Mr Jannie de Villiers retires as Chief Executive Officer of Grain South Africa (Grain SA) at the end of August 2021, after a sterling career at the organization’s helm for a decade.

He joined Grain SA in 2011, just after a period of particularly great concern in the global food system. This was a period when prices were rising fastest between 2008 and 2010, in what was later termed the world food crisis. Prior to this, he had spent much of his career in food processing and also had a few stints in public service.

South Africa is not a small country in the global grain market by any stretch. While its maize production volumes might look relatively small compared to China, Brazil and the US, South Africa is the eighth largest maize exporter globally, with an average of 1,8 million tonnes exported per year.

During the period that Mr de Villiers was at Grain SA, he helped to open the organization’s head offices in Pretoria from Bothaville in the Free State, putting it closer to the policymakers to ease lobbying for grains and oilseeds farmer’s interests. This was an effective move as Grain SA has always been represented in policy discussions and contributes to land reform, trade policy, agricultural product standards, and fertilizer, seeds, and fuels regulations.

The results of these engagements have also been demonstrated through improving productivity at the farm level and rising exports, as a consequence of new technologies being approved by regulators in South Africa and successfully adopted by farmers.

If we consider just one major grain commodity, maize, its output increased by 56% over the period Mr de Villiers led Grain SA to an estimated 17,1 million tonnes at his retirement this year.

Mr de Villiers is also a great collaborator and used this skill efficiently to support the growth and development of South Africa’s soybean industry, which has been instrumental in boosting South Africa’s poultry production. Through working with farmers, soybean processors, private investors and the government, the collaborative effort saw South Africa’s soybean crushing capacity increasing from just over half a million tonnes to around 2,2 million tonnes. In response, farmers ramped up soybean production to now estimated 1,92 million tonnes – up 170% from 2011 when Mr de Villiers joined Grain SA.

I first met Mr de Villiers as a student in 2012 attending the Agbiz Congress in the Drakensberg. I quickly noticed his humility and people skills as he even graced our table of shy students, amongst many tables of industry experts to have a conversation and ensure that we were comfortable. We struck a conversation, and he gave me his business card. After emailing him upon my return to Stellenbosch University, he kindly arranged for my job interview at Grain SA, which enabled me to join the organization the following year. He gave me a chance to be of service to the agricultural industry at the early age of 23.

I had the rare privilege of enjoying his guidance, wisdom and mentorship, which was instrumental in shaping my career. During my time at Grain SA, Mr de Villiers provided a conducive environment for learning and allowed one to share their insights with members of the organization and the general public in media and various platforms.

When the research team was stretched and temporarily short-staffed following the departure of some senior economists, I found myself at the deep end of the work with no experience in some tasks. Mr de Villiers, an astute economist by training, would spare his afternoons to work with me in compiling the Supply and Demand estimates of South Africa’s grains and oilseeds market. Important, this was during a drought period, and the policymakers and public were eager to receive Grain SA’s guidance about the country and the region’s grain supplies. These were particularly great learning moments that provided me with expertise that I still apply in the soft commodity markets.

Mr de Villiers’ focus on the development of black farmers saw Grain SA open its first-ever offices in the Eastern Cape and various provinces to serve all farmers and ensure a good pull of black farmers in the sector.

His efforts on this end have yielded mixed results as the data from the National Agricultural Marketing Council tell us that black farmers still contribute a mere 4,7% share in commercial maize production in South Africa. Still, at a smallholder level, the productivity of farmers that were part of the Grain SA Farmer Development programme increased from around 1,7 tonnes per hectares to 4,0 per hectare, according to Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP).

South Africa’s grains and oilseeds industry gained prominence and success in production volumes and contributed to food security over the past decade. This, in part, is a testimony to the work of Mr de Villiers. The food security benefits are not just for South Africa but Southern Africa at large. His retirement from Grain SA is an end of an illustrious era.

On a personal level, Mr de Villiers is also a great mentor on life in general and religious issues. He always encourages us to keep the faith, pray and work hard. As he steps down from his corporate responsibilities, we will have more time to engage him on this particular side of mentorship.

Meneer de Villiers, I wish you well in your retirement!

An edited version of this article first appeared on Business Day, 30 August 2021

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