As a leading global commodity merchant, with a specific focus on developing and fostering sustainable supply chains in over 40 agricultural markets worldwide, the responsibility to provide real value and growth right through the supply chain, to the farmers, is something that cannot be taken for granted.
For ECOM Trading, it’s in the company’s very nature.
“ECOM is a global player with a significant footprint here in Ghana,” says Muhammadu Muzzammil, Country Manager and Business Head Commodities & Logistics at ECOM Ghana.
“What really drew me to the company was its purpose and the strategy, ECOM has a huge focus on increasing rural prosperity in the communities that we participate.”
It is this focus and this commitment to delivering true value to those communities that has actually seen ECOM significantly grow its footprint in Ghana over the last four years, with Muzzammil pointing to a “300% growth”.
ECOM’s strategy of enhancing and fostering rural prosperity was conceived by Rahul Gopinath, Regional Director, Africa. Rahul looked at the traditional operating model and sought to implement a system that would reach out to the farmers, to the producers.
“Sustainability strategies have, in the past, benefited the consumer more than the producer and the farmer,” says Rahul.
“We realised that we could create a model where we could provide prosperity to the community and at the same time provide true value and benefits to the farmer through a higher disposable income which in return provides them with a higher standard of living and can continue to farm.”
Muzzammil joined ECOM as Business Head in 2016, overseeing the company’s logistics and commodities division which supplies more than 180,000 metric tonnes of cocoa and cashew direct from local farmers. Over time, his role developed and as Country manager he begun to oversee the company’s sustainability efforts, farm management services, agro input business and even supporting the company’s edible nuts and spices business in Burkina Faso and Guinea Bissau.
Having worked in the food and logistics space in Africa with some of the largest frozen food distributors in West Africa, Muzzammil knows first-hand the nuances of working with local suppliers and local farmer across the African continent. Hacvin
“Africa is full of opportunity and trust,” he says. “There is the trust that people have in you, trust from the board and management that provides you with great opportunity to go out and deliver on the promises of the organisation. You wouldn’t normally get this in a more developed economy, but because we are here, to really drive growth throughout Ghana, that trust goes a long way in enabling that.”
ECOM is committed to the development and advancement of rural prosperity, but how does it actually deliver on this commitment? A number of organisations state that economic growth and corporate social responsibility are some of the highest priorities in their strategic direction, but what separates ECOM from other companies?
In the first instance, ECOM defines the very nature of rural prosperity as starting with the farmers themselves and looks to understand just exactly how it can provide value and growth to the farmers.
It does this in two parts, by increasing the farmer’s revenue and reducing the costs that the they will incur.
“ECOM comes in with an approach where it’s not just acting as a trader to come and buy the farmers’ beans, it focuses on other business models that supplements the farmer’s income,” says Muzzammil.
“Farmers across Ghana don’t have access to large farmlands, large yields and large revenues. They are sustenance farmers, using farming as a means of surviving each and every day. This is where ECOM works extremely hard to support them.”
ECOM takes on a very “hands on” approach to working with local farmers and it does so through a number of initiatives, each designed to enrich lives.
One such initiative is the Crop Doctor. The purpose of the Crop Doctor is to provide a complete service for the farmer not only providing inputs to protect the crops from diseases, but also equip them with the knowledge about farming, disease control, identification of infestations. Crop doctor also enables convenient payment options to ensure the farmer does timely applications without having to worry about his cash flow. Crop Doctor is able to also offer this facility to the farmers at a much cheaper price.
“We minimise the supply chain by contract manufacturing these inputs from the best plants in the world and supplying directly to our farmer base,” says Muzzammil. “This really provides a major advantage for the farmers and saves close to 20-25% of their overall operating costs.”
The company’s farm services don’t stop there either. ECOM’s Sustainability Management Services (SMS), works with farmers to enable them to improve their yield through best practices in Agriculture, Environmental and Social standards. SMS also works on additional livelihood programs, farmer business school trainings which equip the farmer with the knowledge to see farming as a business and also enables a year round income generation opportunity. This also extends to farm management services target directly at older farmers and absentee farmers, ones that still require farming to survive but don’t have the same level of capabilities to run it themselves.
ECOM will completely manage the farm and return all the revenue back to the farmer in a clear, transparent and accountable way, continuously improving the prosperity of those farmers.
“The model that we use really looks at how a business can actually improve the rural prosperity and livelihood rather than rely on an NGO to do this,” says Muzzammil. “That’s what we are trying to achieve in Ghana. That’s the end goal.”
As Muzzammil noted, ECOM has achieved a 300% growth over the last four years but what can he attribute this success to, and how is this measured?
He looks along the value chain of ECOM and points to a spirit of entrepreneurship. ECOM strives to create entrepreneurs at the district level across Ghana, with micro entrepreneur at village and society levels.
“We’re not envisaging everyone to become an employee of ECOM,” he says. “Rather, what we are doing is creating businesspeople in every village. This is close to 6,000 micro entrepreneur network and these people are engaged in purchasing or selling and, in the future, will help the farmers through training and managed services.
“This spirit of entrepreneurship is what I feel is a huge contributor to our success as a company.”
Rahul takes this one step further, identifying that any success that ECOM has achieved has not come from having the best facilities or brands.
“Our greatest asset is the good people we have,” says Rahul. “If you want good people to create value for you, they need to feel that their inherent ambitions are being met and, in most cases, that means developing them as people and as employees.
“What we are trying to do here is based around finding innovative ways of solving a problem and in order to do that and to find innovation, you need to empower those employees.”
As a commodity trader, ECOM places great emphasis on establishing strong relationships with a number of vendors, vendors that will help the company deliver on its promise.
ECOM works with some of the largest chocolate makers in the world, such as Lindt, Nestlé, Mars, Hershey and Ferrero, but for Muzzammil it’s much more about how those companies’ sustainable goals and beliefs align with ECOM.
“All these clients have their certified, sustainable, and verified programmes going all the way back to the farmers,” he says. “And obviously, the clients every year on year, they commit to their sustainability programme. Where ECOM comes in is, we act as the executor for the clients on the ground and to me, these vendor relationships have really proved key in enabling the significant growth of the company.”
ECOM is currently undergoing a major increase as to the scale of its service delivery and its product offering. With around 140,000 farmers currently working both directly and indirectly with ECOM, and on the back of considerable growth, what does the future hold?
Muzzammil points to 2020 as a key target year.
“Of those 140,000, we’ve only been able to scale around 30,000 farmers on a full-time basis,” he says. “Our aspirations are to get all farmers in our farmer base, get there by 2020. Our goal has always been the same, to enrich the lives of the farmers in Ghana which in turn will allow the country to grow and the economy to improve. And we will achieve this by increasing our product offering, our service delivery and continue our incredible work with our farmers.”
In the end, as Rahul notes, ECOM will always strive to deliver on its vision of rural prosperity.
“There is an adage in commodity training that says volume is vanity, profits are sanity”, says Rahul. “For ECOM, we believe that prosperity has to be a reality – there's no way we can provide without having that for our farmers.”