PHC – Growing Prosperity
Plantations et Huileries du Congo (PHC) is a food palm oil and plant kernel oil producer based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, working across several different regions of the country.
This agribusiness company is not just producing palm oil; it is providing a vital piece of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s economic infrastructure. It is a company that has existed for well over a century under various owners before coming under the ownership of the Democratic Republic of Congo itself. The government owns a 23.83 % share in the company, alongside a consortium of majority shareholders.
“The company has 6,500 full-time employees, 80% of whom are assigned to plantation operations,” says Monique Gieskes, who has been Managing Director of PHC since February 2021. “We have a robust ESG programme which supports all our sustainability initiatives and programs and stakeholder engagement with the community. The company operates amid local communities in several regions of the DRC.”
PHC is engaged in challenging work, with its plantations situated in remote locations a long way from the company’s main consumption centres.
“Our products are distributed to three main customers, and the Congo River plays an important role in the distribution of our oil,” Gieskes tells us. “We have three industrial mills, and we transport palm oil along the Congo River to facilities where is it offloaded to our customers.”
As the largest employer in the DRC other than the country’s government, PHC is much more than just another industrial production company; it also produces the highest quality product.
“When you come to our product itself, our palm oil is manufactured in industrial quantities with the lowest acidity that you will find in the market,” Gieskes says. “It is milled in a closed circuit which means it does not come into contact with oxygen, creating premium quality oil. We also produce plant kernel oil for which we are a high-grade carrier.”
PHC operates among many local communities, particularly with its main estates, the largest of which comprises 9,000 widely dispersed hectares.
“There are communities living between and around those 9,000 hectares,” Gieskes explains. “That means it is important to maintain communication with the chiefs of local populations. We are continually engaged with them through our social governance team. We have a very important community engagement program to make sure we maintain constant communication between the operation and the community.”
Gieskes emphasises the importance of those relationships, as well as PHC’s responsibility to maintain them due to its tentpole position in the country’s economy.
“We are the only big operation in the region, and there can be social tension around the company because of that,” she admits. “We cannot provide work for everyone, so we need to have community development programmes to engage communities around different projects. For example, we support the community with activities such as cereal, fishing, and poultry farming so that communities have other means of income and can become financially autonomous.”
Meanwhile, who gets employed directly by PHC itself is a matter of much scrutiny, and transparency is paramount.
“When we need to recruit employees that will be assigned to roles such as harvesting or weeding or general activities regarding guarding or maintaining the plantation, we make a public announcement that we’re recruiting and include the specifications of the profile we’re looking for,” Gieskes says. “We make announcements to the local communities because our workers need to come from those communities.”
The efforts to recruit locally and fairly go beyond simply publishing job adverts locally, however.
“We have a committee where each candidate can make an application in writing. Then the committee has stakeholders including representatives of the community and the shareholders’ representatives, to ensure transparency over who is recruited,” Gieskes explains. “We look for the best candidate with experience or potential to become a guard or worker within the facility. This is very important to the community. They want to make sure we include the members of the community and do not recruit from further afield, and we make sure we reflect that in our hiring procedure. We want to be transparent, so they feel they are treated well.”
Sometimes, however, the company requires specialist skills, particularly in agronomy.
“We teach at the agronomic school in Yangambi, RDC, which helps us identify candidates,” Gieskes says. “We are also establishing an elective training facility called ‘PHC Academy’ that will provide courses in agronomy, production improvement, literacy, English proficiency, and computer science.”
Connecting Across the Democratic Republic of Congo
While it is important to PHC that it sources its people locally, the rest of the business’s supply chain is far longer.
“Our other main challenge is logistics because we operate in fairly remote areas,” Gieskes says. “We have learned to work in those circumstances. We import heavy machinery and heavy equipment from all around the world to build and maintain our mills.”
When PHC needs to transport goods, people, or equipment to areas the roads cannot reach, the company will use other forms of transport.
“The roads can be extremely difficult to navigate, especially once it has rained. So, we plan months ahead to get resources, materials, and equipment to where they need to be, while also using the Congo River,” Gieskes says. “To get our teams to the plantation, we send them by commercial flight to the nearest large town or city. From there, they take the boats on the river. From the nearest city, it takes about four hours on the river to get to our closest plantation and then another four hours to the next plantation after that.”
It is clear, talking with Gieskes, that she has big plans for the company’s future, aiming to create bigger yields for the company, the country, and its people.
“In the future of the company we see opportunities to increase our yield per hectare with the same trees and the same surface coverage,” Gieskes says. “By increasing our yield, we can increase productivity and double our production without deforestation. We will apply improved procedures and fertilisers to increase our yield.”
While PHC increases its crop yield, it will also look for new places to sell its product.
“We’re looking at potential markets for expansion, but I also want to say the Congolese government has launched an initiative to transform the agriculture sector of the DRC, and PHC will be part of that programme as a seed supplier,” Gieskes says. “We can contribute to the national transformation of agriculture.”