“Build and operate a new cooperative, equitable and ultra-efficient sugar factory in the heart of Europe’s best region to ensure the sustainability of the local sector and family farming by providing farmers with a fair remuneration.”
In 2016, four beet farmers, keen to restore the profitability of their family farm and more particularly of their beet crop, took the initiative to conduct a feasibility study on the construction and operation of a sugar factory by the farmers who owned it.
This initiative came about against the backdrop of the abolition of European sugar quotas, slated for October 2017, which has since ushered in a major change in the operation of the sugar beet industry.
The project of the project leaders was simple: they were convinced that the uncertainty resulting from the liberalization of the sugar market could be turned into an opportunity. A new factory that would process 14,000 tonnes of beet per day could revive half of the areas abandoned by beet growers since the early 2000s. The study was concluded in October 2017 with a presentation of the project in the pipeline to the public, namely the construction and operation of the most modern and sustainable sugar factory in Europe (more information on the future sugar factory here), in Seneffe (Hainaut) in the heart of the Belgian beet basin, run by a farmers’ cooperative whose social aim would be to provide farmers with fair remuneration for their work. The project leaders then held public information meetings which were attended by more than 2,000 participants to sound out interest from a large number of farmers who were ready to invest and become personally involved in the project.
Encouraged by the interest of potential beet supplier farmers, the project leaders, accompanied by advisers and an embryonic development team, founded the Coopérative des Betteraviers Transformateurs SC (CoBT for short) in March 2018.
Development continued on various fronts in 2018: on the beet supply strategy, sale of sugar and co-products, preparation of the detailed industrial project, further elaboration of the financial plan and search for potential partners, application for a single permit, etc.
Between December 2018 and October 2019, CoBT launched two public equity offerings with prospectuses approved by the FSMA, to which 1400 farmers and 200 supporters responded favourably. These two operations raised more than €58,000,000 in equity capital from the agricultural world.
In May 2019, the single permit issued to CoBT for the construction of the sugar factory came into full effect.
At the end of 2019, the CoBT attained a twofold objective, namely it managed to ensure contractually its long-term supply fully (100%), and to raise a total of €134,000,000 of its own resources from farmers and supporters on the one hand, from public and private investors, plus supplemented by subsidies on the other (+/- €10 million).
In March 2020, the CoBT was approved by the Federal Minister for Economic Affairs. In Belgium, an approved cooperative is recognized as an alternative form of entrepreneurship that complies with the principle of equal voting rights and the absence of speculative purposes.
The CoBT is currently focusing its efforts on securing the investment credits necessary for financial closure — the last key stage before work on the construction of the sugar factory can commence.
The first sugar production year is scheduled for 2023 (sowing in March, plant start-up in September).
The CoBT has 1,600 members, including 1,400 beet farmers (holders of A, B, C and sometimes S shares) and 200 supporters (holders of S shares only).
These 1,600 members are organized in 7 member circles, which function as local sections of the General Assembly, in order to ensure greater proximity between the cooperative and its members. Each co-operator has an identical voting right in its circle of members.
The member circles elect delegates from among their ranks to represent them at the General Assembly (one delegate per 30 members). Each circle also elects a director from among its delegates.
The General Assembly is currently composed of 54 delegates. The Board of Directors has 7 members.
Figure 1: Current governance structure of the CoBT
When the prospective strategic and financial partners become CoBT cooperative members (Class F shares) in the coming months, they will join the General Assembly and appoint one or two members to the Board of Directors. The latter may have a maximum of 11 members at least 60% of whom must be farmers.
An Audit Committee and an Appointments and Remuneration Committee will also be set up by the Board of Directors.
The CoBT development team is currently consists of three employees. It works on a daily basis with three members of the Innovity consulting firm, which has been supporting the development of the project since 2016.
CoBT plans to recruit some 100 permanent employees by 2023 to ensure the operation of the cooperative and the Seneffe sugar factory.