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by Rima Alcadi
Paul Polman and Nisha Pillai (photo by B. Gravelli)
Paul Polman, is Unilever’s Chief Executive Officer. Since taking office in 2009, he has set out an ambitious vision:  by 2020, Unilever aims to incorporate 500,000 small farmers into its supply chains and to source all of its agricultural raw materials sustainably (see Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan). This centre-stage event was moderated by news anchor Nisha Pillai. They were subsequently joined by Andrew Rugasira, Merlin Preza Ramos, Bill Vorley and Laksmi Prasvita. 

Polman is not only Unilever’s CEO: he is also Chairman of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development; member of the International Business Council of the World Economic Forum; member of the Board of the UN Global Compact; member of the Board of the Consumer Goods Forum; and a Director of the Swiss American Chamber of Commerce. In 2013, he was invited to serve on the High-Level Panel looking at the Post 2015 Millennium Development Goals and previously acted as co-chairman of the B20 group of companies reporting to the G20 on Food Security. In recognition of his contribution to responsible business, in 2012 Polman received the Atlantic Council Award for Distinguished Business Leadership and the CK Prahalad Award for Global Sustainability Leadership. We certainly have a lot to learn from him! There’s lots on Polman on the web: pictures, articles, videos. Polman has a Velcro effect on people – what he says sticks. I will provide you with some snippets of his intervention:

·         Business exists to solve a problem - to serve  society.


·         If the system doesn’t work, business will not work either. Sustainability needs to be factored into the business model and business should be part of the solution. People want greater traceability and transparency when it comes to food especially. We are in this together. There can be no business if people are too poor to buy.

·        Unilever is an NGO – a non-governmental organization! The only difference between Unilever and other NGOs is that our business is financially sustainable and we don’t need to ask for resources;

·         Our children passed the age of 5 – why do they have the right while several others don’t? We produce bar soap, it is to our advantage that it is sold. So we train people on how to lead healthier and longer lives via better hygiene. It is a win-win.

·         The world is long on words and short on actions. You can't talk yourself out of what you’ve behaved yourself into.

·         Great inequalities are worrisome

Polman reminded us that we have still much work to do. We have major challenges to face, including mitigating and adapting to climate change, achieving food security and poverty alleviation and no company, government, NGO, or UN organization can tackle these challenges alone. To create an ecosystem that can help lift people out of poverty, we need to work in partnership. Indeed, his visit to IFAD is not only as star of this centre-stage event, but also to ratify a Memorandum of Understanding with us - this will lead to more smallholder farmers connected to markets. The partnership with IFAD would be valuable for Unilever. IFAD can help train and build the capacity of smallholder farmers, while Unilever can provide smallholder farmers with employment, access to market and the long-term guarantee of a fair price for their produce, as well as infrastructure. Reduction of poverty is important to Unilever also because smallholder farmers’ role as consumers is strengthened. This is thus putting in motion a virtual cycle that can provide benefits to all involved.

The event was certainly further enriched with the participation of the other panellists.

Prasvita is the Executive Director of PISAgro working with over 53,000 farmers. Under her leadership, PISAgro membership has expanded exponentially, attracting considerable private-sector investment. An important message from her is to work with smallholder farmers to ensure that they can improve productivity and quality, focusing also on postharvest. Their work consistently involves private sector partners and they pay attention to the entire supply chains (from farm to fork).

Preza Ramos, is the Director of the PRODECOOP Fair Trade cooperative in Nicaragua. An advocate for empowering cooperatives, over the last decades she has been instrumental in building the capacity of cooperative members, implementing a robust marketing strategy, thus ensuring fair trade. She reminded us that there are several different models in place – the key is to not lose sight of the fact that  the smallholder farmer needs to sustain himself and his family, while respecting the environment.

Rugasira, is the founder and CEO of Good African Coffee, a Uganda-based social enterprise that brings quality coffees, roasted and packed at source, to the global market. Good African Coffee works with a supply network of more than 14,000 coffee farmers in western Uganda. He highlighted that farmers are in their enterprise for business. Smallholder farmers are poor only because they lack opportunities. They lack money and resources as a result of the fact that they lack opportunities to make money. A major challenge is adding value to commodities so that smallholder farmers are not exposed to price volatility.

Vorley is the Principal Researcher in the Sustainable Markets Group at the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED). He told us that he is a big fan of what Unilever is doing, especially because it is done in a public and transparent way. He noted that it is not only important to understand and appreciate success, but also to understand what are the main reasons for failure.

The 10% of smallholders that are able to work with the private sector are able to do so because they are the ones with the least risk exposure: they are typically organised in cooperatives, have irrigation, enjoy access to quality seeds, adopt good agronomic practices, have access to infrastructure, etc. So if IFAD and governments can work jointly to help to provide these basic conditions, a more conducive environment will be created for the private sector to invest.

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