A Sustainable, Equitable Food System Needs to be Nourished at the Source

Group photo a lab technicians sitting together and discussing

COVID-19 has exposed many of the vulnerabilities in our food system, one of which is just how reliant global supply chains are on people’s well-being at every step of the journey. The small-scale farmers in emerging markets who produce much of the world’s food ingredients, live in countries that face high rates of malnutrition, with many farming households unable to eat healthily themselves.


The strong link between health and agricultural productivity is one of the reasons nutrition has moved up the sustainability agenda for Olam. Malnutrition is said to cost the private sector as much as $850 billion a year in lost productivity, according to a recent Chatham House reporti, with much of this borne by the ag sector given the labour intensity of farming. So as a business that plans to run efficiently for the next 30, 50 years and beyond, helping to reduce malnutrition in the communities where we operate is actually a down payment on future productivity. 


Financial incentive aside, addressing poor nutrition is non-negotiable when it comes to our sustainability commitments and achieving the UN SDGs. As former UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon put it, “Nutrition is both a maker and a marker of development.” This underscores that good nutrition is not only evidence of success in other priorities, but also is a prerequisite to making progress in women’s empowerment, health, poverty reduction and much more. Improved nutrition brings massive advancements in education and economic growth by supporting ‘grey matter infrastructure’ – the brainpower needed for children, sectors and countries to reach their full potential. Climate change too is impacted if you consider how shifts to healthier diets can limit carbon emissions.


Within our operating groups olam food ingredients and Olam Global Agri, we’re working to tackle the causes of poor nutrition in farming communities. Our efforts have made meaningful progress, revealed new challenges and our experiences can serve as useful lessons on what we, and other businesses, can continue or change, to improve the health and well-being of those who contribute to a sustainable and food secure future for all.


Understand the barriers and enablers to healthy eating


Olam’s long-standing commitment to improving the livelihoods of the farmers that grow our cocoa, coffee, cashew, rice and other ingredients, has typically focused on providing technical training and support geared towards increasing productivity and incomes. And while it’s proved effective in doing just this, it doesn’t necessarily translate into helping them meet their nutrition needs year-round.


Many of these households can be considered food secure from a calorie perspective, but often these calories come from only a few food groups and primarily starchy staples, which lack many of the micronutrients needed for normal functioning of the immune system and optimal health. In Côte d’Ivoire, where about 1 in 5 children under the age of five are stunted (a result of chronic malnutrition), we conducted a survey of the cashew households in our sourcing network and discovered that the greatest deficiencies exist amongst women and children, with less than one-third of adult women and 6% of surveyed 6-23 month-olds eating adequate and diverse diets.


Having a better understanding of the eating habits, practices and culture in our communities has prompted new strategies to support farmers on crop diversification and nutrition education, as well as spurring on efforts to address some of other determinants of malnutrition, like limited access to clean water.



Target practical solutions on the ground


While our role in health and wellness might not seem obvious, our close working relationships with farmer suppliers means we’re ideally positioned to tackle the problems head on. We run various initiatives, including distributing vegetable seeds for kitchen gardens to coffee-growing families in Uganda, educating cocoa-farming communities on healthy eating and giving cooking demos using local produce in Nigeria. Our teams are also fortifying common consumer food products like tomato mixes, wheat flour, drinking milk, and most recently our premium long-grain rice brand in Ghana, Royal Aroma, with micronutrients including iron, zinc, and B-complex vitamins.


