The plush ballroom at the Sheraton hotel in New York City is in many ways as far as you can get from Kenya’s Machakos County. But that hotel, and others like it, are often the launching points of partnerships or initiatives that find their ways to rural communities.
So when Procter & Gamble makes a commitment at the Clinton Global Initiative annual meeting or Nespresso announces it will support smallholder coffee farmer training, or the U.S. Agency for International Development and Coca-Cola pledge to work together to incorporate smallholders in supply chains, what happens next? What do those commitments look like on the ground in a village, a local factory or a farm?
Devex visited a P&G supported water project implemented by a small community-based organization, a processing plant that supplies Coca-Cola as part of a partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and a coffee farming community where TechnoServe is implementing a Nespresso partnership. Here’s a look at how, despite their best efforts, partnerships face challenges related to communication, sustainability and where they fit in a broader scope of policy or planning.
P&G and clean water
While it’s normally high-level executives involved in partnership announcements, the work is quickly turned over to others — be it a corporate social responsibility or supply chain leader or the country director of a large nongovernmental organization. Then it trickles down further, leaving room to engage with local leaders, but also for communication breakdown.
A Procter & Gamble initiative to provide safe drinking water through the distribution of its Pur packets has about 150 partners across 75 countries. While someone at the P&G country office is involved on the policy and oversight side, the work is carried by a network of partners that includes large iNGOs like CARE or Child Fund as well as small, lesser-known community-based organizations.
Certainly the Eastern Community Development Program, a small community-based organization, probably best knows the terrain and attitudes of citizens of Machakos County, where the program was expanded last year. But ECDP, which was brought on to implement the project by P&G partner ChildFund, is far removed from the decision makers.
That could just be the nature of how things work, but it raises a question about what happens when it doesn’t, or when a small tweak could make things work better.
Local residents don’t really know P&G, even though the packets bear the logo; instead the face they recognize is their local community health volunteer through ECDP. And they don’t quite know what to call the product — several call it a drug, which is likely not how P&G would like it to be described — but they watched in awe as it was demonstrated, asking if there was a product that could clear their insides of all the dirt they must have consumed in the past.
The Pur packets are best used in places like Machakos County, which have silty, dirty water sources, especially in the dry season, that resemble murky water pits that serve not only human but animal water needs. Even if there are questions about the sustainability of the distribution model, the technology of the product, which visibly separates out dirt particles, is something to see.
The expansion into Machakos last year has gone smoothly, partly because of an effort to include ministry of health and local government officials from the start, said Benedict Ngotho, programs coordinator for ECDP.
“When you give partners real roles when you start, it makes it smooth,” he said.
ECDP is rolling out the program — training and working with community health volunteers to educate the local population and distribute the packets. The adoption was more dramatic than expected, he told Devex shortly after the program launched.
Sunny Processors and Coca-Cola
At Sunny Processors, becoming part of Coca-Cola’s supply chain was about expanding the business, but it was also about the potential impacts on farmers. The company has received help through Project Nurture, a Coca-Cola and Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnership, and while it’s helping the industry, there’s a need for more coordination.
Sunny Processors was founded in 2008 and early on produced about 750 tons or mango puree a year; today it’s producing between 3,000 and 3,500 tons a year at its plant in Thika, Kenya.
Sourcing was initially a challenge — they had to go to farmers to explain they wanted to buy 120 tons of fruit per day, said Kushal Patel, managing director of Sunny Processors. But things have changed, and the supply chain has improved, in part due to trainings and better education about how to improve outputs and think through logistics.
Even local companies can find it difficult to get thousands of farmers organized to sell a steady supply of fruits from them, said Dickson Mbando, who is a program lead with TechnoServe in Kenya working on horticulture and Project Nurture specifically.
That’s where TechnoServe and the network it trains comes in. By helping farmers set up cooperatives or organize themselves, providing training, governance, business and marketing skills to help them sell to suppliers, organizations like Technoserve can play a critical role in streamlining the process, he said.
Sunny Processors has learned a lot about factory systems, and incorporated many international standards as it has gone through the process of becoming a Coke supplier. And they’ve been a good customer with an annual contract.
That contract helps drive demand and feeds into a cycle – Sunny Processors needs farmers to produce more, quality mangoes so that he has a steady supply and can meet commitments, like the one to Coca-Cola, but the increased production and more consistent sales also boosts farmer income and helps the industry as a whole.
“If one link in the chain doesn’t work, then everything breaks down,” Patel said. “Farmers, us, consumers, the whole chain has to be working in tandem.”
He’s been working alongside partners like Technoserve to help bring farmers together to understand what is required for his processes and to meet high standards.
Some of the key challenges — around infrastructure, education, new technologies and an aversion to risk — will likely require additional partners, including the government. And it needs better coordination. While many organizations and actors are working on smallholder farmer issues, they often operate in silos, Patel said. There are good resources, but what’s missing is a more central organizing capacity and a plan with clear objectives, with the agriculture officers to support it, he added.
“Piecemeal feels good in the short term, but the end results are not as effective,” Patel added.
Nespresso and coffee farmers
Nespresso supports smallholder coffee growers to increase yields and quality in an effort to develop a new source of beans for its supply chain. The face of the initiative in Kigumo, Kenya is a group of young adults on motor bikes who’ve been trained on farming techniques and lead training sessions and visit farms to check in with local residents. But when the distance between the corporate partners and the local community is vast, a truly meaningful, deep partnership can be difficult.
TechnoServe is implementing the program and while many employees are from the community there is still a sense from some that the corporation supporting the project should give more. At one of the small milling plants, the manager was pleased that training was improving yields, but he also had a lot of requests – for farm inputs, funding to improve the processing facility or pay back salaries it owed, or more support for the cooperative.
But many of the farmers served by the trainings only have a vague sense of what Nespresso or Nescafé are. They’ve likely heard in the training sessions that they are supported by the company, but what translates more effectively than that explanation of support is solid progress.
Veronica Muthoni Kimani, who proudly took Devex on a tour of her small farm on the hill surrounding her home in Kigumo, has seen her crop nearly triple in two years through investments in inputs, rejuvenating plants and covering the ground in mulch.
But what about long-term sustainability of the practices and continued training once the commitment and its resources expire?
TechnoServe has thought about an exit plan, though if more funding comes in through a partnership that would be great, said Dominic Odhiambo Ogut, a senior business adviser on coffee at TechnoServe.
Farmers like Kimani may be part of that solution. As neighbors have seen her plants flourish, they’ve started to ask questions, and she’s sharing her knowledge. She’s not alone; other farmers in the area are also passing on what they learn in training.
The quality of local cooperatives varies widely, making investment or progress more difficult. But Technoserve is working with local communities and those cooperatives to address governance issues and make them stronger links into the market that best serve local growers, Ogut said. The goal is to get local cooperatives to eventually hire some of the trainers themselves.
And while the community is working towards AAA certified coffee to meet Nespresso’s needs, there are still other questions, perhaps broader ones about the nature of these partnerships.
While many partnerships tackle a specific area and make a commitment to reaching a certain population, broader efforts are needed to link them together and ensure that people or communities are not left behind. Smart partnerships of the future will look to examples like those in Kenya for ways to better enforce sustainability, build systems of feedback, and to exit without leaving beneficiaries in a lurch.
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