Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Feronia Inc.: Bringing a Company Together with Google Apps

Founded in 2008, agricultural enterprise Feronia Inc. has spent the last several years pursuing a far-reaching ambition: to develop large-scale, sustainable agriculture in Africa. Based in the Democratic Republic of Congo and with a network covering thousands of square miles, Feronia is a formidable operation that has quickly built itself a prominent reputation within the DRC and beyond— it is not only one of the largest employers in the DRC, but also the first African agri-business to be listed on a North American Stock Exchange.

Of course, overseeing such a large network of 4000 employees spread throughout a developing nation larger than the size of Western Europe that includes three palm oil plantations, a farming operation, and headquarters in Kinshasa, was a sizable task for the company in the beginning.

“There were virtually no communications [systems] on the plantations– it was very ad hoc.” says Bill Dry, Chief Executive Officer of Feronia. Everything from daily operational demands like time logs to “big picture” details like the refurbishment of the plantations were stalled again and again by a lack of a manageable and comprehensive system of communication across the enterprise.

“If you can imagine,” Dry elaborates, “these plantations have been operating for 100 years in very remote locations… to run our business on a daily basis we need information and reporting.”

Making day to day operations manageable… in a country the size of Western Europe

Feronia decided to reach out to Interlockit for a viable and sustainable solution, and found it with Google Apps. “We made a strategic decision to [migrate] on to Google,” says Dry. “It was the best solution for our company and in the region. With 4000 people, we have payrolls to do, cash to move around… we need up-to-date numbers to do our business. In the past, this was a very difficult thing to do. Now, we’ve got the daily input we need to manage our business.” 

The retrofit of the plantations was also facilitated by the transition. “With a big refurbishment program and bringing equipment in from overseas, we have to schedule all of our plans and paperwork… Before, this was taking a long time to filter down to headquarters— now we can get [the information] on a daily basis.”

Enjoying the benefits of communication

An unexpected benefit of migrating to Google Apps was what it did for company morale. Many of Feronia’s managers are based in rural areas on-site at plantations and isolated from their families in the capital city of Kinshasa. The flexibility of Google Apps communication interface has made it dramatically easier for these key players to stay in touch with their families. This has eliminated stress and increased productivity for the company. “In addition to being an excellent communication tool, [Gmail] is also a very good social tool,” says Dry, “It means that our workers are more content working there.”

Plus, with Google Apps the company is able to fulfill an obligation not only to its employees, but also to the 45,000 people who live within the vicinity of their plantations. “We are the only business in those regions… we have a lot of people relying on us. Prior to us taking over, there were no communications in place for those workers.” Now with Google Apps in place, the company is able to support a communication infrastructure for the entire community. This has resulted in some considerable savings for the company, according to Dry. “When you have had zero communication, just the delay of trying to operate on a daily basis has a huge [financial] impact on the business.” Since implementing Google Apps to facilitate daily operations and communications, the company has experienced thousands of dollars in cost savings on a monthly basis. 

Google Apps also helped facilitate relationships with current and potential shareholders outside the DRC, according to Sangeet Sood, President & CEO of Osaka Capital, the firm that handles Feronia’s investor relations. “We track all conversations with investors [with Google Apps] through our CRM,” says Sood, “that’s how we do a lot of our outreach. Everything is connected seamlessly from our email into our database of contacts which is thousands of names, actually. The integration has made it very easy to successfully communicate with our investors.”

Looking to a productive future with a sustainable solution 

In the end, one of the biggest assets for Feronia in partnering with Google Apps is that, as an agri-business focused on sustainability, Feronia was able to align itself with a solution in lockstep with its company ethos. Feronia has always been focused on pursuing a green agenda in its operations across its enterprise and was pleased to be able to eliminate the need (and energy drain) of extensive servers by pursuing an environmentally efficient cloud-based strategy with Google Apps.

Moving forward, Feronia sees Google Apps as the right fit for expanding the company’s business and operations. Plans are in place to grow Feronia’s farming operation using a Brazilian model of farming that is new to the DRC— a user-friendly and comprehensive communication system is just what Feronia needs to make this work. Plus, Google Apps flexibility and user-friendly structure is a system that Feronia knows it can grow with, whether they are relying on young, tech-savvy graduates or older management who are unfamiliar with technology. “We know as we move forward that more people in the company will use it more, understand it more and we’ll benefit more.”

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