Woolworths focuses most of its corporate social investment (CSI) spend and social development initiatives on food security. When the Covid-19 pandemic struck, the group had to respond to immediate needs, tweaking CSI spend in 2020, but not changing the overall goal.
Woolworths’ five social development initiatives focus on empowering and building sustainable communities through projects that provide people with access to food and accelerate nutrition, improve educational outcomes in schools, and support employees’ volunteering in their communities. The group aligns its strategic approach with various frameworks, including the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and South Africa’s National Development Plan.
According to Zinzi Mgolodela, corporate affairs director at Woolworths South Africa, Woolworths understands the worldwide plight around food insecurity and specifically the issues around access to nutritious food:
“Our focus on food security to alleviate hunger is an extension of our beliefs and commitments as a food business, and we have a role to play in building thriving communities where everyone benefits from access to nutritious food.”
Initiatives to boost food security
Self-run initiatives include:
- Food that Cares: Woolworths’ Foods team distributes food supplement pouches to a school in KwaZulu-Natal, complementing the school feeding scheme
- The Woolworths Education Programme: Woolworths’ marketing team provides lessons at various schools throughout South Africa using interactive projects, presentations, creative lessons, and various printed and digital elements to promote healthy behaviours and practices. These lessons are designed to increase interest and motivation, which helps to enhance student engagement and participation.
Initiatives in collaboration with partners include:
- FoodForward SA: Distributing meals from surplus food in the food value chain to beneficiaries
- Living Soils Community Learning Farm: An educational and environmentally friendly food production pilot
- UNICEF: Funding volunteer food handlers’ training manuals and workshops at selected schools as part of an initiative focused on preparing balanced meals in a healthy, clean, and safe environment
- National Department of Education and the Western Cape Education Department: Hosting nutrition and health events for parents and learners, promoting healthy eating and healthy lifestyles
- Around 1 400 public benefit organisations (PBOs): Distributing foods near their sell-by date from stores to charities.
Covid-19 demanded an immediate response
The Covid-19 pandemic has had serious economic and social repercussions in South Africa and Africa, resulting in many families and communities losing their income, leaving them unable to afford food and personal care items. Woolworths has based its CSI spend on its long-term focus on food security and improving education. However, the group knew it had to respond to needs arising from the pandemic. Over and above its ongoing CSI initiatives and spend, the group allocated extra funds for Covid-19 relief efforts in 2020.
Response 1: Deal with immediate needs
Woolworths was one of the first organisations to respond to the need for emergency equipment with a donation to disaster relief non-profit Gift of the Givers. Further contributions were made to the Solidarity Fund (by MySchool), UNICEF, and other programmes.
The group’s Covid-19 response of over R34 million went to initiatives focused on physical safety of the group’s frontline workers, the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE) and other items for healthcare facilities, healthcare and community workers, hunger alleviation, and educational support.
Initiatives elsewhere in Africa have focused on supporting most affected communities by providing PPE, food, and other necessities. Programmes supported included Feed-A-Family in Kenya, Co-Feed Namibia, and disaster relief programmes in Botswana and Eswatini.
Covid-19 relief donations included:
- R1 million and one million meals to communities through a partnership with Gift of the Givers
- 60 000 masks to communities through NPO partners
- R700 000 worth of bedding, towels, and shoes to public healthcare facilities and workers in South Africa
- 7 000 clothing items and shoes in Botswana.
- Living Soils Community Learning Farm: Around 730 fresh food boxes donated to families in need
- Infinity Culinary Training Centre (ICTC): In partnership with the group’s Foods division, ICTC used the staff dining room and kitchen at Woolworths head office in Cape Town to make and distribute over 400 000 meals to feed families in need in and around Cape Town.
Response 2: Support communities
Woolworths focused on education and basic care in less-resourced communities by supplying 18 schools in the Eastern and Western Cape with water tanks and handwashing units, and providing handwashing units to another 11 schools where the group had previously installed water tanks. The group reached 22 communities throughout South Africa. Support for education included supplying materials, such as resource books with lesson plans and worksheets, to the Department of Basic Education (DBE), which were made available on the DBE’s website and social media platforms. The group also distributed weekly exercise and healthy eating content to parents via email and on the MySchool channels, including the website and blog.
