Digitising agriculture – from the top down

Moroccan group OCP, one of the leaders in phosphate extraction and fertiliser production, is turning to new technologies to create a new ‘from mine to farmer’ model focused on its consumers’ needs. Internally, OCP engineers are embarking on a digital mission, to also help transform the company from within to be a digital first institution. By our special correspondent in Casablanca, Olivier Deau.


Image : Public domain

This article is sponsored by OCP

In Morocco, OCP Group, with 21,000 employees and a sales turnover of around US$5bn, is an evolving giant in a competitive international market, that of phosphate fertilisers. With the largest phosphate reserves in the world – 75% of the world’s proven reserves – OCP has invested a significant amount in its ability to convert phosphate into phosphoric acid and fertiliser in the last ten years, an industrial investment plan that the group estimates to have cost $18bn between 2008 and 2017.

The capacities of these chemical sites, particularly at Jorf Lasfar, and the rationalisation of its supply chain from extraction to fertiliser production, thanks to the construction of a ‘slurry pipe’ unveiled in 2014, have allowed OCP to create more added value and export more phosphoric acid and fertiliser (47% of the export value) than unprocessed rock (19% of the export value).

Since 2016, OCP has had two objectives: to expand on the African continent and to incorporate new technologies into its production processes, in the mine, in the industry, right up to its approaches to management and forecasting. The end goal is a full-blown digital transformation.

The company is grappling with a fleet of challenges associated with digitalising its entire value chain, employees say. This is not just a case of incorporating new technologies into production processes, but transforming the nature of jobs and the way they are done.

An integrated strategy

The chairman of the group, Mostafa Terrab, an MIT-trained engineer, quickly understood the need to continue modernising the company and diversifying its activities. Transformation required a radical approach and it had to be holistic. It wasn’t just about adopting technology but rather, integrating it into everything that the company was doing.

OCP decided to take action internally, changing its structures from within. But it also sought external expertise through partnerships and joint ventures, which ultimately led to their tying the knot with IBM after two years of rigorous negotiations.

The joint venture, touted ‘TEAL’, was owned 51% by IBM and 49%
OCP, and was tasked with leading the march in digitalising the company at every level of the production and supply chain.

The group has also been given a new internal organ to manage the development of digitalisation, the ‘digital office’, which incorporates pre-existing IT services while developing new positions related to web application development and ‘data management’.

The guiding principle of the project was how the digitisation drive could make the company more competitive and productive, OCP says.

New internal capabilities

The group has given its digital operations a three-part structure: first, the issue of improving forecasting; second to automate the production process, and the final component being to provide new collaborative solutions internally within a group that has a highly vertical structure.

An in-house ‘digital factory’ oversees the applications designed to enhance user experience. It is a standalone unit serviced by the group’s operational managers and support services, to develop new programmes and applications to help improve processes and information reporting.

The new unit taps into new types of OCP collaborators with specialised skillsets in new technologies such as programming, design and data management.

The ‘factory’ hopes to attract younger personnel, computer scientists and millennial engineers who want to change the world but are also seeking the flexibility to experiment with diverse disciplines and projects without hierarchical structures stifling their creativity.

Vertical distribution of new technologies

The shift from digitalisation has required OCP staff to undergo training programmes. They have developed a training programme within a ‘digital academy’, hosted at the Mohammed VI Polytechnic university, which itself is fully funded by the mining and agriculture giant.

The university, with its focus on academic research and training, is located in the mining city of Benguerir, 80 kilometres from Marrakech. The ongoing training is partly to bring the middle management up to speed on the digital opportunity and capabilities, but also to train technicians and operators within the production line.

OCP is currently developing a pilot project in the Benguerir mine, which involves a complete overhaul of the processes through the automation of a fleet of vehicles associated with production, and the sensors for tool wear and tear and production.

Once the mine is automated, the operating technician’s role will be drastically altered. His new function will be to interpret the data from automated systems and to supervise and check maintenance programmes are consistent, as well as respond to any malfunctions.

As well as the Benguerir mine, the group also intends to automate production at the Jorf Lasfar II chemical production unit, in order to experiment with the chemical side of operations. The idea behind it is to create standards before digitalising all its production lines.

The challenge of horizontal integration

The ultimate goal for OCP is optimising production in a way that aligns with the demands of its clients, and develops the ability to anticipate these demands. This requires a significant investment of resources in bringing all the different positions within the group into alignment.

After the current phase, in which digital solutions are being vertically integrated into the different production sectors, new methods of collaboration using horizontal digital services will be needed. To facilitate this long process, OCP’s ‘digital office’ is counting on long-term collaboration with TEAL, the joint venture between OCP and IBM, which will have a special role in supporting OCP’s digitalisation strategy.

For this purpose, OCP has installed a certain number of secure network infrastructures externally, which are crucial to maintaining the volume of digital services.

TEAL, which already has 150 employees, will benefit from these facilities for its development and will become the exclusive service provider for the IBM account in Morocco, with the longterm aim of creating its own portfolio of institutional clients on the continent.

Creating a long-term ecosystem

In addition to its close ties with its joint venture, OCP continues to have discussions with all the important operators in the different technological sectors to ensure its digitalisation process is successful, whether it be with Siemens, Jacobs or Thyssenkrupp – industrial collaborations that have existed for years.

The idea is for OCP to set global benchmarks for operational standards in the mining industry which challenge those of international competitors who have launched their own digitisation blueprints.

What makes OCP unique in its journey towards digitalisation is that it is including an ecosystem that is even broader than the company itself, whether it is downstream with the Mohammed VI Polytechnic University, which will capitalise on the teaching side of this industrial digitalisation, or upstream via the creation of digital schools in various mining territories owned by the group, with young people as their target audience.

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