake in Olam and buying bonds.

Olam's stock price has been on an upward trend over the past few months, but it sits at roughly where it was five years ago. And while the company's quarterly revenue has been slowly rising since late last year, the bottom line has been stagnant. Nevertheless, some analysts viewed that as a sign of stability. 

"Agriculture is a long-term business, as it takes years for trees to produce," said one analyst at an international broker. Measuring Olam's share price in the same way as non-commodities companies may not be an appropriate comparison, the analyst said.

In a filing to the Singapore Exchange in November, Olam said the percentage of its publicly traded shares fell below 10% due to new issuance of shares following the exercise of warrants, which could lead to the company's shares being suspended under exchange rules. 

The company has indicated its intent on staying listed, noting that the public float is expected to rise above the 10% threshold next month if all of the company's outstanding warrants are exercised by their due date and the number of publically held shares remain constant.

Song, the analyst at DBS Group Research, said the company is on track to becoming cash-flow positive, which was delayed by the company's $1.2 billion acquisition of Archer Daniel Midland's cocoa business in 2015. DBS Group Research has a "hold" rating on Olam's stock.

"Because the public float has dropped, it may reduce the pool of investors interested in the counter as some look for stocks with more liquidity to assure easy exit," he said. "I am happy with what the company is doing. The [hold] rating is more based in the counter's current high valuation. It is not cheap."

Song said with the company's improving cash position and the expected proceeds from the exercise of warrants, there is a chance that Olam will consider another large-scale acquisition.

"[Olam was] doing smaller transactions previously, but now they are focusing on bigger transactions that move the needle," he said. 

Verghese was not specific on investment plans, but noted: "This will take some time, but we are investing," he said in regard to building the company's online marketplace.

While Verghese did not disclose the amount of investment in Olam's digitization efforts, he said the company has built a "significant" digital team. "We probably have the largest farmer network in the world. We think we are in a good position to create the platform."

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