Agriculture is our backbone

A conversation with Karel W. Valken, Global Head Trade & Commodity Finance (“TCF”) Agri for Rabobank

Good morning Karel, could you tell me a little bit about Rabobank and it’s involvement in agriculture?

Rabobank is cooperative bank that emerged from small agricultural cooperative banks founded by Dutch farmers. We have Members but no shareholders.

Agriculture is our backbone. We understand the seasonality and the complexity of farming. As a cooperative it can be a challenge to raise enough capital, and for that reason we tend to be conservative. But the advantage of not being listed is that we can take a longer-term view of the business; we can be more patient. We are perhaps more focused than other banks on contributing to the wellbeing of society.

I saw from your website that your mission statement is “Growing a better world together.”

I recently did a presentation to the bank’s executive board where I looked at the mission statements of the ABCD+ group. They all had similar statements. We are aligned.

Growing” stands for sustainable, healthy growth, development and progress. “A Better World” goes beyond our clients, employees, and members and includes our communities and our associations. “Together” is important because, as a cooperative bank, we believe in the power of coalitions. Our strength lies in connecting people and knowledge. It is much more than an empty slogan!

This mission is part of our Banking for Food (“B4F”) strategy. It entails the meaningful role we want to play in food transition, and how we can help feed the 9 billion people that will be on this planet in 2050, while respecting planetary boundaries.

In terms of sustainable financing, which commodity presents the greatest challenges?

If you look at my area of responsibility, most challenges are in cocoa and coffee, simply because of their level of complexity and the need to improve the livelihood for smallholders. We spend a lot of time on those two commodities, even though they are much smaller in terms of volume than grains and oilseeds.

Our challenge is to stop deforestation and prevent climate change, while at the same time feed the world: how can those two objectives coexist? We have to embed sustainability in the business and our daily thinking. Our “sustainable toolkit” includes services & financing from Rabo Foundation/Rural Fund but also the Fund we established with United Nations called “Agri3” to combat deforestation and enhance livelihood of smallholder farmers.

Do you think a time will come when Rabobank will only finance commodities that are certified as sustainable?

This year we were the sustainability coordinator of a $2.5 billion Revolving Credit Facility with green features. Customers are getting discounts on the interest rates they pay as long as they meet certain sustainability criteria. I would not be surprised going forward if companies that are not green, or less green, they will still get financing, but they will have to pay a premium.

It is different for palm oil. The consumer pressure is different. We do not finance companies that are not RSPO members. We may sometimes make an exception if a company is not RSPO certified as long as it is committed to become RSPO certified, and has put the correct milestones in place. We can help them on that journey.

Could you describe a typical TCF finance?

TCF has traditionally meant, “transactional financing,” where we would finance, say, a Ukrainian wheat exporter to purchase wheat from farmers and to export it. We can finance the wheat from the moment it is in an upcountry silo though until the importer’s Letter of Credit is opened and cashed.

We make an important distinction for the ABCD+ group—the seven companies covered by your book. The ABCD+s each have individual credit ratings within the bank, which allows for unsecured financing. We provide them with anything up to $1.5 billion in working capital that they can use throughout the globe for different purposes. We do not finance them on a transactional basis. That is why the distinction between ABCD+ companies and non-ABCD+ companies is so important.

How do you see your business evolving in the future?

There are two strategic drivers for our agri-clients: sustainability and innovation.

We divide innovation into two categories: food and feed innovation and digital innovation. The first is to meet changing consumer demands. For example, Dreyfus recently invested in a company producing fake blood from beet for vegetarian burgers. We help our clients with this type of innovation through our franchise. We have a platform called FoodBytes, headquartered in California, which looks at the innovation needed to meet changing consumer demands. We help our clients with start-ups and their incubation to take them to the next step.

On the technical/digital innovation side, we have embedded in our teams a number of people who are looking at, say, Blockchain or robotics. If you look at Dreyfus again, they recently signed a joint partnership with a big e-commerce platform in China, which they will use to sell their brand of soybean oil.

Traditional TCF is changing. The amount of due diligence that we now have to do is such that smaller merchants will have increasing difficulty in obtaining financing. We do not have the mandate to do business with companies with a capital below $25 million, simply because the income we can create from this kind of client is too small—and the risk is too big.

The world’s population is growing and international trade will have to play an increasing role in keeping people fed. International traders will continue to have a role despite disintermediation and the democratisation of information. Their role will be in logistics and risk management, and having a large global footprint will allow them to maintain optionality in the chain.

Thank you Karel for taking the time to share your experience with us!

© Commodity Conversations ®

This is a short extract of an interview to be published in my upcoming book.

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