With Russia emerging as one of the world’s largest bread baskets, Evgeny Tugolukov dreams of realising the country’s agribusiness potential in Southeast Asia’s developing markets.
“It’s remarkable for us to be able to participate in the renaissance of Russian agriculture,” said Tugolukov, the Executive Chairman of SGX-listed agrifood producer Don Agro International.
“Our listing in Singapore allows us to gain closer proximity to key high-growth markets in this region, and contributes to our country’s collective effort in reducing shortages in global food supply.”
From a net wheat importer at the turn of century, Russia has gradually transformed into a net wheat exporter since 2015, helped by the rouble’s depreciation and the government’s aim to prioritise self-sufficiency in agricultural output.
Southeast Asia, in comparison, is the world’s largest importer of wheat, as rising per capita incomes and robust population growth spur a shift in consumer tastes towards more wheat-based diets.
“With Southeast Asia’s tropical climate limiting wheat output, domestic production is almost non-existent, meeting less than 1% of demand,” said Tugolukov, who has spent more than two decades of his career holding top management positions in various financial and industrial groups.
“Imports are needed to meet increasing demand for both food and feed uses in the region.”
Don Agro, which listed on SGX Catalist in February 2020, is the first Russian company to trade on Singapore Exchange. It is one of the largest agricultural companies in Russia, principally engaged in the cultivation of crops such as winter wheat, sunflower and corn, as well as the production of raw milk.
The Group’s operations are located in the Rostov region, one of the country’s most fertile regions, situated close to the Azov Sea and Don River, which house major international ports.
Being one of the top farms in terms of milk output in Rostov, Don Agro owns more than 4,000 heads of dairy cattle, including approximately 2,000 milking cows. It has a controlled land bank of more than 50,000 hectares, of which more than 40,000 hectares are arable land, and approximately 14,000 hectares are owned by the Group.
Tugolukov, a graduate of Russia’s Ural Federal University with a Diploma in Economics and Management, bills himself as “a long-term investor”.
In 2008, he founded Singapore-incorporated Strongbow Investments Pte Ltd, which invested in sectors ranging from technology and entertainment, to healthcare, real estate and agriculture, with a geographic focus on Southeast Asia, Russia and Eastern Europe.
In 2012, the former Member of Parliament of the State of Duma of the Russian Federation and former Chairman of the State Duma Committee on Natural Resources acquired Don Agro LLC, a Russian agricultural producer based in the Rostov region.
Don Agro International was then established in Singapore in 2018 by Tugolukov and Marat Devlet-Kildeyev, Don Agro’s current Chief Executive Officer, as a holding company for the Group’s Russian agribusiness.
“When we took over Don Agro, we immediately noticed the potential for wheat and its exports. We strategically focused on this crop and benefitted from its growth, along with the rest of the industry in Russia,” Tugolukov recalled.
Back then, agriculture wasn’t profitable or as popular with investors. But Tugolukov took a contrarian stance, snapping up parcels to build the Group’s land bank. Today, this strategy has paid off – plot prices in Russia have tripled in recent years following huge capital flows into the industry, and as competition for arable land escalated.
Eight years ago, Don Agro’s dairy business was bleeding red ink and on the verge of shuttering. “Based on our visits to several farms in Europe and the US, we adopted industry best practices and identified the key issues that were preventing us from achieving good dairy yields,” Tugolukov said.
“Following changes in technology and processes, but without having to make significant investments, we managed to increase our yields by 2.5 times and turn around our operations.”
Another milestone in the Group’s history was its choice of farming technique.
“Seven years ago, we bet on a modern, eco-friendly, no-till method of growing our crops. This strategy allowed us to minimise the impact of negative weather conditions, as well as maximise revenue and income per hectare,” he noted. “The technique has now been applied to more than 6,000 hectares of our land bank.”
Today, Russia has morphed into an agricultural powerhouse, with bright prospects. In 2019, the country was the world’s largest exporter of wheat, the second-largest producer of sunflower seeds, and the fourth-largest producer of milk. The climate in Southern Russia, and Rostov in particular, has become milder, helping to increase crop yields.
