Fixes for farmers

Updated: 2011-03-18 10:44

By Fu Jing (China Daily European Weekly)

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Fixes for farmers

Laurent Abergel (fourth from left) and his team in Brussels.
"I expect to see Chinese members occupying board room positions
in my group soon," says Abergel. Fu Jing / China Daily

Belgian entrepreneur offers granular solution to help tackle drought

Laurent Abergel has come up with a solution that could soon turn parched Chinese farmlands into fertile fields. Severe drought in several crop-growing regions across China and the special focus on water-conservation projects in the current five-year plan is what makes Abergel's solution even more appealing.

His technique involves the use of a special granular material applied into the root zone of plants during the soil preparation stage that will help retain water for a longer time.

According to Abergel, Arpolith, the granular material, acts like a sponge and absorbs water and nutrients and releases them, as the soil gets drier. "Water shortage is becoming increasingly an issue in China. We are trying to use materials that can increase water-use efficiency, especially in the agricultural sector," says Abergel, chairman of the Antwerp, Belgium-based Arpadis Group, that specializes in distribution of chemicals and the production of coatings and polymers.

Such is Abergel's confidence in his product that he has already started negotiations for Arpolith with Chinese partners. Though he is yet to clinch any formal agreements, he still remains confident.

"China is an interesting market with good potential for water efficiency and treatment chemicals especially in desalination," he says.

"The Arpolith granules can retain water up to 30 times their weight. Nearly 45 tons of water can be retained in a hectare of land, if 1.5 tons of Arpolith were applied.

Fixes for farmers

"The granular material will start shrinking after the plants start consuming the water. The swelling and shrinking process aerates the soil, and helps to generate a sound root structure."

Arpolith has a field life of around three years and needs only application after that period. It differs from most of the other products in that it improves the overall soil quality, is non-toxic and fully biodegradable. The granules also do not cake or clump together and also do not act as a barrier to water flow.

"Depending on the type of soil and general climatic conditions, Arpolith can reduce water consumption by nearly 40 percent," he says.

Refusing to divulge the actual chemical composition and cost, he says it is "still an affordable solution for farmers".

His belief is given further credence after he admits that Arpolith GmbH, a company under the Arpadis Group, has already secured patent protection for the product.

Arpolith has been developed mainly for use in gardens and flowerpots, in agricultural areas and lawns or turf as well as in nurseries.

In Western Europe, amateur and professional gardeners, landscapers and greens keepers on golf courses use the product. It improves the quality of the soil, reduces dust and helps to avoid wet spots after heavy rainfall.

Abergel has received expressions of interest for Arpolith from outside Europe, mainly from Arabian countries, Africa and Brazil and also from China. He says that a re-forestation project in Morocco has already started to use Arpolith.

Born in 1970, Abergel comes from a family of well-known businessmen. His father moved from Morocco to Belgium in 1960, and established himself as a leading light in the Antwerp diamond industry. Abergel learnt the first lessons of business from his father when he was made to understand that in the diamond trade, "word means contract".

"I was taught to be a man of my word. That simple creed is what has kept me going even now," says Abergel.

Despite his father's standing in the diamond industry, Abergel decided to strike a different path in business. He graduated from the Paris IX Dauphine University with a management degree and decided to gain work experience at a Belgium chemical company.

Abergel came into the chemicals industry in 1993 after being associated with a petrochemical trading company in which his father had an investment. From 1993 to 1999, the company was involved in trading of glycols and solvents.

In 1999, Abergel set up Arpadis Group, the group holding company, which has controlling stakes in all the group entities.

The Arpadis Group currently has 20 companies under its wings in diversified businesses spread across countries like France, Britain, the United States and China. It focuses largely on the African and Middle East markets and has made considerable investments in Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Jordan and Dubai

In 2006, the turnover of the group was 44.6 million euros, and by 2008 it had risen to 120 million euros. The period between 2008 and 2010 was not so good for Arpadis and like several other European companies, it, too, bore the brunt of the global financial crisis.

Despite the troubled times, Abergel says Arpadis remain committed to its various businesses and continued with its investments as it was convinced of good returns in the long term.

Though most of his businesses are hazardous and dangerous, Abergel maintains that his group maintains high environmental standards and absolute safety.

"We have high environmental standards and try to minimize the impact (of our operations) on environment by every means possible," he says.

Abergel says he is currently looking for a Chinese partner to operate a chemical plant set up by Arpadis in the Nanjing chemical industry zone in East China's Jiangsu province.

"The facility has been set up with European standards and is spread over two hectares. We have invested nearly 5 million euros, and it has a lifespan of over 50 years. We are committed for the long run," he says.

He adds that there are several investment opportunities for Chinese companies in his group.

"I expect to see Chinese members occupying boardroom positions in my group soon," he says.

Abergel feels that "no company can call itself a true multinational until it has a Chinese member on the board". "That's my definition of multinational in a changing world," he says.

In spite of his busy schedule that takes him to various countries and places, Abergel is a true family man. He uses his spare time for playing soccer, tennis and jogging with his three children Jonathan, Elsa and Julia.

He also has a passion for watches. "Keeping time is as important as keeping words," he says.

Abergel is an avid collector of Swatch watches and has nearly 200 pieces framed as a collection at one of his Antwerp offices.

"This is my hobby and I collect Swatch watches whenever a new model is launched," he says.


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