SABA Industries Group
The Business of Agriculture magazine interacted with Asia’s emerging philanthropist, Ms Malini Saba, a self-made businesswoman, who has helped millions of underserved women, farmers and children in South and Southeast Asia, South America, Africa and the US. In this interview, she provided us with the insights of her company and she is planning to expand her business in India.
Please tell us about your journey of becoming a $1.5 billion company.
Our journey started 26 years ago. We started as an investor, and then we entered into a commodity business. Initially, we started this business with iron ore only and then slowly, we expanded our business into other metals and agriculture. During this journey, we endured failures, but with a sheer determination, we pulled ourselves out of it. How did you conceive the idea of starting this company?
I wanted to work for myself. I had the vision to make enough to be comfortable and not to be dependent on anyone for income. Also, I have a passion for agricultural commodities, such as rice, and natural resources because they are essential for human existence. Being an entrepreneur, both success and failure are on your lap, but it is a fact that there is no success without failure. It is because of the hurdles and failures you learn the basics to build a true business on a solid foundation.
Put some light on your agriculture business model?
Agriculture is a very important sector as far as the food is concerned. This sector is very much dependant on Mother Nature, but it is that era where we can master the skills and perform well.
As per our model, we work with the farmers and the distributors. We strongly believe that it is very important to empower the farmers we work with because they are the ones, who feed the world. We provide infrastructure and technology to the farmers to enable them to increase their production. The less time they spend on the field harvesting, the quicker they can sell their product; and therefore, they can reinvest their time and money in the next crop. This also helps to improve crop production as well as crop yield.
Saba Industry is exporting 5,00,000 tons of rice worldwide. Please tell us about other agriculture commodities that you are trading.
In addition to rice, we also operate in palm oil, cashew and wheat businesses.
We use the same model for all the products.
Saba Industries is going to invest $100 million in the rice sector of India and Thailand. Why have you chosen India for this and what do you think would be the major challenges in this sector?
Agriculture is the most important sector of the Indian economy because India has a huge and vast agriculture space. India is known as a breadbasket and it is the world’s largest producer of pulses, rice, wheat, spices and other agriculture products. We feel that investing in India’s agriculture sector would help to streamline the system. One of the things we discovered in India is that the drying capacity is quite limited despite the presence of a number of mills. So, we are planning to install large dryers with good operational capacities. Also, our plan is to export rice by partnering with local farmers. Working with us would help farmers to have a quick turn-around from planting to harvest.
I think one of the major challenges would be to gain the trust of the farmers. Other than this, in countries like India, transportation and warehousing are the major challenges in the agriculture sector.
Saba Industries, the global exporter of agricultural commodities, is planning to enter warehousing and drying space in India’s rice sector. From which region of India, are you planning to start your first phase and what are your expansion plans?
We are planning to start our first phase in Uttar Pradesh. After Uttar Pradesh, we are planning to replicate the same model in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and other states over the next 18 to 24 months.
Will you be partnering with the Indian farmers as you did in other south-east Asian countries? How will you support farmers?
Yes, the only way to do this business is to partner directly with the farmers. We have various methods for doing this and it will depend on the farmer’s needs in particular states. We are aware that we will be working with farmers with different cultural backgrounds, we respect the cultural norms in each area and we also understand that we need to work within those perimeters.
We are planning to support farmers in India with free farm equipment and fertilisers. We will work on a model where we will procure their rice and we will get it processed at local mills.
What made you create success stories in these countries?
We have had a huge success in Cambodia and Vietnam. We followed practices like, we started by studying the terrain as we use to do before we embarked on any new jurisdiction. In these countries, we interacted with the local farmers and allowed them to educate us to understand their needs. After understanding their requirements, we provided necessary help and infrastructure to the farmers, because of which, they had a higher yield, better crops, and shorter harvest times.
What has been the impact of your business model on the lives of farmers?
We help farmers to have better livelihoods. As per our agriculture model, we are partnering with the local farmers, so they directly get money from us. Our model also helps to reduce their debts. We identify all the possible reasons/causes of the farmer’s debts. We either try to help them settle their debts or enable them to have a better yield to make them self-sufficient.
Saba group encourages women to find opportunity in everything. What are you doing for gender equality in the workplace and what do you think needs to be done?
We try to hire as many women as possible. We also encourage women employees to take further studies to better themselves to be able to earn more. We provide basic infrastructure to help them such as; our offices have childcare facilities, where women can bring their children along with them to the workplace. This way they don’t feel stressed and they can work better.
I feel women should be paid equally to men. I also believe that hiring a woman employed in management can bring a different balanced perspective to the work environment.
What was the idea behind starting a Saba family foundation? Please tell us about its vision.
Saba Family Foundation (SFF) began soon after I made my first million. I strongly believe in giving back to society. Moreover, I also have a special corner for women and children. I grew up in a time when women were not holding high positions in work and there were very few entrepreneurs. SFF fought for women’s legal rights and health rights. We believe that if you help a woman you help the community and the nation.
She will always find a way to feed her baby. We were aware that education is the key; therefore we wanted to work with the partners who could enable women by educating them. At present, we are working with partners to push mandates and policy on bullying. This goes across gender as well as children in workplaces, schools and inside homes.
What is the global sentiment for commodity business?
The commodity sector was a hit in the past years and I believe it will further rise in the coming years.
What is the growth percentage of Saba Industries?
Over the last three years, our growth rate has been 33 percent. Let’s hope we keep that up!
Please tell us about your future vision?
We are aiming to bring technology to the agriculture sector. I believe, in future, the technology will have a great impact on the ways the crops are being produced. It will also improve the efficiency and the yield potential. Technology will bring a new revolution in the agriculture sector, as we have already witnessed this in the past. The agriculture sector is emerging with the help of technology and it will continue to get better and more improved over the years to come.