Grain SA CEO Jannie de Villiers to retire after 10-year reign

August will be the final month of Jannie de Villiers' tenure as the CEO of Grain SA. Food for Mzansi's Sinesipho Tom chats to him about what he has learned in his role, and where the future of Mzansi's agri is headed

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After a decade at the helm of grain producers’ organisation Grain SA, Jannie de Villiers will retire later this year. Sinesipho Tom checked in with the agriculture leader who has more than 30 years’ experience in the grain and food processing industries.

Jannie de Villiers has been serving the agriculture sector since an era where government still determined the price of bread and provided consumers with a subsidy to make the price of bread cheaper.

The 59-year-old powerhouse from Welkom in the Free State says that even though the sector has changed dramatically since then, its main objective is still to create food security for future generations who depend on it.

“We will still need to feed the nation, so the grain sector has that responsibility for the future,” he says.

It was during visits to his grandfather and uncle’s farm in the southern Free State, between Jacobsdal and Koffiefontein, that he fell in love with agriculture.

Jannie de Villiers CEO of Grain SA. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
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In 1980, he decided to pursue a BCom degree in agriculture at the University of the Free State. He then studied further and obtained a BCom Hons degree in Economics at the University of Pretoria.

His storied career has included a stint as economist at the department of agriculture and representing Government on the National Agricultural Marketing Council board. In 1987, he joined the National Chamber of Milling and nine years later he became CEO of the Maize Miller Association.

As a particular career highlight, he remembers when in 2007 the minister of agriculture and land affairs, Thoko Didiza, asked him to accompany her to the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) summit in Rome. He describes this as a life changing moment.

“There was a huge food price hike globally and countries came together to try and find solutions for this problem. I sat there and listened to all the countries in the world talk about how to double food production by 2050 and what we can do to eliminate hunger and reduce the food shortage issues in the world. That’s when my knowledge expanded and I was able to think of new ideas, outside the box,” he says.

When he accepted the role of Grain SA chief executive in 2011, one of his first challenges was relocating the organisation’s headquarters from Bothaville in the Free State to Pretoria. The move closer to the centre of government enabled the organisation to attract talented staff who were not keen to relocate to a rural area.

“Eventually we put a very strong team together and a more diverse team in terms of thinking, gender and race.”

De Villiers is retiring this August and he is confident that he is leaving behind a very strong team and legacy. Here is what he had to say about his journey with Grain SA and the grain sector in the last 10 years.

ALSO READ: Grain SA honours 46 farmers who are ‘growing for gold’

Sinesipho Tom: In the last 10 years how has the grain sector improved?

Jannie de Villiers. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Jannie de Villiers: We are still maintaining our food security status, but I think we have developed on the production side. You know I don’t think precision farming was that strong ten years ago, but I think the farmers have evolved almost to become like scientists and produce more on a scientific basis.

I think the farmers also grew in their understanding of the market, they have improved their quality and they consider the food safety aspect. So I think we are all growing in those areas as a farming community at the moment.

We also grew in terms of the number of black farmers who become commercial farmers, so I think the black farmers that were new ten years ago in the sector are in a much better position to overcome big issues like drought.

It’s still tough; there is still very little government support for any disasters like the drought. But I think the farmers have sort of started to learn to do deal with that.

The other area in the production side that has changed a lot was conservation agriculture. It started off in the Western Cape and I think those guys got it right now. We are still growing here in the north in terms of our understanding about how to manage a farm with conservation agriculture.

How can the sector improve in the future to be more efficient?

The black farmers are not getting finance, they get big pieces of land that belong to government and if they are lucky they get a 30-year lease. However, the bank does not regard a 30-year lease as security, so the farmer can’t get a loan.

The whole financing of black farmers is still a big hurdle that we need to overcome. We need to do that quickly.

The second thing is that we need to get a better grip on climate change issues. It is getting drier in the west and we are producing 60% of our maize in the western parts of the country.

So, if climate change is going to force us to reduce the hectares in the west, we need to migrate some of the hectares to the east. Now you can go through to the Eastern Cape and you can go through to KZN, all those areas are mostly communal land and communal land does not get financed by the commercial sector. We need to resolve those issues so that the country in 15 years’ time can still have food for your children and my grandchildren.

Where do you hope to see the sector going in the future?

We will still need to feed the nation, so the grain sector has that responsibility for the future.

ALSO READ: Meet Wandile Sihlobo, SA’s hip-hop-loving economist

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