This World Food Day is examining not just hunger, but the conditions that cause it. Many have argued that tackling poverty in all its guises is the only way to ensure food security for all. Policies, programmes and interventions for social protection (the theme of 2015’s World Food Day) are often the preserve of local and national governments, international bodies and NGOs. But when it comes to discussions about improving rural livelihoods, it is vital to take into account the role of businesses like ours, who work closely with vast networks of farming communities on a daily basis in all corners of the world.
Connecting smallholders to global markets can have a transformative effect on rural livelihoods as subsistence farming turns into commercial enterprise. Through the production and sale of cash crops – such as cocoa, cashew nuts, cotton or any other commodity – farmers are able to spend income on more nutritionally diverse food, health and education for their families. On the Bolaven Plateau, the main coffee-growing region of Laos, the development of the coffee industry over the past 20 years has transformed the economic fortune of the region and its farmers. Karsten Ziebell, CR&S Manager for Olam Outspan Bolovens in Laos explains, “Cash crops bring food security. Incomes from cash crops offer a ‘buffer’ that many families never had previously, when a poor harvest meant no food on the plate.”
But cash crops do not automatically result in consistently higher incomes for farmers. Companies like Olam must therefore provide training to farmers to build resilience, boost productivity and produce quality crops that can command higher prices. In the Indonesian village of Sukoharjo (Lampung, West Sumatra) where we are working with Mondelēz on their Cocoa Life initiative, one year after adopting the new farming practices, a 22-year-old farmer called Fredyana is among several farmers who are on track to more than double their income.
However, just as a balanced diet is nutritionally diverse, a healthy livelihood shouldn’t be over-reliant on any one crop. Smallholder farmers, whether growing to sell or to eat, suffer the perennial cycle of glut and dearth that come with the agricultural seasons. Farmers can receive their entire annual income in just one post-harvest lump, from which all their family’s food, school fees, medicines, debt repayments and purchases for the farm for the year ahead must come. A poor harvest or a decline in market prices can put food security at risk. Diversification into multiple cash crops that are harvested at different points of the year can help hedge risk – for example many of our coffee farmers in Laos also sell cabbages for export into neighbouring Thailand.
Diversification is not only good for spreading risk, but biodiversity is key for a healthy farm ecosystem that is more resilient to the impacts of climate change – increasingly one of the biggest threats to food security and livelihoods for farmers big or small. We are working with coffee farmers in Indonesia to develop a small-scale coffee-growing system that benefit the quality of the coffee, and simultaneously help diversify and improve the livelihoods of our coffee suppliers in Indonesia.
I recently discussed this set-up with Moray McLeish, Olam’s CR&S Manager in Indonesia, who explained that introducing fruit trees offers shade and frost protection for coffee plants, and can be grown among vegetables such as cabbages, cassava and carrots that thrive at a similar altitude to high-quality Arabica coffee. Livestock such as goats or cows produce manure for improving soil fertility, their milk delivers vital nutrients for the family and any offspring (typically 1 per year) can be sold for additional income. Estimates vary, but keeping bees in the plot can improve pollination by 12 – 50% on coffee farms and honey from the hives can be consumed or sold too.
Companies such as Olam should encourage diversification. In Tanzania, Olam Aviv offers interest-free loans to coffee farmers specifically for maize fertiliser. While Olam has no commercial interest in maize, it prevents farmers from diverting fertiliser intended for coffee (and unsuitable for maize) to other parts of the family farm. This way, we support stronger basic food crops and protect the yields of top-quality coffee from our farmers when it comes to harvest.
There is a great business opportunity for Olam too in encouraging farmers to diversify their crops, argues my colleague in Tanzania, Jeremy Dufour. By purchasing multiple crops from one farmer, we maximise return on our farmer training programmes and community initiative investments in schools and health, consolidate relationships and utilise existing networks and infrastructure. “We always look to optimise our supply chain for greater efficiency and sustainability, so why wouldn’t we encourage farmers to be the most productive they can be? I think diversification is a key part of that.”
Going beyond diversification, beating hunger means cooperation and collaboration. We work with communities to identify critical areas and work together for improved food security. For example, one potential coffee-supplying community’s high-altitude is perfect for top-quality coffee growing, but it is hard to reach and therefore food stuffs that aren’t grown locally command a premium. We are exploring ways to boost the affordability of rice in the mountains, potentially by purchasing and transporting rice from the lowlands to communities at cost price – with our existing logistics capabilities this would be around half of the going rate.
The biggest challenge, however, is educating communities about nutrition. Even if nutritious food is available and affordable, it doesn’t necessarily mean that families will begin eating a more balanced diet. Education programmes targeting women and young people of 18-30 years old is the most effective way to change household spending and behaviour, and here we must look to partners with the technical knowledge and capacity building skills to effect this change.
Olam’s working relationships with a network of approximately 3.9 million smallholder suppliers can offer the framework to reach into the most remote of rural communities. Collaboration with NGOs and other partners can help us extend our support for rural food security, boost its impact and, most importantly, ensure it sticks.
By Chris Brett, Global Head of Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, Olam International