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.”
A de-worming programme in Senegal 2019
Alongside treatment, promoting early detection of underlying conditions can mean the difference between a farmer being able to continue the work they depend on, and for some, it’s even a life-saver. For instance, the health checks we offer onion farmers and their farmhands in the Western Desert region of Egypt, have proved effective in detecting those at risk of developing hypertension and diabetes; rates of which in Egypt are among the highest in the world.
Taking healthy living goals global
Seeing the importance of this work to employees and farmers in Africa, we decided to extend the programme globally in 2020. Little did we know then that health would be soon become the top priority for governments and companies alike in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Olam, the global scale-up of OHL meant that we could quickly reallocate resources already designated for health and nutrition programmes to support vulnerable communities at the onset of COVID-19. In Honduras for example, plans to install wastewater management infrastructure were postponed with efforts refocused on providing free PPE and information sessions on how to protect against COVID-19 to 530 coffee-farming households and 100 employees.
We also supported communication campaigns to dispel misinformation and promote the right prevention measures. Health advice was disseminated across 30 local radio stations to at least one million cocoa farmers across Central and West Africa, along with nearly 2,000 posters and push notifications on WHO guidance. In Nigeria, we produced a film starring a popular comedian to counter fake news, which was broadcast to an estimated 15,000 farmers from a LED-screen fitted truck as it travelled from village to village. (Read More)
Other vital initiatives were continued and/or launched, under the theme of ‘Healthy Hearts’, to acknowledge cardiovascular diseases as one of the world’s biggest health threats and a major risk factor for COVID-19. One such initiative was in the northern Puno region of Peru, where ‘heart healthy’ superfoods like quinoa, kiwicha and cañihua have been grown over several generations. Yet these same communities suffer with high rates of malnutrition, as smallholders sell these crops and opt for other, often less nutritious, staple foods to feed themselves. For this reason, we initiated a partnership with the region’s Association of Nutritionists to train 120 of our female farmer leads on the nutritional benefits of superfoods.
Working together with partners and communities across 32 countries, OHL reached a record-setting 995,000 people in 2020.
Setting a pathway for 2021-2025
Over the next four years, OHL will help Olam businesses to take bolder action for nutrition and health. This will be achieved by increasing general wellness through access to healthcare and guidance on stress management and active lifestyles, by controlling infectious diseases through access to safe water and disease testing and treatment, and by expanding access to and consumption of affordable, nutritious foods.
Whether from a workplace or community perspective, the programme will continue to provide guidance and foster partnerships for activities that can support these three priority areas. To increase access to nutritious food for instance, we are making improvements to the meals provided at Olam worksites, and in communities, we are supporting farmers with nutrition education and promoting kitchen gardens.
Everywhere we operate, we need to consider the context and the different risk factors that exist. Obviously, the health priorities, and therefore KPIs, will be different on our coffee estates in Tanzania from a worksite in the United States. One powerful tool to help us track and monitor progress is AtSource – our sustainability insights platform. This includes specific metrics on food security, nutrition support, and access to clean water and sanitation, giving both us and our customers visibility into the key challenges that our farming communities face.
With all the evidence and research telling us what works when it comes to supporting good health and nutrition, ultimately it comes down to a matter of will, resources and partnerships to get it done in time meet the UN’s SDGs of Zero Hunger and Good Health and Wellbeing. We’re ready to play our part.
1 GAIN, Nutritional Status among Cocoa Farming Families and Underlying Causes in Cote d’Ivoire, 2016.