The Belgian businessman who relocated to Xinjiang
By Liu Ting  ·  2022-12-26  ·   Source: NO.52 DECEMBER 29, 2022
An employee of Danny Camiel Decombel's livestock farm feeds hay to cattle (BAO WEI)

'Choosing to open a business in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region was a sensible choice. There may not be another location on the entire globe that could provide me with such an opportunity," said Danny Camiel Decombel, a 59-year-old Belgian businessman. For him, Xinjiang serves as both his second home and an ideal location for his business.

Set up a company in Xinjiang

Decombel grew up in a seaside town in Belgium and never imagined growing up that he would build a connection with China. However, undertaking a bachelor's degree in agricultural engineering, his goal was to work in a developing nation. On the day of his graduation in 1986, the head of the department called Decombel into his office and told him about an open position at a Shenzhen-based feed additive company. After his application and acceptance, and more than a year of preparation, he arrived in China in January 1988.

When Decombel arrived, China was in the early stages of reform and opening up and Shenzhen was still in its first decade as a special economic zone in Guangdong Province. The young Belgian found himself in the middle of a sea of construction sites and now recalls the absence of a telephone in the company office, the lack of an expressway or airport in Shenzhen, and constant congestion on the winding road connecting the city and Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong.

These deficiencies were short-lived, however, and a motorway connecting Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Shenzhen Airport, and an international direct dial office phone line with Internet access were all set up within a few short years. "The once-small fishing village has grown into the center of modern global industry. Never before have I seen such rapid expansion," Decombel said.

Later, he worked in Tianjin, Guangzhou, Quanzhou in Fujian Province, and other locations. Thanks to these experiences, he now has a strong understanding of China, particularly its development. He also met his wife during this period, who is from Fujian, and the couple now leads a happy life with two children.

In 2000, Decombel began working for the Finnish firm Kemira in Zhanjiang, Guangdong. At the time, Kemira was the industry pioneer in the development of arid-region-appropriate water-soluble fertilizers. Kemira's main market in China was in the region of Xinjiang, where drip irrigation technology was widely used. Decombel began working as the head of the company in Xinjiang in 2001.

When Kemira announced in 2005 that it would leave the fertilizer business, Decombel made the decision to establish a company in Xinjiang and produce his own water-soluble fertilizers. "Belgium and even Europe have very little land and few prospects for expansion, whereas China's agriculture has significant opportunity for growth. Additionally, Xinjiang made extensive use of drip irrigation, and water-soluble fertilizers were in high demand," he said.

Decombel (right) conducts experimental analysis in his water-soluble fertilizer company (CHEN ZHE)

From fertilizer production to cattle breeding

When Decombel visited farmers in north Xinjiang in 2005 and engaged them in discussions about the effectiveness of water-soluble fertilizers, he discovered that almost everyone was aware of the benefits of the product. The next year, he established a business specializing in the manufacturing of water-soluble fertilizers in north Xinjiang's Shawan County.

Decombel recruited a group of agronomy graduates and trained them in water conserving irrigation, plant nutrition and saline-alkali soil development. Customers recognized the benefits of acidic water-soluble fertilizers quickly and the business prospered in north Xinjiang. However, the company's development in the southern part of the region, did not achieve its objectives as expected.

"I began extending the company's business to south Xinjiang in 2011. However, south Xinjiang has always employed flood irrigation, and many local farmers have not yet adopted drip irrigation technology. In addition, fertilizers that were suitable for land in north Xinjiang were not suitable for land in south Xinjiang due to different soil types. The soil in south Xinjiang did not respond well to the fertilizers used there," Decombel explained.

After extensive research and practical trials, the company's research and development team reformulated its fertilizers for use in south Xinjiang. Decombel also emphasized the great importance of providing quality service. His company introduced software that could instantly assess crop growth and offer a more effective and precise fertilization schedule, which not only reduced expenses but also increased crop production. Through these innovations, the company expanded from having one production base to having four production bases and currently sells 20,000 tons of chemical fertilizer products annually in Xinjiang, enough to cover almost 70,000 hectares of farmland.

The company expanded its operations to include cattle farming in 2017. Decombel introduced Belgian Blue cattle to China and crossed them with both local dairy and beef cattle in Xinjiang, producing offspring that are able to greatly improve meat yield.

"Belgian Blues are a treasure of our country. It takes time to recognize their qualities and accept them, just like with anything new. Crossbreeding Xinjiang's indigenous cattle with them has clear economic advantages. Belgian Blues, in my opinion, will undoubtedly find a market in China," he said.

Witnessing agricultural modernization

Decombel and his wife have been living in Xinjiang for 17 years and their children have completed elementary and middle school together with local students. Decombel has witnessed continuous growth and transformation in Xinjiang and running his company has given him a unique perspective on the region. "My job has given me the chance to travel to the remotest communities, where I have watched rapid social and economic development, while the living standards of inhabitants have risen dramatically."

Since he has worked in the fertilizer sector for a long time, Decombel frequently interacts with the region's cotton growers.

He says that the modernization of Xinjiang's agriculture has greatly impressed him, and that he does not understand why the Western media has made up stories about "forced labor" there. Cotton planting and picking in Xinjiang was mechanized many years ago and therefore requires less labor.

He discovered that cotton cultivation mechanization in Xinjiang began relatively early. "I observed John Deere and Case IH cotton picker machines being employed in the cotton fields when I first arrived in Xinjiang in 2005. Hand-picked cotton was still widely used at that time." According to Decombel, mechanical cotton picking is increasingly profitable as a result of the ongoing rise in labor expenses. Most of his clients in north Xinjiang had successfully transitioned to automated harvesting by 2012. As of 2017, only fields that were too small or where access was limited by a lack of power lines or narrow dirt roads continued to rely on hand picking.

This was a fairly minor portion of the region compared to the whole cotton field area. He remarked, "To describe cotton picking in Xinjiang as manual picking with 'forced labor' is absolutely not what I have observed year after year." 

(Print Edition Title: Second Hometown)           

Copyedited by G.P. Wilson

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