Russia’s Agriculture Ministry has forecast the country will harvest an average 140 million tonnes of grain per year until 2035, up 24% from 2018. Some US$4 billion will also be invested to boost the logistics infrastructure of its grain and feed industries. The anticipated surge in grain production is projected to drive the overall value of Russian agriculture exports to US$45 billion in 2025, double that of 2018 levels.
“We expect Russia to further strengthen its position as the world’s bread basket. The state is committed to supporting the agricultural industry, and more land is slated to be converted to arable fields,” Tugolukov pointed out. “We believe Russia will continue to see a boom in agricultural output.”
And as the industry continues to flourish, land prices will appreciate further, benefitting many of the country’s agribusinesses, he added.
“Despite the current price appreciation, Russian land is still considered undervalued in comparison to many parts of Eastern Europe. This suggests there may be room for more price hikes over the next three to five years.”
Tugolukov remains committed to building Don Agro’s value, systematically over time. The Group will use acquisitions to boost its land bank, while increasing the share of land it owns, as it currently rents a significant number of sites it operates on.
Open to mergers and acquisitions, joint ventures and strategic alliances, the Group is seeking suitable opportunities to expand into high-growth segments in Russia. These include other districts within the Rostov region, as well as the Krasnodar region.
In addition, vertical integration is on the cards, through the building of silos and/or venturing into Southeast Asian markets as a trader.
“Currently, the export-oriented crop processing segment looks very complementary to our operations. This segment will add value and minimise risks to our business,” Tugolukov noted. “In particular, we are exploring the production of sunflower oil, which looks to be a perfect fit.”
“Recent food security challenges – such as maintaining stable crop supplies to countries in Southeast Asia – have highlighted many growth opportunities for Don Agro, particularly in this part of the world,” he added.
Growth momentum, however, has been limited by Don Agro’s storage capacity, which previously stood at about 65,000 tonnes. The Group recently commissioned a total of 30,000 tonnes of new storage capacity across five of its facilities, and will continue to pursue other storage expansion opportunities. The increased capacity will also facilitate its plan to engage in the trading of crops and other commodities, he noted.
Other challenges the Group faces include Russia's shifting demographics, which has sparked labour shortages. “Rural-urban migration trends have resulted in a more competitive labour market in the areas where we operate, and it now costs more to attract and retain talent,” he said.
Changing weather conditions also keep him awake at night. “One of the most important indicators of success in agriculture is yield per hectare, which is significantly dependent on weather conditions,” he pointed out. “When we get unfavourable frosts in April or a lack of precipitation in May, this raises major concerns.”
Tugolukov’s vision is to grow Don Agro into a multi-billion dollar company in terms of revenue and market capitalisation. “Southeast Asia offers tremendous opportunities to realise Russia’s agribusiness ambitions, and I want to make this happen as quickly as possible,” he added.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture, Southeast Asia’s wheat imports in 2013/14 have increased by more than 60% to 26.7 million tonnes in 2018/19, and are forecast to rise to 27.5 million tonnes for 2019/20. Indonesia and the Philippines are the world’s second- and third-leading wheat importers, accounting for about two-thirds of the region’s wheat imports.
Work aside, the 50-year-old father of a boy, two girls, and one more on the way places a huge premium on family life. He considers himself a traditionalist when it comes to core values.
“Integrity and honesty are at the top of my list – I try to lead by example and require my employees to do the same, to keep their word in all things,” he said.
Staying positive is another mantra. “Maintaining a positive mindset helps me to make correct and optimal decisions when running the business,” Tugolukov added.
“I encourage my team to adopt this positivity regardless of circumstances, and to make the best of each and every situation that arises.”
Don Agro International Ltd
Don Agro is one of the largest agricultural companies in the Rostov region in Russia, principally engaged in the cultivation of agricultural crops and production of raw milk. The Group has a controlled land bank of more than 50,000 hectares, of which over 40,000 hectares are arable land. The Group also owns approximately 14,000 hectares of its controlled land bank. Don Agro’s operations are located in the Rostov region, one of the most fertile regions of Russia, situated close to the Azov Sea and Don River, which house major international ports. In its crop production segment, the Group is primarily engaged in the farming of commercial crops such as winter wheat, sunflower and corn. It is also one of the top farms in terms of milk production in the Rostov region, and owns more than 4,000 heads of dairy cattle, including approximately 2,000 milking cows.