An African subsidiary of an Israeli irrigation company, Netafim have been supporting African farmers and operating across the SADC since 1992, bringing its revolutionary drip-based irrigation technology to some of the world’s most challenging arable land. [EBM] spoke to managing director Etienne Erasmus about his time with the company and its future.
Netafim has been at the cutting edge of irrigation since the invention of the drip irrigation system back in 1965. Its development since then has been continuously and consistently innovative. Etienne Erasmus has been the managing director of Netafim since 2006, but has been working in irrigation since 1981 as a designer, and as President of the South African Irrigation Institute (SABI) since 2004. He describes how the industry has changed:
“I saw booms in all the irrigation methods from impact sprinklers to drip and back to impact sprinklers in the early 80s”, he begins. “We saw a boom in static micro jets and then micro mini sprinklers that ruled in our market during the late 80s till the beginning of the 90s.
“But slowly drip irrigation started to get momentum when the concept was understood better and we started to apply nutrients through them. The drip systems acted like a transport medium for macronutrients and micronutrients. They also understood what ‘food’ (nutrients) plants needed at different phenological growth stages and this was applied through the drip systems right to the roots of the plants.”
Erasmus also saw the company become part of the SADC, the Southern African trade and development bloc that covers all of southern Africa. The company has moved into Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Mozambique, and even seen good sales in Angola.
Growing more with less
Drought has been a perpetual and devastating issue for African farmers across the Sahel and sub-Saharan Africa, the cause of many crises and famines across the region. Founded to wring life from the deserts of the Middle East, Netafim has always been about sustainability. Its core product, the drip irrigation system, is the most efficient system that exists and one specifically built to irrigate as wide an area an possible using as little water as possible.
However, over the last few years, Netafim has stretched beyond this core to also offer smart irrigation solutions. Erasmus explains that his company “tried to find the right solution for specific circumstances and then help the farmer to save water and optimize their crop production.”
One of Netafim’s key business areas is the sugarcane industry, with huge sugar estates leading its growth in Africa. The company’s website boasts that drip irrigated cane fields registered yields of 50 to 90 tonnes/ha more than others, with 30-45% water conservation and 25-30% reduced fertiliser requirement. In Africa the returns could be even higher. Particularly for lower-income farmers in less developed countries this kind of saving can be a significant advantage, allowing them to invest more in their farms and produce much greater volumes of product. This also applies to other crops and sugarcane is by no means Netafim’s only business. It also sells to cash crop farmers growing bananas, tobacco, blueberries, avocados and nuts, as well as more general staple farmers growing vegetables and grains.
It is increasingly apparent that droughts and water shortages are a function of climate change, and as such an inevitability only going to increase in intensity as time goes on. Netafim is continuously developing its technology to account for more and more extreme climate change situations and for greater and greater efficiency while retaining the reliability and affordable cost that’s made it so successful.
Erasmus believes that the next step will be more attention to digital farming, helping farmers make better decisions and allocate resources more efficiently. Strange though it may sound, Africa’s cellphone revolution provides the perfect means to grow this new development in farming, providing a convenient way to monitor, influence and control smart irrigation systems. Farming could soon be done by app.
Netafim has been in the business a long time, and part of that is thanks to a robust recruitment process designed to recruit the best and brightest personnel. As Erasmus emphasises, hiring well is the key to his company’s success.
“We have a very dynamic team, and stability of personnel is part of our success. Business is about people and trust, and sound relationships you build over time. We have our own internal training programme in SA, and then we have iLearn, a Netafim internet training program which offers over 1000 computer software courses. It covers things like relationship building, public speaking, team building, organising your work spaces, stress management and dozens of other topics both specific to our industry and to build competence as a whole.”
Going forward, the company is planning for steady growth and development rather than ambitious leaps, focusing on SADC countries and its international projects team. Erasmus says that going forward Netafim “have to make sure we stay open to change but above all, we have to make sure we keep the basics in place. That means maintaining our integrity, good intent, performance drive, fairness, aligned values, training, knowhow, good planning and execution. And last but not least, to never compromise on quality and constantly encourage innovation and good leadership.”
Etienne plans to position his company as a preferred supplier for multiple SADC countries, with a particular focus on Zambia. “We’ve put more people on the ground and in particular appointed an in-house agronomist in Zambia, because it’s the country with the most potential at the moment.
“The Zambian market is the main market for sugar cane, being well established in the Illovo area and Upper Bala. There are more than 1.5 million smallholders in Zambia. Those are the farmers who can pass on their knowledge and experience and turn them into big farmers who are more profitable.”