It was June 2019 in Côte d’Ivoire. I was in a car with a small team, driving from the economic hub of Abidjan two hours west to a cocoa-farming community. The landscape was a patchwork of different crops, but the rural appearance belied its strong link to global economy. As for many rural communities, agriculture is the lifeblood of the region, providing the primary source of income for smallholders and their families. The country is the world’s largest exporter of cocoa beans and in fact, the cocoa in any chocolate you’ve eaten recently may very well have come from one of these farms.
But a different food topic prompted our visit that day. Many regions in the country continue to face seasonal food shortages and, coupled with other health-related challenges, experience high levels of malnutrition. We were going to check in on a nutrition training session to understand how to scale it up elsewhere.
Once we arrived, we walked to a pavilion where some 50 women and children were gathered. A dynamic young woman was at the front, holding up a large flipbook that had images of families farming, preparing meals, breastfeeding infants and more. She was using the images to explain good nutrition practices and engage the women through group questions about common challenges, misconceptions and practical solutions. Individual women would speak up to answer, and from time to time the whole group would let out a resounding “uh haaan”, a common reply of affirmation.
The woman is one of many in the region who has been trained on nutrition education through a Government-led consortium of public and private partners, including Olam. She runs regular sessions in the area to improve nutrition knowledge and demonstrates how to make nutritious meals with local ingredients. And since these trainings, indicators of diet diversity and uptake of good nutrition practices have improved.
Working to address ill-health and malnutrition are important not only for the obvious social benefits and poverty reduction, but also because they directly undercut economic growth and productivity. Anaemia, for example, limits adult productivity, with interventions to reduce the aliment increasing productivity by up to 17 percent.1 This strong link between people’s well-being and agricultural productivity has been well documented and is why good nutrition and health sits at the top of Olam’s sustainability agenda.
Putting the spotlight on health and nutrition
For over a decade, Olam has been working with partners to improve nutrition and health under our initiative called Olam Healthy Living (OHL). Starting off as an HIV/AIDS focussed initiative in Africa, OHL today has grown into a comprehensive effort to tackle direct and underlying causes of malnutrition and illness and leverages trainings, like the one we visited that day in Côte d’Ivoire, to unlock the full productive potential of people across our global value chains.
Launched in 2011, OHL challenges all colleagues across Olam Food Ingredients and Olam Global Agri, to identify the biggest threats and opportunities for keeping their employees, farmers and community members healthy and productive.
The efforts look different in each place we work – from raising awareness of breast cancer among employees in Honduras and offering free health check-ups to farmers in India, to assisting people living with HIV to attend Antiretroviral (ART) clinics in Ghana, and educating mothers on the importance of breastfeeding in Tanzania.
Between 2011 and 2019, successful initiatives across Olam’s rice, palm oil, timber, cashew, cocoa, coffee, cotton, rice, and packaged foods businesses reached some 500,000 people in Africa, either working for Olam or living in the communities where we operate.
Tackling health challenges in Africa
The initial focus on supporting the fight against HIV in Africa in the early years of OHL, included efforts on our 7,000-hectare certified coffee estates in the Northern Province of Zambia. The country continues to battle a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS, and the team managing the estates have established long-term healthcare programmes to help address this and other health challenges. These programmes have included supporting workers and community members, namely students and pregnant women, to improve HIV awareness, access to care and reduce stigma and discrimination. The programme runs alongside cooking demonstrations and nutrition education to encourage healthy diets as well as prizes for female-run community businesses to promote women’s empowerment.
HIV/AIDS, however, is not the only disease affecting people in communities where we work and in 2015, OHL evolved to seek broader partnerships and address a range of health issues related to combatting multiple forms of malnutrition, malaria and other preventable diseases.
In 2019, Olam entered a partnership with The END Fund to tackle Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) in its supply chains in Africa, which carries 40% of the global NTD burden. Since then, Olam’s Grains, Cashew, Rice and Animal Feed & Protein businesses in Côte d’Ivoire, Senegal and Nigeria have helped communities access free treatment that prevents pain, disability, discrimination and even death.
One of our cashew farmers in Nigeria, Salimontu Monliki, shared with us what these interventions meant to him:
“The drugs provided have been effective in preventing River Blindness and other common diseases in our community. We are so thankful for the increased convenience and that we no longer need to travel to the city to get medication.”