A Digital Vision In Africa To Sustain The Business And Larger Community

Rob Coombe

Part of the “Digital CIO” series showcasing CIOs’ experiences in their companies’ evolution toward the intelligent enterprise

The Kingdom of Eswatini (previously known as Swaziland) is the smallest country in Africa, home to spectacular mountain ranges, forests, and river valleys, brilliant contrasts, and vivid colors. Living here, amid the farms and factories of Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation (RSSC), I am 70 kilometers from the nearest city, close to the stunning Hlane, Mbuluzi, and Mlawula game reserves. I love it.

An economic powerhouse, a sustained community

In other parts of the world, our company might seem unusual in that it is an integral part of the community. RSSC generates electricity and manages seven villages where our 4,200 employees and their families are housed, as well as a prep school, two clinics, and three country clubs. RSSC farms 33,000 hectares of sugar, which is crushed in two mills, producing over 500,000 tons of sugar per year. The company owns and operates the dam on the Mbuluzi River, which supplies water to over a million people downstream in Eswatini as well as Mozambique.

RSSC is, in fact, the biggest private company in Eswatini and represents seven percent of the country’s GDP. Needless to say, it has a massive impact on the economy and acts as a role model. Thus, the company must be profitable; it must manage resources effectively; it must constantly reduce costs; and it must invest wisely. Our vision is to be the leading producer of sugar and energy in Southern Africa. However, our purpose and our social initiatives go far beyond that.

While our model might be unusual, our company has an approach that I believe can serve as a useful example that can apply to any enterprise anywhere embarking on a digital transformation journey.

Foundation for the intelligent enterprise

When I first arrived here eight years ago to take on the role of CIO, RSSC was characterized by underinvestment and underutilization of technology. In 2014, all that changed with the original implementation of SAP ERP and SAP Farm Management by Vistex. Essentially, any back-office process of value takes place using enterprise resource planning. Deploying these solutions has allowed us to plan and execute sugarcane growing and production in a single system with a unified view of operations.

Two years later, however, and faced with falling global sugar prices accompanied by a once-in-a-100-year drought, the company had to find a way to further reduce costs and increase efficiencies. We set out a cost-reduction target of 20% by 2020. We began by asking, “Where are we wasting time and resources? Where are the areas that could be most affected by further investment and innovation?”

This was the start of a major initiative that utilized technology to deliver a strategy to transform RSSC into an intelligent enterprise. One clear answer was to further consolidate infrastructure, operations, and data on one central platform and to create a digital business unit dealing with emerging, intelligent technologies, such as IoT and analytics, which I am overseeing.

The overriding objective was to make real-time information available across a widely dispersed operation and to empower people to make decisions out in the fields and factories. We were confident that we could use digital technologies integrated into business processes to achieve that.

Design thinking to inspire people to change

But making systemic change has to be linked back to people, platforms, and business viability. Toward that end, we kicked off a series of design-thinking workshops involving stakeholders across the company, including farmers and engineers, and facilitated by expert consultants from SAP and partner Britehouse. On the first day, there was a lot of resistance, especially regarding the logistics of how cane is transported. By the second day, the turnaround was amazing, as participants found freedom in the space to express themselves. Ultimately, the workshops established key performance indicators and examined current issues – from data visibility and change management to precipitation – and the future vision.

This was overlaid with IoT technology from SAP, which gathers data, including rainfall and water consumption, across the farms. Sensors and analytics are connected to external sources, including weather stations, providing data from the river every five minutes. In conjunction with information from our SAP ERP system on things such as water consumption patterns and planning data, this enables us to both calculate demand and keep the release of water from the dam at a minimum to reduce wastage. IoT technology is also instrumental for inbound logistics transportation planning, supporting our goal of ensuring an uninterrupted supply of cane to the crushing mill. Avoiding production stoppage – which we call “no cane stops” – is crucial to efficient and profitable operations.

A rush of new ideas

With the tremendous results in improved resource utilization, such as an 80% reduction in production stoppage with no cane stops, the floodgates opened as we recognized other areas to tackle. Our recent initiation into cloud HR solutions has gone well. Using cloud-based recruiting software from SAP, we have cut in half the time to hire new staff, which is critical to the business. Our employees, particularly the younger ones, are taking advantage of cloud-based career-planning and online training tools. The future roadmap encompasses cloud-based procurement and payments and expanded use of satellite imagery.

A model for beginning the intelligent enterprise evolution

And the lessons learned that I mentioned? Begin with a platform; that is very important. Then find a business case where you can apply technology to achieve the specific outcome you have identified. Tie the solution to the process and the process to the people. Consider using integrated solutions from a single vendor, which can produce cost efficiencies and avail you of the additional innovations from that vendor’s ecosystem. That’s especially important in a remote location like ours. Finally, find the right partners, which can make all the difference. Remember, if it’s doable in the bush, it can be done anywhere. You just have to start.

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Learn more about how other innovators are transforming into intelligent enterprises.


Rob Coombe

About Rob Coombe

Rob Coombe is a trained mathematician and physicist, ex-teacher, ex-company owner, now a passionate corporate IT guy who loves delivering business value through IT transformations and projects. He started his IT journey as far back as 1986 with 15 Apple II computers calculating and printing school reports. In between then and now, he taught at schools in Durban and Swaziland, ran his own company doing general IT, networking, school and library systems. He joined the corporate world with a Fortune 500 company, running IT across a global footprint of Pistons plants from China to Argentina. He is now in Eswatini thoroughly enjoying transforming the IT landscape at Royal Swaziland Sugar Corporation to assist the business to achieve its corporate strategy. To change focus, he goes to the bush with his family – walking, cycling, camping, hiking, bird-watching. Bird photography is his passion, and woodworking his hobby.