Olam Food Ingredients (OFI) supplies cocoa, coffee, nuts, spices and dairy products to global brands and manufacturers around the world, sourced from the business’s own estates as well as a network of an estimated 5 million farmers To give an idea of the scale, Olam’s onions are served on over 2 billion burgers a year, and it supplies enough coffee beans to provide a cup of coffee a week to everyone in the world.
“Sustainability is at the heart of our business,” said Van Poppel. “It’s rooted in our purpose to re-imagine global agriculture and food systems, because the current way of doing things is simply not sustainable. We need to feed a growing population without overwhelming the planet. In addition, a third of all the food the world produces is wasted, yet one in nine people still go to bed hungry every day.”
Sustainability also makes good business sense, with consumers keen to purchase brands that can help them to be more environmentally friendly and ethical. To tap into this demand, manufactures need to build sustainability-related stories around their brands, to build loyalty.
“To effectively communicate the sustainability of their products, brands need to have complete visibility of their supply chains.”
This can be a complex challenge - and this is where the AtSource platform comes into the picture.
Making supply chains transparent
In April 2017, Van Poppel was part of a team tasked by Olam CEO Sunny Verghese to develop a way of better connecting customers to the business’s sustainability work, (structured around its sustainability framework). The key aim was to empower customers to know exactly where a specific product came from, along with its complete economic, social and environmental footprint.
“For example, if a company was buying 1 000 tons of arabica coffee or cocoa beans, the idea was that they would be able to find out about the wider environmental and social impact of their purchases, and more importantly, be able to identify ways to mitigate these impacts.”
The AtSource platform, launched publicly in January 2019, is the result of this effort. This customer-focused proposition is accessible from a user-friendly portal, and in a couple of clicks, customers can trace the journey of a product all the way back to the estate or farmer group it came from, with detailed social and environmental analysis.
Three tiered levels of engagement are available, beginning with an entry-level service. This is targeted at helping companies relatively new to the area of sustainability to understand where they should focus their efforts to improve performance and manage reputational risk.
The next step up - AtSource Plus - uses primary data to give customers a complete picture of the social conditions and environmental footprint of their own supply chains and offers the opportunity to create action plans to improve these. Finally, the top tier, AtSource Infinity, aims to scale up Olam’s sustainability programmes together with partners, in order to generate transformative impacts for communities on the ground.
Driving positive impacts on the ground
Customers are already beginning to see the benefits.
“Feedback has been fairly consistent,” says Van Poppel. “The ability to track the social and environmental footprint of their ingredients from the farm, right up to their doorsteps is something new and unique. Customers have told us they’ve never seen anything so comprehensive and granular.”
Customers can also monitor the progress of Olam’s sustainability interventions in their supply chains, via metrics that are customisable according to those that matter most to them. AtSource’s economic metrics for example, include farmer yields, overall work safety, productivity increases and training. Such granular data gathering shows where progress is being made but also uncovers areas where farmer livelihoods need to be improved.
“In the Mt. Elgon region in Uganda for example, the economic metrics show that 70 % of the 1 026 farmers in the group have received training on Good Agricultural Practices and are estimated to increase their yields by 49 % on average for the current crop year. But the nutrition metrics show that only 13 % of farmers’ households were food secure,” says Van Poppel. “So this has prompted a new partnership to explore a more holistic approach to food and income diversification.”
“This insight is really useful for sustainability reporting and ongoing management decision making, for both Olam and our customers. Also, being completely transparent about both the good and the bad motivates people to get involved, to develop solutions and increase positive impacts.”
Delivering meaningful change
Van Poppel believes that the platform will continue to evolve, with more supply chains, products, customers and applications continually added. The company has committed to having all its product streams on the platform by the end of 2023, delivering supply chain transparency across the board.
“One of the things we’ve learned is just how complex it is to gather sustainability data across all these metrics. Every supply chain is different. You really need to be prepared to go the extra mile to deliver a platform like this. The fact that we have boots on the ground in the communities where we are gathering data, and where we want to have an impact, has been critical.”
Van Poppel is heartened by the fact that more and more customers are realising the importance of supply chain visibility. While transparency does not always deliver good news and can uncover bad practices, it means that these issues can be effectively dealt with, to the benefit of everyone.
“We are encouraged by what we have heard,” says Van Poppel. “I also think that we have seen a massive drive towards further transparency and meaningful change this year, and this can play in the favour of a platform like AtSource.”