Niki Neumann – MD of AFGRI Technical Services

MD of AFGRI’s new Technical Services division Niki Neumann delves into what creative leadership and innovation looks like in agriculture as agritech takes off to make a social impact 

A problem should be seen as an opportunity, says Niki Neumann, MD of AFGRI’s new Technical Services division, when asked about how she manages potential business obstacles.

‘I’ve held diverse positions over the years, but the common thread running through my career has been, and is, the problem-solving mindset of doing things differently.’

Niki’s career has indeed been a mixed bag and has seen her hold various positions in consulting, management, business process engineering, and innovation.

Most notable in her early career was her work at Discovery, changing recruitment processes and building employer brands for innovation and IT, and her time at FeverTree Consulting where she was involved in an operational turnaround initiative for a government organisation in Namibia.

‘The Namibia experience was a highlight in terms of my personal growth. It really taught me the skills of jumping all in – the sink or swim principle. I was exposed to multiple people, from multiple backgrounds, living in a country I’d never been to before.

‘I learnt that to adapt you have to understand the people you’re working with and understand their challenges, convert it into a solution that solves their need, and then move that solution to implementation. I experienced the kind of challenges that any innovation exec or specialist faces.’

It’s this dynamic energy and solutions-based experience that has catapulted Niki to the top of AFGRI’s solutions-based innovation and technology business. And since AFGRI is ranked as one of Africa’s leading agribusinesses, the role is as expansive as the continent will allow.


A GROWING EXPERIENCE

In 2016, AFGRI CEO Chris Venter moved to position technology as an integral part of the business’s future and started up an innovation team within the company. Looking to breathe new life and thinking into the near-century-old business and its challenges, Niki was brought on board as an innovation specialist.

‘I started with a blank canvas and was completely new to the industry. But I think was a great way to start, because I didn’t have any predisposition on the existing challenges or rigid ideas about “how things are always done”.

‘I had to see the opportunity in sparking change in a large traditional industry and then have the tenacity to drive this change across a large, well-established business. I had to believe that if we could achieve something extraordinary, we were going to propel this industry forward into the future.”

Still, it was arguably a big leap in unchartered territory, where her sink or swim principle would be tested.

‘There were a lot of unknowns. The company had never had that this type of focused innovation role before, the yardsticks often moved. Of course, this creates its own complexity, because there’s no road map and you create the journey as you go. But at the same time, I love the creativity and the challenge involved in that.’

‘I FULLY BELIEVE THAT ONE’S WORK SHOULD HAVE MEANING ATTACHED TO IT’

The appeal of the business challenge, the possibility to make a positive impact on food security for the continent, the creativity, and managing the certainty of uncertainty – is something Niki believes was inspired by her parents and upbringing. “I fully believe that one’s work should have meaning attached to it. Meaning is subjective, for me it’s the possibility of applying my skills and making the world a better place”.

Despite the rush of the new challenges at AFGRI, Niki’s interest in the position in the agricultural sector extends to the personal for her.

‘I knew immediately that I was working on a job that has purpose. It’s about influencing the way people consider where our food comes from and all the aspects that come before that – what we consume and how we produce food – and at the same time there’s a societal impact.’

‘Agriculture is one of the biggest employers in the country and across Africa, so you really get to touch the lives of the people on the continent. There’s a lot of purpose-driven excitement around that ability to make this kind of impact. It’s about building an inclusive economy.’


CHANGE MAKER

After two years as an innovation specialist in AFGRI’s internal innovations shared service, the team split off to become a separate unit, with Niki heading it up as MD.

AFGRI Technical Services (ATS) now has wider parameters, providing technical solutions for the whole industry, focusing on technology-driven growth and impact within the agricultural value chain.

‘Our business mandate for ATS is to look at the future of food and the future of farming and ask how technology can assist farmers to farm more efficiently, produce more yield, and give them access to global information and markets for decision-making.

Agritech is a broad industry, typically it is thought of as ‘precision farming’, but the focus expands beyond typical Precision Farming ambit.

To most, this sounds like something from the futuristic movie Tomorrowland for the uninitiated: data collection on crops using satellite and drone imaging, soil and vegetation sensors to identify soil and plant health, self-driving tractors, smart-irrigation system, predictive weather and climate analytics – innovative tech and gadgets galore to maximise yields, while cutting farmers production costs.

‘WE’RE LOOKING AT THE SUPPLY CHAIN AND ASKING HOW WE CAN INNOVATE AND DISRUPT THIS’

Apart from connecting farmers to these solutions, Niki says they’re also looking at the supply chain. “How do the advances in technology impact the value chain and how it is managed?”.’

‘Typically, the food we eat today has been processed by multiple different organisations before it lands on the retail store shelves and that’s the price we pay. We’re looking at this supply chain and asking how we can innovate and disrupt this so that it’s better for all the players.’


ON-THE-GROUND LEARNING

Like anyone in the innovation space, a lot of her energy is spent getting buy-in from those most likely to benefit from the solutions she presents. Her experience of this, particularly at AFGRI, has spanned both the client side and internal business structures.

One of the first projects she initiated when she started as an innovation specialist at AFGRI was to increase visibility and break down organisational silo thinking.

‘We were looking to build a culture that was more open and collaborative, and so launched an innovation programme by inviting feedback from the employees – some of whom had been with the company for more than 20 years.

‘We wanted to mine their experiences and ideas for valuable information about what was needed in the group. You can imagine the wealth of knowledge that sits with one individual that could help another.’