The impact of COVID-19 on small-scale farmers has also highlighted the need to provide direct food assistance to those hardest hit by market disruptions and movement restrictions. We’ve delivered food and hygiene supplies across our sourcing networks in Africa, Asia and the Americas as part of a global relief package worth over US$6 million


When it comes to ensuring our own workforce is well-nourished, this takes on multiple approaches depending on the context. For the thousands of farm workers and seasonal pickers on our coffee estates and staff in our rural processing facilities, a free lunch can provide their most substantial and nutritious meal of the day. Whereas in Ghana, which is experiencing a national rise in overweight and obesity, we’re working to encourage our 3,000 employees, the majority living in urban areas, to shift to healthier eating habits. An annual wellness campaign provides personalised medical and dietary guidance, as well as a series of sports activities and nutrition education sessions. Encouragingly, the HR team has reported lower medical costs, a decline in absenteeism, along with in an increase in productivity and employee engagement – as well as greater corporate awareness, with the addition of fruit to the regular canteen meals.


Meanwhile, our Hazelnuts business in Turkey has long been recognised by the state for its ‘baby-friendly’ culture. New mothers are supported to continue breastfeeding once they return to work with the provision of private ‘nursing rooms’ and a support scheme run in partnership with the Ministry of Health.



Team up with local authorities and partners for greater impact


Malnutrition is a result of many different factors across sectors and so we need the power of partnerships and alliances to help solve the issue.


In Cote d’Ivoire, we teamed up with the government’s National Nutrition Programme and their partners, including UNICEF, Hellen Keller International and others to administer vitamin A supplementation, deworming tablets and malnutrition screening to children under the age of five. While our partners provide the necessary expertise and supplies, Olam’s extension staff on the ground helped mobilise communities and deliver the support to some 2.5 million children in the districts where our cashew farmers are based.


For rice farmers in Nigeria, who are part of our out-growers programme with IFAD and the Nigerian Government, they receive training on nutrition; learning what constitutes a balanced diet for them and their children, and are given vegetable seedlings to start cultivating in garden plots, as well as chickens. Together with the income benefits derived from the programme and sale of rice to Olam, these efforts have led to all 5,000 women participants reporting improvements in their diets, eating three meals per day instead of only the two they would have had previously.  


We don’t need to have all the answers ourselves or even commit a lot of investment, but strengths like an expansive origin footprint and direct relationships with farmers, can be leveraged through partnerships to improve nutrition.



Factor in nutrition to your sustainability KPIs


First you need to look at industry benchmarks; what the SDGs are tracking on nutrition and what has already been identified by the experts as the key indicators - dietary diversity being one example. Then consider the external asks of industry on nutrition - platforms like World Benchmark Alliance provide a useful reference as well as the increasingly health-conscious consumer themselves. The Workforce Nutrition Alliance has also really helped raise the profile of workforce nutrition, with examples of what standards companies should aim for.


Lastly, we need to consider the context and the different risk factors that exist in the places where we work. Obviously, the nutrition priorities, and therefore KPIs, will be different on our coffee estate in Tanzania from a worksite in the United States.


Now that we know the metrics that matter, we are tracking and reporting our progress through AtSource, our sustainability insights platform for agricultural supply chains - including edible nuts, spices, coffee, cocoa beans, rice, dairy, cotton, and palm. It gives both us and our customers visibility into the key challenges that our farming communities face. 



Secure buy-in from across the organisation


Firstly, make it as easy as possible for people to do more for nutrition; by this I mean provide the tools, guidance documents, checklists that simplify the work. If, for example, you’re working on expanding access to health check-ups in rural areas, this is an ideal opportunity to include checks that help farmers better understand their nutritional risk factors. You can provide a list of all possible checks that might be appropriate to the programme manager so that he or she can easily vet that list with the medical partner. 


Secondly, speak about the business case and the centrality of nutrition to the overall sustainability agenda. The evidence for private sector action on nutrition is very compelling and yet for many it remains a somewhat obscure topic. We need to demystify nutrition and communicate just how relevant it is to supply chain resilience. When business managers see the link to their work and their bottom line, they join in and see the work on nutrition as part of their own.


Improving nutrition is not something that can be done by any one actor, but we know that by seeking more and new types of collaborations, especially with communities themselves, we can increase our impact. Together, we have the tools and ingenuity to improve the nutrition of farmers everywhere, and, in turn, improve the resilience of the supply chains that depend on them.