Tony Dever of Australia's iSeeds spoke to Madaline Dunn about navigating turbulent times, his positive outlook on the pulses industry and his decision to establish a business focused solely on pulses.
A veteran of the pulses industry, Tony Dever comes from a family of pulse enthusiasts and has been involved in the industry for nearly three decades. With a wealth of experience in pulses, holding numerous committee roles over the years, including at the Australian Mungbean Association, Tony decided to set up iSeeds to focus on trading pulses.
Tell me about yourself and iSeeds, how did it all start and what pulses do you specialize in?
I come from a family that operated a seed and pulse company and we were one of the largest mung bean exporters in Australia. I gained my experience working in that arena, and became very passionate about pulses and was especially interested in how we could add value to them. At that time, we built the very first mung dahl splitting plant here in Australia. The idea was to give growers a base-level price where we could buy their poorer grade mung beans and then supply quality products for the export and domestic market. Through that, we stabilized the market, which enhanced the mung bean industry in Australia.
iSeeds Australia started up last year to concentrate on specialized pulse crops like adzuki beans, black turtle beans, borlotti beans, cowpeas, kidney beans and our staple product of mung beans. They're grown in Australia and, right now, we're concentrating on servicing the domestic market with our specialized pulse production.
Mung beans are the main commodity we deal with and, this year, they will mostly be exported to China. We sell them from all different parts of the world and have operations in Australia, as well as joint ventures and partnerships in other countries with like-minded, innovative companies - we work together to establish and supply markets. The kind of customers we deal with need consistent, reliable quality for their sprouting, processing, and high-end product manufacturing and iSeeds has worked tirelessly to develop a quality-focused supply chain to maximize the integrity of the product so that our clients can go to market with full confidence.
What was the motivation behind starting up the company and how was the experience of launching during such a turbulent time?
My family still owns the tropical pasture seed company I mentioned, and I was continuing to service my export customers with pulses, but in the pulse business, you really need to give it your full attention on a full-time basis as it can move so quickly. So, we decided to separate and create iSeeds to focus solely on pulses, serving the customers we've had for many, many years. It's been a fairly easy transition into this new business because I know what the customers are looking for.
So far, we've produced enough specialized pulse products to service our domestic clients, and we will continue to increase our production to expand to our export markets. In total, we hope to break through the 1,000 container region in 2023/2024 - this is inclusive of our Australian and international supply chains.
The mung bean market is set to grow significantly by 2029. What are your thoughts on this and what do you think it says about changing global diets?
We foresee growth not only in the mung bean market, as we discover more uses for them, but also in the general plant protein market, too. In the pulse industry, you are directly affected by people's diets and, like all human behavior, diet is influenced by a range of external pressures. Currently, plant protein is receiving a lot of attention and is becoming an important part of people's diets, not only for health reasons but for environmental reasons, too. Over time, these things tend to balance out but the renewed understanding of the many benefits that not only mung beans but pulses, in general, have to offer us means that this is a trend that is likely to continue.
It's definitely something that's taken off in the last couple of years - I'm not sure if the pandemic has expedited it - but now, everywhere you look, there's a plant-based substitute. Of course, in Australia, the movement is really gaining momentum also. All the major fast-food restaurants are providing plant-based options and trying to get a slice of that market share. Although it's a relatively small percentage of the menus, it's still on an upward trajectory and is certainly being pushed forward by the younger generations.
It sounds like you're very aware of the importance of driving forward sustainability in business.
Yes, we're certainly heading that way. We're investigating partnerships with several people and looking into carbon credits, too. Sustainability is becoming a really big focus in farming. I think that you've got to get involved to move forward with progress, otherwise, you'll be left behind.
India has just restricted mung bean imports. Considering they're the main pulse you deal with, what are your thoughts on this?
Yes, the announcement was a little unexpected but not necessarily surprising. In this industry, government policies are just another factor that can significantly influence markets and is something we have to navigate. Australia wasn't totally dependent on India as an export destination for our mung bean crop but it does mean that other mung bean productions throughout the world will need to find an alternative home. Therefore, our prices may come under a little pressure, especially lower grade products.
How are you dealing with the shipping crisis? What opportunities are you seeing?
Exporting to China has been reasonable so far, but if you go off the beaten track, it's trickier. For one, the cost has been exorbitant and transit times have been hard to negotiate with buyers as well. I find, however, as long as we're upfront with buyers and tell them what the situation is, we can navigate through most of those problems.
We're experienced in handling obstructions to our markets, and the shipping issues are just another factor that needs to be considered when exporting goods. I think the shipping issues, especially the lack of physical containers, have created more opportunities for the larger companies who have the ability to investigate the feasibility of bulk shipping options.
Your pulses are sourced through both your own farming operations and grower networks. How have you navigated the labor shortage, and what role is automation playing?
We're always looking for new ways to address the labor shortage, especially here in Australia, and automation in agriculture is definitely a strong trend globally. As we operate in many countries, we see it developing at different rates and for different reasons. We're having trouble keeping staff here because wage prices seem to be going up and up.
We've now got robots involved in packaging and loading pallets into containers. Of course, it wasn't that long ago that it was all done by hand. It's important that we adapt, otherwise, it becomes financially challenging to achieve the results you want. We try to treat it on a case-by-case basis and maximize our use of technology where we can and when it is practical to do so.
I know you're really invested in R&D. Can you tell me more about that and your research?
We've got a few varieties we're working on at the moment that we've not released to the public yet. We also work with breeders looking to produce products that the consumer is looking for; for example, if they want larger beans or a different color, we can explore different breeding aspects to create that. We cross different genetics to try to achieve this for our clients. It works the same way with farmers - they might be looking for a bean that is a high-yielding prospect, one that's more drought-tolerant or less susceptible to disease.
Agriculture has sometimes been called biological warfare in its purest form. We are always battling some disease or pest. Our research is focused on maximizing the consumer's experience by producing a healthy, clean and useful product. We have a number of production areas and, as a result, are aware of the different challenges faced by our suppliers. So, we collate this data and focus our R&D efforts on helping to solve these issues while at the same time lining that up with consumer feedback to maximize the end product. By doing this, the value chain remains intact for continuity in quality supply.
What are your thoughts on rising nitrogen prices?
There is an old saying: "Nothing cures high prices like high prices." Nitrogen is a global market that, like all things, is subject to volatility. The shipping issues are compounding this volatility at the moment as well and Covid is added on top of that - we are still understanding what extra volatility the situation in Russia has added to the mix.
What are your reflections on the industry and your projections for the company?
I think we'll continue to navigate through these difficult times. Having just returned from the Dubai Gulfood 2022 Expo, I believe the business confidence is already at a higher level than the previous six months. Everyone is getting back on board. We'll continue to work with our stakeholders and partners overseas and release what the market requires.