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Project Sunrise: Enhancing livelihoods while strengthening our supply chain


Unilever joined forces with international development NGO Oxfam in 2010 to explore how to build sustainable smallholder-based supply chains that could grow our business while reducing poverty for marginalised communities.

Unilever sign in Mexico

Pilot project to improve smallholder yields

The collaboration, Project Sunrise, studied pilot projects producing dehydrated vegetables, tea, tomatoes and black soy beans in such countries as Tanzania, Kenya, Azerbaijan, India and Indonesia.

As well as benefiting the smallholders who took part, Sunrise has resulted in new guidelines for our supply chain, designed to ensure that investments in improving smallholder yields bear fruit for everyone concerned. The new guide is now part of our procurement process.

We caught up with Jan Kees Vis, Global Director, Sustainable Sourcing Development, to find out more.

What has Project Sunrise achieved in the last four years?

Project Sunrise has taught us very valuable lessons about the ways in which our relationships with smallholders can be improved to their benefit, and to ours. By developing a way of working in partnership with an NGO, we’ve been able to increase smallholder yields and improve their livelihoods while strengthening our supply chain.

In the past, our programmes with smallholders were usually run by the local operating company. Many of these have been hugely successful, but we’ve never before had a central framework and a central point of contact within Unilever. Now, as a result of Sunrise, we have the new guide and great experience to draw on. It should help us unlock the massive potential that exists among smallholders, whether they are already in our value chain or yet to join.

How does it fit into the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan?

Our work relates to two aspects of the Plan – improving livelihoods and the sustainable sourcing of agricultural raw materials. Wherever we can, we are implementing inclusive business models which as well as generating economic benefit to smallholder suppliers also focus on issues like gender and fairness in the workplace.

We also help smallholders improve the sustainability of their agriculture, usually through partnerships with expert advisers. We act as a ‘knowledge broker’ for sustainable methods.

The benefits for us as a business are potentially very significant. Developing effective models for working with smallholders, who will become even more important as a source of raw materials in the future, means that we can manage our investments and achieve greater security of supply.

What were the biggest challenges you faced?

The biggest challenge with this sort of project is starting with a ‘greenfield site’, that is, with smallholders in an area that you haven’t worked before, as we did with dehydrated vegetables in Tanzania and Azerbaijan. That doesn’t mean it cannot be done – the guide gives some valuable pointers – but you need to build a long-term business case.

What will you personally take away from the project?

It was fascinating to work within two different organisational management cultures - Oxfam and Unilever. The project called for a real depth of engagement with our partners. Managing expectations on both sides, and navigating between the two styles, could be very interesting!

How did Project Sunrise bring different partners together?

I think Project Sunrise has brought us closer together and changed perspectives on all sides. In the past, people may have felt that what could be achieved by traditional community development programmes and what was wanted by industry were two different things but Sunrise showed that if we are willing to learn from each other there is a lot of potential.

Oxfam’s perspective on Project Sunrise

Project Sunrise was very much a collaboration between Unilever and Oxfam, so we asked Oxfam what they had learned from the programme.

David Bright, Head of Economic Justice Programming at Oxfam, says: “The three words I would use to describe Sunrise are inspiring; challenging; and innovative. I would call it innovative because of the partnership itself – you’ve got a multinational company and an international NGO trying to work together to solve the problem of bringing smallholders into the supply chain.

“There are 500 million smallholder households living in poverty around the world – if we can give benefit to those households we can have a huge impact on poverty. Sunrise is important both to demonstrate that we can do it and to influence others to show them how to do it.”

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