The Woolworths’ Good Business Journey, which the retail giant has been travelling for more than a decade, is a comprehensive commitment to responsible business that helps to ensure the health and wellbeing of people, the transformation and empowerment of communities, and the sustainability of the environment. So how does this strong strategic platform guide a retail company, that has quality food at the core of its business, to respond to one of the most pervasive issues in its home country: food insecurity?
A reinforced commitment to food security
Fourteen million people in South Africa are at risk of going hungry, according to the Statistics South Africa 2014 General Household Survey. Meanwhile, 10 million tonnes of food – a third of the amount produced – go to waste in South Africa every year, according to the 2017 WWF Food Loss and Waste report, funded in part by Woolworths.
After many years of responding to the food security challenge, in early 2018 the Woolworths Trust underwent a strategic review to assess the focus, effectiveness and potential long-term impact of its social interventions. Extensive consultation with key internal and external stakeholders only served to reinforce the company’s role in the food security space, as well as the compatibility of this focus with the overall business strategy. This review process also facilitated critical reflection on how the company could best contribute to systemic social change, and underscored the necessity for cross-sector collaboration, if food security is to be realised nationally.
Partnering with FoodForward SA to increase capacity
In 2017 alone, Woolworths donated R570 million worth of surplus food that had passed its ‘sell by’ date but had not yet reached its ‘use by’ date. In addition to food donations managed at store level, in mid-2018, Woolworths announced that it would also be joining forces with FoodForward SA – a non-profit organisation that addresses hunger by recovering edible surplus food at various stages of the food value chain, that would otherwise end up in landfills, and redistributing it to communities in need across the country. Before entering into the partnership, Woolworths drew on its food safety, quality control and other business expertise to assess FoodForward SA’s operations, thereby ensuring a shared commitment to food safety, nutritional value and eradication of waste as critical pillars in the partnership.
“FoodForward SA plays a vital role in addressing food security in South Africa. Woolworths welcomed the opportunity to partner with the organisation, to enhance their capacity to get food to the communities who need it. Funding is only one aspect of the partnership. As a food business with a countrywide footprint and extensive experience in getting quality food to where it is supposed to go at the right time, we aim to open up opportunities for FoodForward SA to increase its efficiency and access to good food,” says Zinzi Mgolodela who is the director of corporate affairs at Woolworths.
In addition to R3 million funding over a three-year period, Woolworths will also encourage its food suppliers to redirect their surplus to the organisation, and will continue to contribute its business expertise to ensure that the organisation maintains the highest standards of food safety and quality control. Providing FoodForward SA with specialised business services and skills is also creating exciting opportunities for Woolworths employees to apply their knowledge to social causes, thereby shifting the traditional approach to employee volunteerism.
Food security is defined by the United Nations Committee on World Food Security as the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.
Collaborating with the ‘competition’
FoodForward SA also partners with several other large companies, many of which would, in a pure business sense, be viewed as competition. At a strategic level, Woolworths’ partnership with FoodForward SA demonstrates the evolution of its approach to social investment, from leading initiatives, to collaborating in order to ensure more meaningful and lasting impact. “As a partner of FoodForward SA, Woolworths may not be the leader, but we are excited to be part of a leading approach in the sector,” says Mgolodela. “Food retailers have a collective responsibility to ensure that people in South Africa don’t go hungry. Responding to the thuma mina national call, it is more important for us to work together to address the big issues, rather than to work in silos in favour of brand recognition. As the African proverb goes: when spiders unite, they can tie down a lion.”
This type of collaboration is not entirely new to Woolworths. Another part of the retail value chain that experiences a significant amount of waste is the clothing sector. Woolworths, along with various other clothing retailers, partners with The Clothing Bank – a social enterprise that collects excess retail stock, which it sells to unemployed mothers at discounted rates, so that they may in turn sell the clothes as a source of income. These entrepreneurs also participate in a two-year training programme and the objective is for each woman to earn at least R4 000 per month. Between 2016 and 2018, Woolworths had donated R139 million worth of clothing to the project.
Supporting and enhancing government’s work
In South Africa, 27% of children below five years are stunted. In a context of food insecurity and social instability, the nutritional problems of these young children typically continue, or may even be exacerbated, into school age. Malnutrition during early childhood can lead to stunting which impairs cognitive skills, concentration and the ability to learn. The National Development Plan, which emphasises nutrition, especially for children, as a key element of a decent standard of living in South Africa, envisions the realisation of food and nutrition security through public- private partnerships. Similarly, Woolworths recognises government as a crucial partner for the sustainability and scalability of developmental projects.
The retailer has partnered with UNICEF South Africa, to support the Department of Basic Education, to improve the health, education and nutritional outcomes of learners in quintile one to three primary schools. This will be achieved by addressing the capacity gaps of volunteer food handlers and educating learners and broader school communities about effective water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices. The company has committed R4 million over three years to the roll out of a pilot programme to improve nutrition for about 50 000 children at 50 under-resourced Gauteng-based schools that participate in the National School Nutrition Programme, which currently feeds over nine million learners in aforementioned schools.
Through this pilot programme, community members who volunteer as food handlers will be trained to safely and hygienically prepare balanced meals for school children, in healthy environments. Learners will also be taught about good hygiene practices, including the importance of handwashing with soap before eating. “Good nutrition and hygiene are investments in the future of children and the country. Addressing malnutrition is crucial to enabling children’s rights to survive, grow, develop and learn to their full potential.
While this partnership will develop the training module for volunteer food handlers and trial it in 50 schools, the materials will serve as a resource with potential to be rolled out to the 50 000 volunteer food handlers across the country. It is this type of catalytic work with private sector partners that sets the stage for at-scale programme delivery by government across the country,” says UNICEF South Africa’s chief of education, Wycliffe Otieno.
With a growing portfolio of innovative and collaborative food security interventions, Woolworths also continues to invest in well-established initiatives that go beyond the immediate response to hunger. Conventional farming strips minerals and nutrients from the soil so that, over time, increasing amounts of fertilisers are needed; while healthy soil is better able to retain water and requires fewer chemical interventions, helping to maintain biodiversity both in and above the soil. Inspired by the fact that good soil produces good food and wanting to ensure sustainable farming for generations to come, Woolworths’ Farming for the Future invests in shifting the mindsets of its agricultural suppliers in holistic and systematic farming that uses less fertilisers and chemicals, while preserving quality. All of this is achieved without charging the customer more.
Beyond its supply chain, for 14 years Woolworths has partnered with social enterprise Food & Trees for Africa on the EduPlant programme, to increase the availability and accessibility of nutritious food in communities through the establishment of permaculture food gardens in schools. The programme places great emphasis on permaculture – the development of sustainable and self-sufficient agricultural ecosystems. Through the provision of workshops, schools are encouraged to grow their own food which can be used to supplement their school feeding schemes or generate income.
To date, the Woolworths Trust has invested over R32 million into the programme, which has impacted hundreds of schools and thousands of learners across the country.
Strengthening food security interventions
Drawing from its own experiential lessons, Woolworths advises other companies wanting to contribute to the food security sector to be open to collaboration and to draw on the knowledge of implementing partners and the guidance of strategies such as the National Development Plan and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
With its holistic response to hunger and food insecurity rooted in its Good Business Journey ethos, Woolworths’ comprehensive basket of solutions and unwavering commitment to the cause reassures that, even though the road to the realisation of food security in South Africa may be long, like every journey, it begins with a single step, and many steps are being taken every day.