Home News New Potatoes SA boss envisions data-driven future

New Potatoes SA boss envisions data-driven future

Willie Jacobs is new in the big chair at the potato industry organisation. He believes that information technology can unlock huge potential for one of Mzansi’s favourite vegetables

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The new Potatoes South Africa boss, Willie Jacobs, is ready to show the agricultural sector what he is made of, and he will be using data technology to steer a new course for the potato industry.

Jacobs took the reins as chief executive of Potatoes SA on Monday, 18 January 2021.

His goal, he says, is to optimise the farming profit of potato producers and place potatoes on a new level within the consumer environment.

His appointment follows the resignation of Dr André Jooste, an agricultural economist, who left the organisation after nine years.

Jacobs, who recently worked as an independent consultant for several agricultural funding and management contracts, has a BSc Agricultural Economics degree from the University of the Free State, and obtained a MBA at North-West University.

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Previously, he worked as an executive at the Land Bank, serving corporate clients, and later as executive director of Obaro Financial Services, funding farming activities.

In an exclusive interview with Food For Mzansi, Jacobs shares how he plans to spearhead the potato industry and the organisation into the future.

Duncan Masiwa: Willie, congratulations on your appointment as the new Potatoes SA (PSA) boss.  What is first on your list of things to tackle?
Willie Jacobs, chief executive of Potatoes South Africa. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Willie Jacobs, chief executive of Potatoes South Africa. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi

Willie Jacobs: I believe that healthy relationships, efficient networks and accurate information systems will, to a large extent, determine the success of potato growers. The key to success lies in the extent to which technology can be used as a catalyst to build the networks and information systems.

How do you plan to build and expand South Africa’s potato industry during your tenure?

PSA has been developing intelligence systems that use data from various sources, including satellites, for some time to provide useful information to members.

The further development and refinement of these systems will receive sustained attention. It is therefore not a static target, but dynamic.

As new resources become available and as we learn new lessons, we will incorporate them into our models and systems to generate useful intelligence from the data and make it available to our members.

It has become increasingly expensive for farmers to produce potatoes. In addition to this, we have seen giant surges in potato prices. What is your strategy to tackle this?

Rising production costs and the price-cost squeeze will remain a challenge, but excellent work has already been done and is still being done to manage production costs.

Just think of the increase in average yield, improved quality and shelf life of potatoes and the cultivar research and development done in each region in the annual trials.

However, we will not be able to ensure profitability by simply focusing on the production side. We need to broaden our focus on the sales side as well and that covers two aspects.

First, we need to develop accurate, real-time intelligence about the marketplace and how it relates to the production prospects on each farm.

If our members have accurate information about the volume and timing of production and the potential factors that can influence it on a specific farm in a specific location, while at the same time having better and more reliable logistics and marketing information available, we can make a big difference on farm level.

The data (technology) to obtain this information and convert it into intelligence already exists. We simply have to process it in a productive, reliable way.

Secondly, we must make an effort to promote the consumption of potatoes. This amounts to sustained consumer awareness of potatoes.

If potatoes are constantly at the forefront of the consumer’s mind, we will see an increase in consumption, and this will result in better prices and a more attractive industry.

South African potato growers are increasingly calling for a temporary prohibition on imports of frozen potato chips from the EU as a result of market conditions brought on by Covid-19. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
South African potato growers are increasingly calling for a temporary prohibition on imports of frozen potato chips from the EU as a result of market conditions brought on by Covid-19. Photo: Supplied/Food For Mzansi
Honestly speaking, do you predict a positive outlook for Mzansi’s potato markets in 2021? Things are tough out there.

The lack of reliable information and the linking of information on both sides of the sales transaction are both the biggest threat and opportunity currently within our industry.

No marketing mechanism should be detrimental to a price if there’s sufficient information.

A good example of this is the advantage that a fixed production contract holds for financiers, producers and the consumer.

However, our industry cannot function entirely on fixed contracts and this is where the lack of information harms the farmer. Often there are producers who do everything right throughout the season, produce good quality potatoes and transport it to market just to realise a poor price.

More useful and accurate information about the buyer and consumer behaviour and trends in the marketplace should be available to the producers and that is where there is a golden opportunity.

If you look at our industry from a bird’s eye view, many factors that influence the price and consumption of potatoes can be made visible, but not necessarily the reasons for them.

However, when you walk in the potato field, you will see a detailed picture, which can point out much of its cause.

We need to bring these two worlds closer together in terms of marketing, by focusing from a distance perspective unto the operational level.        

What are the main industry challenges you’d like to address?

Imports of frozen chips, especially from Europe, are a major threat to the local industry. This is a new challenge for me, but within PSA a lot of valuable work has already been done in this regard.

During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, it became clearer who the active players are, where the product comes from and what effect it has on our industry.

This means we can meet with the various role players in government and the private sector to develop a better understanding of our local industry.

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Duncan Masiwa
Duncan Masiwa
DUNCAN MASIWA is a budding journalist with a passion for telling great agricultural stories. He hails from Macassar, close to Somerset West in the Western Cape, where he first started writing for the Helderberg Gazette community newspaper. Besides making a name for himself as a columnist, he is also an avid poet who has shared stages with artists like Mahalia Buchanan, Charisma Hanekam, Jesse Jordan and Motlatsi Mofatse.
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