Customers participated in the ‘Fill a Bag’ initiative along with suppliers and employees who donated funds and products for food care packs. These were handed over to Gift of the Givers for distribution.
The group’s Corporate Affairs team headed a Care & Purpose task team comprising several teams, including one focusing on communities and PBOs, and another on the needs of small, medium and micro enterprises. These teams worked on disaster response projects daily.
Measuring the response
Not all initiatives lend themselves to measurement. For those that did, Woolworths set targets and kept stakeholders updated on progress.
2020’s CSI approach challenged and changed CSI
How the Covid-19 pandemic response benefited CSI
CSI is everyone’s business
“CSI is no longer seen as only the responsibility of certain members of the Corporate Affairs team,” said Mgolodela. “The CSI team had an opportunity to ‘educate’ other colleagues on community relations protocols. Many colleagues have expressed gratitude for what they learnt about the industry, and the opportunity to serve not only the company but also the country.”
CSI 2020 challenges
Putting the long-term focus on the back burner
The group had to acknowledge that while there was an immediate need to alleviate hunger, giving handouts was actually a step backwards on the path to creating sustainable food security solutions.
Said Mgolodela: “Covid-19 presented situations that had to be dealt with immediately, sometimes putting the long-term focus on the back burner. We had to be flexible and not worry about what is ideal but rather address what was needed in the short term.”
Changes to CSI strategy due to the Covid-19 response
In the short term, the group had to suspend initiatives such as the Employee Community Involvement (ECI) programme, purely to avoid breach of social distancing protocols. The ECI programme provided an opportunity for employees to get actively involved in some of these initiatives.
“We have been of the opinion that CSI needs a longer-term view when it comes to planning and investing,” Mgolodela asserted. “While this is still true, what we have learnt in the past few months is that we need to balance that with getting much closer to what society really needs. For the first time in a long time, return on investment didn’t matter. Hopefully, what will characterise CSI going forward is that although it is driven by CSI teams, it is everyone’s responsibility.”
Case study: Living Soils Community Learning Farm
Aim | Establish a self-sustaining, learning farm that showcases the production of nutritious food through sustainable farming methods, for the benefit and development of long-term food security of the local community. This incorporates training and development for young and emerging farmers and the broader community.
Who | The Living Soils Community Learning Farm is a partnership between Woolworths South Africa, its supplier, Spier Wine Farm (Spier), and the Sustainability Institute (SI).
Where | Lynedoch Valley, Western Cape, South Africa.
About | The partnership is piloting a community garden that contributes to food security and develops environmentally conscious farming skills (agroecology).
The SI runs an AgroEcology Academy, a young farmer training college in partnership with Spier, addressing the challenges of high youth unemployment, nutritional insecurity, and the need to accelerate social justice around access to land through a combination of formal qualifications, short-course training, and extended periods of hands-on learning.
Why | Food security is a problem in South Africa where there are contrasting forms of malnutrition: wasting, stunting, and micronutrient deficiencies, along with obesity and related noncommunicable diseases.
The group believes supporting people to grow their own food and develop skills that enable them to secure their own food, either through employment or access to readily available, affordable nutrient-dense food, will contribute to food security.
The project gives participants an opportunity to address the land issues the province and South Africa are facing.
The number of households involved in agricultural activities in the Western Cape (3.9%) is far below the national figure of 13.8%. Resolving this issue requires collaboration and a means of providing people with the skills required for farming, as well as solutions towards the larger issues of access to land and optimum use of the land thereafter.
Key programme successes
- Woolworths’ Farming for the Future specialist provides mentoring and support to the farm manager and interns
- Around 1 700kg of produce has been harvested from just under a hectare of land since the launch of the programme in November 2019
- Produce harvested includes carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, lettuce, cucumber, baby marrow, tomatoes, butternut, gem squash, spring onions, and green peppers
- The first harvest was used to prepare meals for around 200 impoverished and at-risk children from the Lynedoch community
- Produce was delivered to various feeding programmes at the SI in Stellenbosch, with the surplus donated to FoodForward SA or the Lynedoch community
- Eight young farmer interns joined the team on the farm in 2020, bringing the total number of interns to 11.