Brothers Andy and Francky Vanparys, Head of Business Development and CEO of SCE, see their life’s work as being about much more than building square silos around the world. ‘Too much food is wasted today due to poor storage. We pay a high price for that, and the bill is mounting up all the time.’
Everyone’s talking about sustainability these days. What does it mean to you?
Andy Vanparys: ‘According to the forecasts, by 2050 there will be 9 billion of us humans on this planet. That represents a major challenge for us all. Not just for us personally, but also for a business such as ours, and for the entire food industry. A huge amount of food is wasted at present. That waste has a very considerable impact, including on the climate. It’s something we need to sort out together.’
Francky Vanparys: ‘Our planet isn’t getting any bigger, yet there will soon be far more of us. That means we’ll have less space to do everything. That’s the challenge. When we produce food, we need space to do so. If we then let that food go to waste, we will have wasted space and energy.’
Andy: ‘If we don't find solutions to provide our food more efficiently, we basically have a big problem on our hands. It’s as simple as that. We’ve got ten more years, no more. Ten years to combat food waste and bring our food chain under control.’
How can SCE make a difference to this?
A: ‘At present we waste one third of the food that’s produced. And that happens in each of the different phases in the food chain. At SCE, we’re active in a small part of that food chain: storage and transport. That phase is crucial, though: sixteen percent of food is lost shortly after harvest due to poor storage, through vermin, moisture, bacteria and other factors. We build safe, hygienic storage that’s moisture-free and extends vertically.’
F: ‘A lot of food spoils because remnants are left behind in the storage place. These remnants rot, and the products that go in afterwards become contaminated too. Our silos are designed to ensure that they are emptied out completely: nothing is left behind, and that’s extremely important. We also build on a much smaller area than others. We build square silos, which means you can store nearly forty percent more in the same space than with round silos.’
Is innovation the answer in your sector too?
A: ‘Definitely. We’ve optimised our designs by developing a butterfly hopper at the bottom of the silo. We have a patent on that feature, and it’s set a new global standard. The butterfly hopper ensures that the entire mass of product flows out, so you have a self-cleaning silo in which nothing is left behind. It’s the most hygienic environment you can create in a square silo.’
F: ‘In this way we’ve combined the advantages of a round silo with those of a square design. It looks simple, but it isn’t. The diameter of our silos varies in each case depending on what the customer wants. Our engineers’ expertise makes the difference here, ensuring that they always design the perfect solution.’
What are your plans for the future?
F: ‘We always have plans. Innovation has become part of our DNA. But our main intention now is to introduce people all over the world to our square silo solutions.’
A: SCE has grown from Belgium into neighbouring countries, and then we’ve followed our customers everywhere. That’s our journey so far and we have a great track record all over the world. We now want to make that track record better known.’
Where is the need greatest today?
F: ‘Above all in countries where the population has been growing the fastest. Emerging countries. There’s still a lot of work to do in Africa and Asia. We see things there that we might find hard to imagine here. I was in Thailand a while ago, and I visited a company that processes rice – a really big company. The harvest was stored there in large jute bags in a shed. The manager told me that much of the harvest was wasted because mice and rats could get at it. The roof also leaked, causing the rice to get wet and simply rot away. We built our silos there and all the problems were solved immediately. The quality of the rice is just as good after storage as before, and on a third of the area that they previously needed.’
A: ‘We offer efficient solutions for emerging countries that have a big impact locally. In Africa, we've been able to help entire regions make progress by constructing flour mills. They used to import flour and wheat because they couldn't store and process it themselves. With our solutions, food can now be produced and stored there safely. That means not just more and better food, but jobs too, both during construction and afterwards, once the plant is running.
‘In Angola we built a facility with the involvement of a hundred local people. We delivered the components, which were put together like Meccano, overseen by our local supervisor. Now that the facility is in place, it creates a lot of jobs in the region – more than fifty people work in the plant – but it also makes a huge difference because food can now be produced and processed there. What's more, this has also caused food prices to fall because food is produced locally whereas it used to be imported. More and safer food, more jobs, lower food prices, less transport and therefore fewer emissions... our silos have had all these effects in Angola.’
Are we going backwards or forwards in terms of food storage?
F: ‘We’re definitely going forwards, But the mindset is still different in some countries. We have to prevent waste, and that requires a different way of thinking.’
