Belgium’s SIAT Group is a group of agro-industrial companies, specialised in the establishment and management of oil palm and rubber plantations, that works across the allied processing and downstream industries. Romana Moares spoke to CEO Pierre Vandebeeck about the group’s redirected focus and its bold plans for the future.
SIAT (Société d’Investissement pour l’Agriculture Tropicale) is a well-established group focused on the investment and management of agro-industrial ventures in the tropics with its head office in Brussels. A family-run business, the current Chairman and CEO, Pierre Vandebeeck founded SIAT in 1991. Over the years, the group has evolved into a large organisation, currently active in Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon, Côte d’Ivoire and Cambodia and is expanding further.
Environmental sustainability and responsibility form the group’s key guiding ethos. In fact, SIAT is one of the founding members of RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), which was formed in 2004 to regulate the palm oil industry and to ensure that its impact on the environment is managed carefully. SIAT firmly believes in environmentally responsible management. All factory waste from the oil mills is recycled into the plantation or used as fuel to generate green process steam and electricity. The company also assists communities and provides its workers with education and infrastructure and social developments such as roads, potable water and electricity, as well as quality schooling and Medicare. This creates stability and commitment which, in turn, provides security for the group’s investments.
Growing area of business
The group currently owns and manages 40,000 hectares of oil palm plantations, 22,000 hectares of rubber plantations and a cattle ranch with nearly 6,000 animals and is steadily expanding its operations base.
“We have been investing in new planting area extension both in Asia but primarily in West Africa. Asia is an interesting and growing market for us, but our true ‘home’ is Africa,” admitted Mr Vandebeeck. “However, we are now in the process of completing an acquisition in Indonesia and that will become a new area of concentration.”
But it is not only crop growing that is the group’s main field of interest. In 2013, SIAT acquired Deroose Plants, expanding its operational activities to the USA and China. The investment was aimed at supporting the research and development programme for rubber, oil palm and cocoa clones of Deroose Plants, hence improving the quality of planting material for the SIAT Group’s estates. As an international bio-technology enterprise and one of the top suppliers of young plant bromeliads globally, growing between 200 and 300 varieties, SIAT can now expand its business to include high yielding planting material, further strengthened by the very recent acquisition of young plant supplier Exotic Plant. The Group Deroose Plants and Exotic Plant will work together in supplying the highest quality young tree crops plantlets worldwide. SIAT is the first company in the world to succeed in developing a successful tissue-culture protocol for rubber trees, with a proprietary technology and increasing the yield of the trees.
“In the future the group will have high quality planting material for its own plantations but also for trading these high value plantlets globally with selected agribusinesses,” said Mr Vandebeeck. “We already have seven greenhouses and nurseries and have planted several hundred hectares of rubber clones in our countries of concentration, which will contribute important improvements for the group in the future. The high potential of our newly cloned planting materials will enable us to increase substantially the present yields per hectare, as well as to provide a steady flow of high quality young plantlets all year-round, that will be specifically calibrated for each of our customers.”
In total, the SIAT Group employs in excess of 15,000 people of all grades, levels and professions and maintains close contacts with world-class universities and research institutes in order to have access to the latest technological developments. However, Mr Vandebeeck confirmed that human resources remain the biggest challenge. To address this issue, the group opened the SIAT Academy in Brussels several years ago, providing both practical and academic skills development courses.
Mr Vandebeeck explained that the future will bring some changes to the group’s focus. Both key commodities – palm oil and rubber – have different market developments. Palm oil, as a food item, is a very stable commodity the price of which is steadily rising, and there the only challenge for future growth is the availability of land. Rubber prices, on the other hand, are dictated by the world markets and as such can be highly speculative and volatile. To handle this uncertainty, SIAT’s strategy is to keep two thirds of the portfolio for palm oil and only one third for rubber.
The third business pillar – elite plantlets – will in the future become more important. “How our business as a provider of high quality planting material will develop remains yet to be seen, but I have a very good feeling about this,” affirmed Mr Vandebeeck. “Demand is increasing and prospects are very good. I believe that in some 10 or 15 years, this may become our core business.”
The CEO also highlighted another significant change, related to the diminishing forest areas and the willingness of governments to address this issue.
“From a position of a purely agroindustry company, we will have to evolve into becoming an agroforestry company. Sustainable forest management is a top priority for SIAT now. We are developing a model whereby stakeholders will be offered a combination of industrial crops together with forestry crops, with an inclusive approach. This is where the future is.
“The emphasis on the environment, biodiversity and sustainability will become even greater and SIAT will develop in line with this direction and with the aim to be ‘Sustainable in all Terms’.”