Olam hunting for more Africa investments with on-the-go food demand to climb

Sunny Verghese, chief executive director of Olam, speaking during an interview in Singapore.
Sunny Verghese, chief executive director of Olam, speaking during an interview in Singapore. PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

KUALA LUMPUR (BLOOMBERG) - Singapore-listed Olam International, one of the world's largest food traders, is hunting for more investments in Africa as it looks to benefit from the continent's increasing appetite for everything from instant noodles to lollipops.

Long endowed with rich agricultural resources including coffee and cocoa, Africa has a growing middle class that is now demanding more packaged food, according to chief executive officer Sunny Verghese. That's presenting increased opportunities for investment in branded foods as well as raw materials such as rubber, cotton and lumber, outweighing threats from political unrest to terrorism, he said.

"The risks are slightly higher, but the rewards are better," Mr Verghese said in an interview March 8 in Kuala Lumpur. "It's a good bet to make."

  • Key facts on Olam International

  • 1. Olam supplies enough cotton for three pairs of socks for everyone in the world every year
  • 2. Processes enough peanuts every year to make 7.6 billion peanut butter sandwiches
  • 3. One in every four chocolate bars contains cocoa beans handled by Olam
  • 4. Handles enough coffee each year to make 1,750 cups a second
  • 5. Olam’s dehydrated onions are served on 2 billion burgers each year

One of Olam's key bets in the continent is on branded food, driven by Mr Verghese's prediction that Africa's working-age population will overtake China's in 20 years.

Already established in 24 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the agribusiness giant controlled by Singapore's state investment company Temasek is looking to expand its market share across the continent. Olam's sales from Africa climbed to S$4.13 billion in 2014 from S$1.7 billion in 2010. Its packaged food operations in Nigeria, Ghana and South Africa, now have sales of US$350 million to US$400 million a year from nothing in 2005, when they were started.

The company wants to increase its integration along the production chain from seed to consumer, according to Mr Verghese. For example, Olam plans to source the oil and flour in its Tasty Tom brand cooking oil and pasta from oil palm crops it grows and wheat mills it purchased.

"Africa in some of these markets is at the cusp of convenience foods," Mr Verghese said. The rising number of dual- income families where both the husband and wife work is transforming food habits, he said. "Convenience foods for on the-go consumption is increasing. Noodles and pasta are two very good categories where we've seen very high growth."

Olam isn't alone in looking to benefit from Africa's growing middle class, said Carey Wong, research manager at OCBC Investment Research Pte in Singapore.

"When people's incomes increase, the quality of food also increases," Mr Wong said March 14, adding that being integrated from farm gate to consumer helps companies benefit further from that growth.

"Since they own the whole value chain they can adjust prices as of when they want, rather than wait for suppliers," he said.

Africa's average growth over the past 50 years has trailed only China's, according to Mr Verghese. With Nigeria forecast to grow at 4.8 per cent next year and Ghana at 6 per cent, that's poised to continue.

Some brands owned by Olam are already household favorites in Africa, including Chic Choc biscuits, Tasty Tom tomato paste and Cherie instant noodles. In Nigeria, the most-populous African nation with 178 million people, Olam's brands are ranked in the top two in five out of eight food categories, and it's the most-preferred manufacturer of creams and wafers and confectionery sweets, according to the company.

The increase in per-capita income in Africa to about US$4,000 a year has also driven growing consumption of food staples in the estimated 90 million emerging middle-class households, Mr Verghese said. Instead of expanding reach across many more countries, Olam will focus on strengthening its position, limiting its total capital employed in any one African country to 10 per cent.

"We don't think we will get into many more new countries - there'll be one or two countries we'll get into. It's going to come from getting deeper into and investing more into our existing geographies," Mr Verghese said. "I don't think there are successful just noodle manufacturers, or just pasta manufacturers. The successful players are all integrated players."

Olam this year bought wheat mills and pasta-making plants from one of Nigeria's biggest millers, BUA Group, for an enterprise value of US$275 million, a move that will double its milling capacity in the sub-Saharan region.

Some 30 per cent of Olam's future expansion will come from the food sector and industrial raw materials, including rubber, cotton and wood, while 70 per cent will be greenfield acquisitions.

In Gabon, it inked governmentpartnerships to develop oil palm and rubber plantations, including a US$500 million investment to cultivate around 50,000 hectares of the oil palms. It has also taken up 49 per cent equity in another Gabonese government program to develop another 70,000 hectares of palm. It's also currently looking at expanding timber and wood production in the Republic of Congo.

"Africa's growth will be long term, and it will continue to grow for the next 40 to 50 years," Mr Verghese said. "We have particularly good operating and risk management capabilities to manage the African risk slightly different, or better, than a lot of others."