‘IF YOU’RE PRESENTING AN IDEA AND NOT INCLUDING KEY STAKEHOLDERS IN THE DEVELOPMENT OF THAT IDEA YOU’RE SETTING YOURSELF UP FOR A DIFFICULT TASK’

It was the first time the company had created cross-collaboration teams where they held workshops with people from all areas of the organisation thinking about the same challenges and the solutions to these. It proved to be a powerful tool for the group.

‘It was a high-impact launch and a good learning curve for me to understand the perception and understanding of innovation in the mind of the people.’

Although her initiatives were largely supported, Niki learnt the value of early buy-in from key stakeholders for innovation plans, whether they were clients outside of the business or from within.

‘If you’re presenting an idea and not including the key stakeholders in the process of developing that idea, you’re setting yourself up for a difficult task. For me, the first step is to bring people into the project from the very start. Hence, the reason I place a lot of value in the principles of Design Thinking practice.’

Part of this is about being very clear on why you’re providing your innovation solutions and for whom – i.e. being very clear on the problem it is going to solve. For ATS, this means providing tech solutions that farmers or industry partners truly need and want.

‘In an industry like ours, there’s no room for fluff, margins are thin and the market fluctuates,’ says Niki. ‘If you want to be successful in agritech, you need a really good value proposition and a strong differentiator.’

Deploying the principles of customer-centricity and collaboration to help solve large industry problems is where Niki says they start to uncover the opportunity for agritech. ‘You must put yourself in the shoes of the people looking for a solution. This is where you start to solve relevant problems.’

Another aspect of getting buy-in from stakeholders, says Niki, is to be transparent from the outset about challenges, risks and opportunities, as well as possible failures and successes.

‘MERGING AMBITIOUS VISION WITH TRADITIONAL PRACTICALITIES WILL REMAIN ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES THAT INNOVATION TEAMS FACE’

‘Innovation can be risky and it’s hard to initially prove ROI through typical accounting principles. You’ve got to be honest about what you’re going for and not overpromise. Manage expectations; manage your stakeholders through the ambiguity and unknown. Be willing to take the punches, no pioneer took the easy journey.’

As she points out, the tangible value of innovation teams generally has quite a long turnaround time in terms of the traditional business management principles: balance sheets and income statements.

‘It’s important that innovation teams focus on the big picture, but ensure you make tangible progress along the way,’ she says. ‘Fail fast and fail early, as we know.’ Those responsible for innovation teams need to ensure that the vision is set and that people are willing to walk the journey: ‘Stopping halfway will only be negative for all parties.’

‘Merging an ambitious vision with traditional practicalities, I think, is one of the biggest challenges that the innovation teams will face and will continue to face. Tangible and measurable change is, and always be, required of innovation teams. The measures of success need to be put in place early and revisited regularly.’


STRENGTH IN DIVERSITY

Speaking to like-minded people is one way of drawing support for these uncertainties, says Niki, which is why she signed up as a Creative Leadership Collective (CLC) Founding Friend.

‘I believe in people sharing their experiences, and great minds coming together. It’s what interested me in the CLC. I like the fact that everyone is so diverse – these are people and industries I don’t necessarily know a lot about, so for me it’s exciting to learn new ways of broadening my horizons and thinking.

Diversity is one of the strengths Niki believes South Africa can draw from.

‘We’re in quite a unique position to really understand this in ways other countries are not. We’re also very adaptable and determined nation – these are skills you need to survive in the global economy. South Africa has a lot to offer, we have established, very good businesses running here… So we have a lot of strengths we can bring to the global party.’

Nevertheless, she adds that collaboration is still a learning point, as is developing a powerful tech sector.

‘There’s a lot being done in the start-up space to foster this, but significant inroads can only be made by building skills from the school level. We need to start exposing the opportunities that technology brings to the mainstream schooling system, so that we have the skills to build technology for the African context.’


CONNECTING THE DOTS

‘Creativity’ is a word that comes up often for Niki and she describes the process as being able to connect the dots when it comes to problem-solving.

‘It’s about seeking to understand what the landscape is. Speak to the people on the ground and get insights from multiple sources, then draw all of this information together into a solution and an outcome that is unique.’

Creativity, inclusivity and collaboration are the principles by which she manages her leadership ecosystem now as MD. ‘It’s very important to listen to your employees no matter where they are in terms of hierarchy; your people take centre stage. I simply don’t believe in bureaucracy and typical structures, and believe that a very open and challenging environment is one where people and creativity thrive.’

Taking both positive and negative feedback from her team is something she believes is paramount to both her self-growth and the health of her relationship with the team.

‘For me, the main thing about leadership is accepting that you can never know everything. You need to remain humble and work with the people around you. It’s only through working together that you can create, that you can play to your strengths, and build a unique identity.

‘If you’ve got happy, strong, ambitious people who are willing to learn and walk the mile – and you’ve got a strong vision and the support – the rest will come together.’

Looking forward, Niki will be taking herself and her team further into the continent. ‘I really believe in growing an agritech business that has a sense of social purpose; that has the ability to positively influence Africa and its people. I want to bring the world’s technology to African farms and create opportunities for people, entrepreneurs and startups. We want to break the mould.’

It’s no small order, but with Niki’s drive the mould’s days are surely numbered.

Connect with Nici on LinkedIn.


Are you a passionate African and innovation leader? If you’re CEO of a leading and ambitious African company, or an executive tasked with building innovation capability, why not consider joining the Creative Leadership Collective? Contact Paul Steenkamp and he’ll answer your questions and/or guide you through the application process.