Melissa van der Merwe represented the University of Pretoria's Department of Agricultural Economics, Extension and Rural Development at the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association (IFAMA) Conference in Miami, Florida, from 17–21 June 2017. Van der Merwe, a PhD student, did her Department proud by not only presenting results from her PhD in the academic track of the conference, but also being part of the case study team representing South African Universities, which won IFAMA's International Student Case Study Competition.
This competition, now in its 12th year, brings together students from around the world to demonstrate their investigative and problem-solving skills to provide innovative solutions to practical problems. The competition provides a global stage for students and their universities to showcase the next generation of agribusiness leaders. The Case Study Competition consists of two rounds. In the preliminary round, teams of between three and five students are expected to work through a complex case study in four hours. The teams receive a real-world challenge, in case-study format, from a leading agribusiness. They are then required to develop a creative and practical solution to the problem and build a presentation that communicates their solution to a panel of judges. Six teams are subsequently selected to participate in the final round where an addendum to the case is provided. Teams are allowed another four hours to work on the elaborated case, and once again present their innovative solutions to a panel of judges. The panel for the final round includes representatives of the agribusiness featured in the case study.
This year the featured agribusiness was Bayer Crop Science. Although the company managed to expand their global footprint through their Food Chain Partnership, they faced some challenges to expansion in emerging economies through small-scale farmers. Being from the African continent, Van der Merwe and her team not only understood Bayer's unique challenge, but could also pre-empt some of the potential problems faced by agribusinesses that want to grow their footprint in emerging economies. This gave them a competitive advantage in going head-to-head with some of the best universities in the world.
The South African team's presentation titled 'Selling Lindiwe's story' told the story of a female small-scale cassava farmer in Mozambique who, after the passing of her husband, was the main breadwinner. In this situation, the South African team indicated how Bayer could play a major role in not only selling chemicals to these farmers but more importantly in changing the stories of small-scale farmers like Lindiwe. They recommended a strategic partnership with ABInBev, the main off-taker for the cassava produced by these small-scale farmers, who use the product as a cheaper beer-base substitute. They also recommended a local partner, Value Chain Insights (a fictional company owned and managed by the South African team), that understood the political, social and economic environment of these emerging countries and could facilitate the relationships between Bayer and their small-scale farmers.
According to the panel of judges, the innovative approach and motivations for investing in strategic partnerships with ABInBev and Value Chain Insights, proposed by the South African team, went beyond financial benefits, to also include corporate social responsibility and overall rural development. Lindiwe's story was, however, the decisive factor. The South African team was the only team to put a face and a story to the often invisible small-scale farmers. The judges felt that the South African team stood out in that they understood the challenges faced, not only by the small-scale farmers but also by the agribusinesses wanting to expand in emerging economies.
When asked about their experience, the South African team said that they focused on each team member's strengths and experiences and just did their best. Their secret weapon and advice to future student teams is, 'Think outside the box!'