In conversation with Burcu Turkay, Global Sustainability Manager, Olam Edible Nuts...
Having previously worked for Amnesty International, Burcu’s focus has expanded from human rights to the gamut of sustainable development issues including deforestation, water-use and even bee management. Find out how her journey has helped prepare her to design and lead sustainability campaigns for Olam’s Edible Nuts business, which has won her recognition internally and from major customers and development agencies.
What prompted your move from an NGO to a global agribusiness?
First, I must say the agriculture world took me by surprise! While I had worked with companies on issues like greenhouse gas emissions and land rehabilitation previously, I had no direct experience in this sector. Today, I am glad to say that I have grown to be much more knowledgeable about the sector, especially in Edible Nuts, from hazelnuts to cashews and almonds, to superfoods like quinoa and chia seeds.
Many companies had CSR departments, but they didn’t know where to focus, whereas many NGOs have many projects but no resources. Olam offered a unique opportunity – where it had a clear commitment to sustainability and to collaboration with all stakeholders. For me, sustainability was something I have been passionate about all my life, so this was important.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions that people have about what you do?
Much of the conversation around edible nuts revolves around issues like deforestation, water and child labour. Olam’s approach is never to say that these challenges don’t exist – but to design our programmes to mitigate and address the risks as much as possible.
We are glad that most customers know the reality on the ground and are willing to be a part of the solution. On our part, we make sure our products are traceable with different monitoring solutions in place, such as AtSource. We do a lot of work with other different stakeholders, from universities to NGOs, on research and action plans against these risks; these are verified and audited by independent parties.
What was an unexpected challenge for you?
Confronting major sustainability issues in edible nuts aside, time zones can be tricky.
I’m based in Istanbul. In the morning, I’ll be speaking to the local sustainability team to get a download on their daily programme. Around lunch time, other parts of Europe start their day, and I’ll be speaking to the global sustainability team. I will also speak to my cashew colleagues in Africa and have calls with the Ivory Coast team around that time.
Later in the afternoon, Latin America wakes up and we’ll discuss superfoods like quinoa and chia smallholder farmers as well as organic programmes. In the evening, US wakes and I’ll be talking to the almond team.
Best part of your job?
There are too many to list. Seeing the real impact on the ground from our programmes is truly life changing. Nothing beats seeing the smiles on the faces of farmers who have benefited from our work. Every so often when I visit our smallholders, they welcome you into their homes with open arms and never want you to leave.
I have been to places I never expected to set foot in, which greatly enriched my life experience. I had never seen a cacao fruit until I joined Olam – they look more like melons really! I never knew how strong our women farmers could be. I have cried from visiting our onion factory in California. I could go on.
Being part of the Re-imagineers programme was one of the most exciting things I have ever done at Olam. Organising the workshops in Turkey gave me the opportunity to interact with employees across departments, from factories to offices. Besides generating new ideas, these workshops allowed us to form lasting connections. The continuous thinking and creating at Olam as well as its values and entrepreneurial spirit has allowed me to develop greatly as an individual.
“You can do good working in the right company”
How do others become the expert that you are today?
There are many Greta Thunbergs out there. You are never too young to start caring about the environment, your fellow people and nature. A broad knowledge in the social sciences will help greatly, but there will be a need to ramp up on technical knowledge as well. What really matters is that you believe in sustainability and are energised and motivated by it.