DSM on the SDGs: 'We can't be successful in a world that fails'

clock • 4 min read

The food supply giant has embraced five of the SDGs to drive its sustainability efforts, including SDG2's mission to eradicate hunger

As the world's largest food ingredient supplier and vitamin producer, Netherlands-based DSM has a clear interest in the subject of global nutrition. The company has long had an outward-looking approach to the subject, having signed a partnership with the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) back in 2007 and setting up its own Nutrition Improvement Program.

Since then its efforts to fight hunger and malnutrition have continued, with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) proving a particularly good motivator and rallying point for its post-2015 programmes.

Fokko Wientjes is the company's vice president of nutrition in emerging markets and food systems transformation, a role that makes him responsible for developing, building and leading new nutrition consumer businesses in India and Africa, as well as managing large-scale public private partnerships with UNICEF and the WFP.

Wientjes recalls talking to people when the SDGs were still being developed at the UN. "It was all about 'give and take'," he says. "I was so concerned that the future of the world was being negotiated that I thought we have to put all our efforts into implementation."

He therefore became active in shaping DSM's approach to the SDGs. "Any uncertainty is bad for business," he reflects. "And we strongly believe that we can't be successful in a world that fails. So to get this agenda is a useful thing."

The company is targeting its efforts on the five goals where it can have the most impact given its expertise in health, nutrition, and materials. As such, alongside the obvious focus on sustainable food production and tackling hunger the company is also working to contribute to the closely interlinked goals covering climate, energy, and resources.

Its standout project linked to SDG2 involves Africa Improved Foods (AIF) Rwanda, which is a joint venture with the Rwandan government, the Dutch development bank, the DFID Impact Acceleration Facility, and the World Bank's investment arm.

AIF Rwanda sources crops from around 100,000 Rwandan smallholders, trains them to improve their yields, and employs local people in the factory that produces cereals fortified with vitamins and minerals.

Much of that food is then bought by the WFP and the Rwandan government to feed mothers and their young children nutritious porridge. It is one of Rwanda's main projects working to bring down the country's high rate of childhood stunting, where children are shorter than they should be due to malnutrition.

But as well as directly feeding two vulnerable groups of people, the project has a much wider impact.

Wientjes says DSM pays the farmers higher than market rates and the sale is guaranteed. As a result farmers' income has gone up by 30 per cent and that income is more reliable, leading to greater food security for farming families.

In parallel with this, agricultural yield has risen by 20 per cent as farmers are more invested and can plan better. And there has been a big reduction in crop contamination by aflatoxin, a fungus that raises the risk of liver cancer.

Wientjes explains that DSM buys the whole corn cob, not just the kernels. As well as giving better moisture control, the company can transport it to a central location to shell and dry it. That controls aflatoxin spores and allows farmers to get on with the job of planting and harvesting their goods rather than processing.

"We have seen the impact the project has, which goes beyond nutritious food," he explains. "There's money flowing through the value chain, which makes it more interesting for everyone."

DSM benefits commercially too by selling corn to the WFP and Rwandan government, while also selling any surplus on the standard market.

Crucially, DSM does not see the people it is working with as victims of famine, but as future customers. "We are investing in this," says Wientjes. "We don't give away anything." The project means food does not need to be imported unnecessarily into Africa and it is sowing the seeds of a large emerging market.

The company clearly considers AIF a success, having recently invested in a new food manufacturing plant in Rwanda that will have the capacity to feed two million people, and is not afraid to talk about it.

Wientjes says businesses have an important responsibility to raise awareness as they strive to make progress against the SDGs. "Strategy is agreed in the boardroom but the board forgets to tell the rest of the world," he argues. "Maybe the world doesn't need to know all the detail of the SDGs but it needs to know more."

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