Singapore, 18 June – The agriculture sector is the backbone of rural economies worldwide. As the COVID-19 virus spreads beyond urban centers and into farming communities, smallholder livelihoods are particularly vulnerable. Agribusinesses play a crucial role in 1) safeguarding the health of their staff, suppliers, and farming communities while 2) ensuring business continuity. To facilitate peer learning around best practice in responding to COVID-19 at the field-level, WBCSD’s Global Agribusiness Alliance (GAA) hosted an online convening on 9 June for members and partners. The GAA is a sector-project and platform to strengthen supply-side action on environmental and social sustainability challenges.
Anita Neville, Senior Vice President of Group Corporate Communications at Golden Agri-Resources (GAR), and Christopher Stewart, Head of Sustainability at Olam International, delivered presentations and answered questions on their respective companies’ approaches to minimizing the impact of the pandemic within the rural communities in which they operate. Examples of interventions were shared across commodity supply chains such as palm, coffee, and rice, and regions including China, Indonesia, and Gabon. They shared the following key actions:
1) Establish new ways of working. Both GAR and Olam refreshed their standard operating procedures (SOPs) and instituted modified staff behavior in line with government regulations and World Health Organization recommendations on social distancing and other preventative measures. For example, field teams are conducting fewer in-person meetings and movement onto and within farms has reduced. Local leadership have put in place evacuation plans in case of worker infection, and in some operations reduced worker count or introduced split-team arrangements. Digital payment to farmers has replaced cash payment in many contexts to limit physical contact.
2) Share information. The speakers emphasized the role agribusinesses play in providing up-to-date, factual information about the virus and how to prevent infection. They aim to combat pervasive misinformation spreading via social media into farmer networks. Olam, for example, has translated communications materials into six languages and supported written guidelines with pictorial summaries and downloadable posters that share information with workers such as how to make facemasks and wash hands.
3) Bolster sanitation and provision of health services. Across GAR and Olam operations, there has been a concerted effort to strengthen health infrastructure and medical services as well as bolster sanitation and hygiene practices for all staff. For example, GAR is disinfecting workplaces regularly and carrying out sickness surveillance including temperature checks. Olam has released toolkits and supplies for building ‘tippy taps’—rural handwash stations that do not require touching with the hands to operate. Equipment like hand sanitizer, face masks, and thermometers have been disseminated to plantations.
4) Support communities with donations. Complementing efforts to protect workers and ensure business continuity, and as responsible corporate citizens, both GAR and Olam have contributed goods and funds to the local communities in which they operate and have been collaborating with local NGOs to do so. For instance, Olam contributed 35 handwashing pumps to local authorities in the Tchologo region of Cote d’Ivoire and distributed food and cleaning materials to an orphanage and children’s hospital in Senegal. GAR distributed water bottles at the Wisma Atlet emergency hospital and developed an official donation portal through the Eka Tjipta Foundation.
Agribusinesses face trade-offs while implementing measures to safeguard worker health and ensure business continuity. Maintaining employee morale has been challenging. During Ramadan this year, Muslim workers were not able to visit with extended family as they typically would during the important holiday; doing so would break social distancing rules and could put other employees at risk.
The companies are burdened with additional costs associated with local regulations and health standards. Olam, for example, rented eight additional trucks in Gabon to transport workers to the plantations in accordance a new regulation that limits each truck to carrying just nine workers.
In addition, many projects deemed non-essential have been put on hold until social distancing rules are rolled back. Both companies shared additional logistical challenges to managing alternative livelihoods programs and monitoring initiatives including participatory mapping exercises aimed at curbing deforestation.
GAR and Olam are eager to integrate new operational strategies into long-term business plans in the “new normal.” Assessing the impact of strengthened sanitation measures at the field level on other health challenges like diarrhea, for example, can offer opportunities to improve agribusiness operations moving beyond this pandemic.
Already, companies and governments alike have leveraged lessons from previous crises like Ebola or SARS in their approach to COVID-19. Christopher Stewart says of Olam’s work in Africa: “Our experience of having worked in Ebola outbreak countries gave us a head start in terms of the internal protocols we needed. Countries that had already gone through this with Ebola were prepared in terms of mindset and SOPs…the real question is ‘how far will this go and how long will it last?’”
As COVID-19 continues to impact farming communities, agribusinesses will adapt to protect workers and operate as smoothly as possible. These companies provide employment and stability in rural economies, and also work to meet the global demand for food and important ingredients in products like soap and hand sanitizers that are vital to combatting the spread of COVID-19. This pandemic serves as a call for the agribusiness sector to come together, share, and learn about best practices to ensure vital supply chain security worldwide.
Photo: Golden Agri-Resources.