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All about agribusiness: Q&A with Accenture’s Jennifer Helle

How digital technology and the ecosystem business model are transforming the agribusiness industry.
Jennifer Helle
Jennifer Helle
Managing Director – Global Agribusiness Lead
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How does Accenture define the agribusiness industry?
When we look at the agribusiness value chain, we define it as all the steps required to deliver food to a consumer. This includes the full ecosystem from planting (both seeds and agrichemicals) to harvest and finally realization through wholesale, distribution and retail. Since regional policy heavily influences the business of agriculture, we also incorporate insurance and public sector considerations in our comprehensive view of the industry.

What are the key challenges currently facing the industry?
Like most industries, agribusiness has been impacted by the slowdown in the global economy, and it is no secret that the industry is cyclical. Currently, the industry is facing a period of low commodity prices, which makes it difficult for the farming community—big and small farmers alike—to be profitable.

The challenging economic conditions are likely contributing to the increased merger and acquisition (M&A) activity we are seeing in the industry. As consolidation continues to make headlines on a regular basis, agribusiness companies are asking themselves some key questions as they look to define their strategic place in the broader market. Where does my company currently sit in the agribusiness ecosystem and is this a sustainable, differentiated and competitive position? What steps do we need to take to survive current market conditions and position ourselves for future success? How do we ensure that we’re on the path to becoming a high performance agribusiness company?

To some degree, the challenges of the industry are regionally based. Large farmers in North America have the huge responsibility of “feeding the world,” and they are continually looking for ways to operate more efficiently and effectively. Smaller farms in emerging markets that are the lifelines of their communities often struggle to get access to the tools and practices that yield the best food supply for end consumers.

Lastly, there is ever-growing pressure on agribusiness companies, from consumers and government, to be environmentally friendly and make sustainability a top priority. As with most industries, there is room for improvement in this area. However, the agribusiness industry has already responded in several ways, including the use of technology to create advanced products like drought-resistant seeds and agrichemicals that leave minimal residue.

Where are the key areas of opportunity?
By far, digital is creating the most opportunity for agribusiness companies, and the numbers show it. There has been a significant rise in money spent on “agricultural technology” over the past few years and further increases are expected in the future.

From telematics on farming equipment to mobile solutions, the digital transformation of agribusiness has begun. Interestingly, digital’s biggest impact to date has been its ability to connect all the players in the ecosystem, from private organizations to governmental agencies, farmers and consumers. Accenture’s Precision Agriculture Service and Connected Crop Solution is one platform being used to facilitate these “connections.”

The benefits of this enhanced “interconnectedness” serve the individual players as well as the broader industry. Each player is empowered to optimize their part of the value chain. With new technologies, for example, even small farmers have access to data that allows them to make better decisions about their yield. In turn, the participation of all players in an open and agile ecosystem moves the entire industry forward, bringing opportunities for innovation and growth.

What sparked your passion for agribusiness?
I’ve been with Accenture for almost 30 years, starting my career in our life sciences industry group and working with our clients in the agriculture, chemicals and natural resources industries over the past several years. The combination of this professional experience and the personal demands of raising three boys has made me increasingly more intrigued about the complexity of delivering safe food to the world’s growing population. Agribusiness truly touches everyone—those who are rich and poor, and those that live in both developed and emerging markets. In that context, how can one not be passionate!

What keeps you busy outside of work?
When not working, I enjoy spending time with my family. As mentioned, I have three sons—two are Eagle Scouts and hopefully the third will get there soon. It is an honor and a privilege to watch the transformation of young men as they learn how to build effective teams and develop leadership skills.

Our family is also fortunate to have become involved with Canine Partners for Life, an organization that provides and sustains professionally trained service and companion dogs to those in need. We personally saw one of these amazing dogs change someone’s life and will forever stand in awe of the power of canine companionship.