A: ‘In order to make the transition to high-quality storage, investment needs to be made in infrastructure. That requires expertise, and that is often lacking. We try to play a role here. And of course real engagement is needed too. The determination has to be there.’
And is it?
F: ‘Absolutely, especially at large businesses. But there’s still a lot of potential at smaller, local businesses. Things just go wrong there far too often.’
A: ‘We have solutions for them too. That’s the advantage of our modular Meccano system: We can build a facility for a million tons, or for twenty tons. We build as large or as small as necessary. And it’s also easy to expand a small facility later into a larger one. The solution for the future is ultimately a combination of numerous small silos plus the large ones, depending on the region. The sooner food goes into high-quality storage after harvest, the less wastage there will be. The closer we get to the point of harvest, the better.’
F: ‘The local authorities in emerging countries are also getting into that mindset. They are really cooperating.’
A: ‘Local governments are issuing more and more tenders, for example for the construction of infrastructure for centralised local storage of the rice harvest. You can also see a real shift in oil-producing countries. They are having to look for new industries, and the first one they look at is food. We’re seeing a lot of interest in our square silos there.'
The United Nations has various programmes to combat food waste. Do you plan to be involved?
A: ‘Yes, we’re thinking about it. We want to bring the industry together because we’re convinced that we can only solve this big problem together. We’re also taking part in specific projects. What's required there is to provide solutions very quickly for the food crisis that’s taking place, with financial support from the United Nations.
‘At SCE we want to play our part in making the world a better place to live in, and it’s something we’re capable of doing too. Wherever people are willing to think about our children’s future, we can play a role, small though we may be.’
F: ‘If we can help people to change their thinking, we’ve already made a difference, I think. That’s what we’re trying to do, by bringing people together and talking about possible solutions at seminars. Awareness is increasing every day, and everyone’s talking about these issues. There’s just far too much food being wasted today due to poor storage. We pay a high price for that, and the bill is mounting up all the time. It’s something we all need to sort out together.’
You’re active in the West as well as in emerging countries. The challenges there are very different.
F: ‘Definitely. The focus in the West is on efficient use of space, and also on energy efficiency.’
A: ‘You need machinery to produce food. The smaller and more efficient your infrastructure is, the less energy you waste on transport within the factory. We really make a difference there. And during construction too: the faster you can build, the less energy you waste. Our system can be built very quickly, so we make a difference there too. Nobody builds faster than us.’
F: ‘The faster a facility can be put into use, the greater the financial and energy savings.’
A: ‘In addition, more attention than ever is being paid in Western countries to reputational damage. The millennials are better educated than any previous generation, and that means they’re much more critical too. Bad news travels fast today, so hygiene is becoming more and more important. One tweet about food that’s gone off can seriously harm a company.’
F: ‘And we’re not just talking about the food we eat, either. In the past far less attention was paid to animal food, but the hygiene standards there are also much higher today, including for pet food. It’s become just as important as our own diet.’
Do you also economise on energy here in your factory?
F: ‘It’s something we work on every day. For example, we recently started using our own powder coating installation. In the past, components were sent to subcontractors to be sprayed; now we do it ourselves. Firstly, it ensures that we have our entire production process in our own hands, so that we have 100% control over our quality. But it also means that no transport is required during production. By having that powder coating installation in-house, we’re able to keep 1,800 trucks off the roads every year. What’s more, we no longer waste paint with our own system: any surplus product is recovered and reused. And we don’t cause water pollution either.’
A: ‘We export all over the world. Thanks to our modular Meccano system, we also save energy during transport. The components are designed to stack efficiently.’
Francky: ‘If you build a complete silo and then transport it, you’re actually transporting a huge volume of air. We deliberately avoid that.’
A: ‘We do have to travel a lot, but we try to avoid it as much as possible. If we can, we solve this issue by holding meetings via Skype. We also work with local teams for installation, under our supervision. That way we don't have to send teams all over the world all the time.’
Are you also doing something about your personal footprint?
F: ‘I'm trying to, yes. I drive a hybrid car, for instance. And I don't go shopping when I'm hungry, because then I buy too much (laughs).’
A: ‘I clear my plate at meals. And my next car will be an electric one. I’ve just got to agree with my wife which model it will be (laughs). No, seriously, I sometimes talk about this with my children. I recently heard an interesting quote from the CEO of one of our major customers. He said, “Our planet isn’t ours, we’ve just got it on loan from our children.” There’s a lot of truth in that.’