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Harvesting success in grain trading amidst change

13 December 20236 min reading

INTERVIEW: Namık Kemal Parlak

In his interview with Miller Magazine, Swithun Still discusses the delicate balance between risks and rewards in a field where margins often hang in the balance. From the impact of weather and politics to the industry’s remarkable resilience, he paints a vivid picture of the challenges and triumphs that shape the grain market. Additionally, he touches upon the impact of technology on the grain industry, offering his perspective on the future of the vital trade in grains.

In the dynamic world of grain trading, Swithun Still is a well-known figure, renowned for his prominent role trading grain in the Black Sea region and for his interventions as a speaker, moderator or panellist at conferences. Swithun has embraced change in the grain trade and has always championed innovations in the grain trade, having traded the very first cargo of grain on blockchain as well as trading the first over the counter (OTC) swap for Black Sea wheat in 2017. He has also been involved in developing online market- places for grain trading. 

Swithun served as President of Gafta, the Grain & Feed Trade Association in 2019 and still acts as a Gafta arbitrator, resolving trade disputes. In this exclusive interview with Miller Magazine, Mr. Still, speaking in a personal capacity, discusses the industry’s resilience amid challenges, and delves into the risks involved, from geopolitical events to supply chain management. Highlighting the role of technology, Swithun discusses the impact of software and envisions the future with online marketplaces, blockchain, and AI. However, he underscores the irreplaceable human element in the physical market, rooted in relationships and trust. He also anticipates key factors influencing grain prices, emphasizing the perpetual dance between supply, demand, weather, and politics. 

In the following pages, Swithun helps us unravel the complexities of grain trading through his experiences, insights, and his vision for the future.

Can you provide an overview of your experience as a grain trader? What initially sparked your interest in the grain trade, and how did your career journey in this field unfold? 
Grain trading is a fascinating job, very dynamic. Although it can be stressful it is fulfilling. My career in grain started by chance, back in 1999, when I met with someone who was investing in farming in Russia and wanted help importing equipment and developing the business. The company expanded from farming into origination in both Russia and Ukraine and my role started in operations (or ‘execution’ as it is called) and moved into freight and thereafter into trading in 2008. When I started I was based in London, then moved to Paris and I moved to Switzerland in 2003, which is where I am based today, in a small town called Morges, near Lausanne.

How do you handle the pressure and fast-paced nature of grain trading? 
Grain trading can be very stressful and coping with stress is crucial if you are to make the right decisions. I try to maintain a healthy lifestyle, eating and sleeping well, and by maintaining a healthy mind by having a healthy body. 

TECH WAVE IN GRAIN TRADING

How has the global grain market evolved in recent years, and what key trends or developments have you observed? 
The cash (or ‘physical’) grain trade has not evolved too dramatically since I started to be honest. Buyers and sellers transact more nowadays via instant messages applications, such as WhatsApp rather than over the phone, but most contracts are still reduced to writing over email. There is a lot of talk about digitalization and this trend will undoubtedly increase in the coming years as well as the increased use of technology such as AI and blockchain.

You recently established a company, “Still Grain Sarl” What motivated you to start this company? 
I qualified as a Gafta arbitrator back in 2008 and have enjoyed a parallel career as an arbitrator alongside my career as a grain trader. I was advised that it would be more advantageous for the tax to have the income via a company rather than in my own name, so I set up Still Grain Sarl earlier this year.

You joined Azimut Commodity Trading DMCC, a trading company based in Dubai. Are there particular regions and commodities that your company is targeting? 
Our initial focus has been on Russia and we are focused on trading milling wheat and corn, but also barley and peas. We are trading into the traditional markets of Egypt, Turkey, Lebanon, and Libya and will expand to other destinations next year.

A SNAPSHOT OF THE GRAIN TRADE

What are some of the current challenges facing the grain trading industry? How have geopolitical events, particularly the ongoing conflict with Russia, affected the world grain markets? 
Grain traders are often taking significant risks in moving grain from areas of surplus to deficit. Some traders might be seen more as supply chain managers. The margins are often quite small relative to the risks involved with risks of defaults by suppliers or buyers or such aspects as unpaid demurrage. The challenge is to keep the margins positive! The grain industry is generally very flexible and the only constant is change. There have been well-documented problems with the flow of grain from Ukraine, due to the war and the ‘grain corridor’, but overall grain markets have coped with these events well.

How has technology and innovation impacted the grain trading process, from sourcing to distribution, and what emerging technologies do you believe will play a crucial role in the industry’s future? 
There is a lot more software involved. Many grain trading companies use what is known as CTRM (Commodity Trading and Risk Management) software to track their positions for risk management.

THE FORCES SHAPING GRAIN PRICES

What will be the key factors that drive grain prices next year? 
As ever, supply and demand! Weather and politics! The factors that drive grain prices are perennial – prices will be driven by weather and its impact on crop production, so all eyes are on the Southern Hemisphere in key exporting countries like Brazil, Australia and Argentina. Then traders will look at how the crops emerge in the Northern Hemisphere after the winter and to the spring sowing campaigns. 

Looking ahead, what trends do you anticipate will shape the future of grain trading? 
There could be a role and function for online marketplaces that can facilitate the trading process and keep costs down, but so far the appetite for this is lacking. I expect that there will be some more automation of trade with the use of blockchain and AI, but I feel that the physical market will always have a crucial human element based on relationships and trust, which is something that no robots can replace.

ADVICE FOR TOMORROW’S GRAIN TRADERS

For individuals aspiring to enter the grain trading industry, what advice or insights would you offer based on your own experiences?
I heartily encourage the next generation to get involved in grain trading as it is an exciting domain, full of good people and very dynamic. I would strongly urge them to get some good training from Gafta, such as the online Agribility course or DLP (Distance Learning Programme).

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