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Supply Chain
It’s Time to Listen:
What Rural Agricultural Communities Need During COVID-19

As the pandemic continues, rural agricultural producers and their communities will need renewed levels of support and commitments from supply chain partners, to ensure their continued health and stability.

As brands face difficult decisions about cancelling orders due to loss of sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, who is supporting producers further down the supply chain? Responsible brands that have mapped their supply chains can trace their raw materials right to the agricultural communities that produce them. But what do these rural communities need? And who is providing it?

Asking agricultural communities what they need

CottonConnect is an organization with a mission to transform the cotton industry for good by enabling brands and retailers to develop more robust and resilient cotton supply chains. The organization has been delivering sustainable cotton farmer training programmes for over ten years in India, Pakistan and China; and has found that a community-led approach is the most effective. When considering how to help cotton farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic, they turned to the communities themselves.

“We feel a deep responsibility to the cotton farming communities enrolled in CottonConnect’s sustainable cotton programmes, so our immediate response to COVID-19 was to ask these communities what they needed,” CottonConnect CEO Alison Ward explained to Sustainable Brands™ in a recent interview. “As a trusted partner to the cotton communities we work with, we wanted to make sure they receive the right kind of information. They told us there is a need to increase adoption of practical measures to prevent virus transmission.”

To meet this need, CottonConnect launched its Sustainable Lives: Mission Hope campaign in India and Pakistan. The campaign is currently focused on COVID-19 awareness and response, creating contextualized Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials to be distributed via WhatsApp and social media.

CottonConnect had learned that its existing educational materials were too urban-focused; so, instead, designed the posters and videos specifically for rural communities. Nine posters were created on topics including signs and symptoms, Do’s and Don’ts, myths, addressing and reducing stigma, and handwashing. The open-source posters are available in seven languages based on the programme locations. Two short, animated, educational videos on COVID-19 were also produced — describing the signs, symptoms and prevention of the virus; and outlining Do’s and Don’ts, respectively.

“To meet the need for practical assistance, we’ve been able to bring a doctor directly to our teams and local partners via online sessions; and are also distributing essential supplies such as soap and PPE,” Ward added.

Collaborating with others to reach more people

La Isla Network, an organization dedicated to ending chronic kidney disease of non-traditional causes (CKDnT) among workers and their communities worldwide found they could reach more sugar mill workers in Nicaragua by collaborating with local institutions.

As Jason Glaser, CEO at La Isla Network, told SB: “While this pandemic indiscriminately affects all populations regardless of class or nationality, it will disproportionately harm the most vulnerable and disenfranchised. After thinking deeply about this, La Isla Network began an action plan to support the communities we work with during this time, with a team that includes several international and local partners in Nicaragua.”

La Isla Network collaborated with local institutions, university partners and the sugar mill it already works with on the Adelante InitiativeIngenio San Antonio — in order to reach sugar mill workers in Nicaragua. Together with several church, business and community leaders, La Isla Network will be sharing recommendations of measures to prevent transmission of the virus and answering questions. While La Isla Network is not a religious organization, it recognized the importance and reach of religious institutions for its community partners.

La Isla Network is also in discussions with Canadian social enterprise Ulula to assess the possibility of employers in Nicaragua disseminating free information directly to workers’ cell phones, and hearing back from them via short questionnaires and voicemail systems.

For Glaser, this collaboration has been vital.

“So much of this has been made possible by an amazing group coming together in Nicaragua and throughout the Nicaraguan diaspora — church, business, development sector, countryside, city and university leaders all coming together with focus, professionalism and efficacy. It has been a heartening experience to be part of,” he reflected.

Keeping trading channels open

With travel restrictions, social distancing and increased hygiene measures, keeping usual trading channels open has been a challenge. Maintaining normal trading facilities, however, is critical for farmers to be able to sell their produce and maintain their income. Leading chocolate producer Barry Callebaut has committed to continuing to purchase, deliver and process cocoa — trading that is essential to support the livelihoods of smallholder cocoa farmers in Brazil. Its network of eleven cocoa-buying stations not only plays a critical role in the purchasing of cocoa beans; it also supports farmers with cocoa seedlings, fertilizers, soil analysis and crop management. 

Keeping the cocoa-buying stations open during COVID-19 has meant adapting practices to be able to offer services to farmers, despite the challenges of reduced face-to-face interactions, and reduced business development and community development activities. Assistance and support with crop management has had to continue remotely.

“Working here, we understand how important cocoa is as a cash crop for farmers,” said Corrado Meotti, Sustainability Director at Barry Callebaut Brazil. “Many farmers are depending on weekly sales to make their living, so the decision to stay open was crucial. We are also supporting farmers via text messaging services. They mainly ask about identifying cocoa diseases, application of fertilizers and cocoa delivery support.”

More than ever, as the pandemic continues, rural agricultural communities will need renewed levels of support and continued commitments from supply chain partners, to ensure their own health and stability.