Inclusive business

Livelihoods for smallholder farmers

We aim to enhance the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands of smallholder farmers while making our supply of sustainably grown crops secure in the long term.

Young black soy smallholder farmer

Smallholder farmers – feeding the world

Supporting smallholder farmers matters to our business and to the world. Smallholder farmers make a vital contribution to meeting the food demands of the world's growing population – and in doing so to achieving UN Global Goal 2 - Zero hunger. They continue to be a crucial part of our supply chain, helping us achieve our aim of sourcing 100% of agricultural raw materials sustainably by 2020.

We work directly with around 30,000 smallholders, but the suppliers we buy from connect us to many more. This connection to around 1.5 million people in emerging markets is an important way for us to increase our positive social impact: according to the World Bank, three out of four low-income people depend directly or indirectly on agriculture for their livelihoods. Often, they are cut off from access to training and education and lack knowledge of the techniques that would help them maximise their incomes.

Helping smallholders increase their yields can increase their income, helps us secure a local, competitive and sustainable supply of ingredients, and provides a channel to enhance their livelihoods in other ways, including by empowering women.

Our approach

We work with suppliers and smallholders who are growing some of the most important ingredients in our supply chain, including tea, palm oil, tomatoes, vegetables, vanilla and soy beans.

Our programmes employ a wide range of techniques and methods to encourage sustainable agriculture and increased yields among smallholder farmers. These are tailored to the crops and local circumstances of the smallholder farmers involved, but could include a selection of crop varieties, crop rotation, soil management and irrigation technology.


Chinese Tomato Farmer
Improving tomato farming practices in China

Our brands rely on many ingredients bought by our suppliers from smallholder farmers. In Yanqi County, Xinjiang, in China where we source some of our tomatoes, we are providing smallholder farmers training via four Farmer Field Schools set up with our supplier COFCO Thune. As a result of more sustainable agricultural methods and the promotion of new technologies such as drip irrigation, farmers in the programme have seen, per hectare, yields increase by 7.5 tonnes, water use reduced by 1500m3, and pesticide spraying reduced by 150g.

This work is often undertaken in partnership – especially with our suppliers, as we buy the large majority of crops through our extended supply chain rather than directly from farmers. 

Certification also plays an important role in promoting sustainable agriculture. Rainforest Alliance certification of smallholder cocoa growers in key cocoa-producing countries, such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, helps them strengthen their producer organisations, cut costs, achieve higher yields, and ultimately earn more money for their harvests. Presently, in West Africa, all our cocoa is produced by smallholders. Rainforest Alliance certification is also helping tea growers in countries including Turkey, Kenya, Tanzania, and Vietnam to improve their practices and their livelihoods.

Beyond greater yields

While helping smallholder farmers deliver increased yields through sustainable agriculture remains the basis of our approach, we have systematically broadened and deepened our engagement with smallholders in recent years recognising that there are many other elements which contribute to our ambition of enhancing livelihoods.

Since 2015, we have taken a holistic approach, focusing our work with smallholders on nutrition, empowering women, finance, and young agricultural entrepreneurs as well as sustainable agriculture practices. We often work with others, including through our global partnership programmes with Oxfam, Acumen, Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership, the Ford Foundation, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), GIZ (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit), PSI, the Rainforest Alliance, and national and local government agencies.

An important part of this work is empowering women. If women farmers had the same access to resources as men, agricultural production in the developing world would increase by 2.5 – 4.0% (FAO, 2011). Women represent around half the smallholder farmers in our supply chains, and many of our programmes are focused on women. Further details are in the Opportunities for Women section of this report.

Our interactive map shows where our programmes are improving yields and enhancing the livelihoods of smallholders across the world.

Building sustainability in the tea sector

The success of Farmer Field Schools in Kenya demonstrates how our approach can have long-term results. Up to 60% of the tea grown in Kenya comes from smallholder farmers, organised through the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA). Since 2006, we have worked with KTDA and IDH to provide education and training at Farmer Field Schools to help share best agricultural practices, increase yields, and improve quality. We have enabled around 86,000 lead farmers, including around 42,000 women, to access initiatives aiming to improve their agricultural practices. Over 580,000 farms have met the certification standards set by the Rainforest Alliance.

Now an embedded part of the tea system in KTDA, in 2016 we handed over full responsibility of the Farmer Field Schools to KTDA.

Last year was also the culmination of a long-term initiative in tea in India, where Unilever is co-funding a project to produce around 500,000 tonnes of tea sustainably through the launch of The India Sustainable Tea Program – Trustea. The programme reaches over 18,000 smallholder tea farmers, aiming to make a positive impact on their lives, covering the social, economic and environmental facets of tea growing. The ground-level implementation of this project will be carried out by NGO Solidaridad and the Ethical Tea Partnership.

Improving livelihoods in Madagascar

Improving yields can help support smallholder farmers and their communities - but often production is only part of the story. 2016 was also a defining year for the vanilla farmers in our supply chain, who thanks to a new strategic alliance between Unilever, Symrise, GIZ and Save the Children have witnessed the launch of a new project with the goal of further improving economic self-sufficiency and livelihoods.

Over the next three years, the programme aims to reach 50,000 people in 10,000 households, across 70 villages in the Sava region of Madagascar. As well as helping farmers improve their agricultural and business skills, the programme will increase their access to fair financial services, and provide community education on health, hygiene and child protection.


Vetiver Worker in Haiti
Vetiver together in Haiti

Vetiver oil is an important ingredient in many fragrances – and Haiti produces some of the best vetiver in the world. But while many farmers there are dependent on the root for their livelihoods, economic pressures and extreme weather events have had a serious impact on their incomes.

In 2016, we announced the innovative Vetiver Together initiative – a partnership with International Flavors & Fragrances Inc and the NGO Heifer International, which aims to reach more than 1,000 beneficiaries as well as improving food security, increasing yields, and diversifying income – while working to support women’s empowerment through a saving and micro-credit programme.

Motivating thousands of gherkin farmers to adopt sustainable practices

Within our gherkin supply chain, we are supporting our partner Marcatus QED to develop and implement an innovative mobile education training programme that motivates 10,000 smallholder farming families to adopt sustainable agricultural practices and improve their productivity. This grass-roots social network enables field teams to create interactive training events utilizing simple video technology.

The videos feature local expert farmers demonstrating new practices and technologies, such as drip irrigation which greatly reduces water usage and improves yield. These training events are gender-inclusive and promote farmer to farmer learning with a special focus on women farmer education.

Together with Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) and Marcatus QED we have launched a complementary pilot programme called ‘Seeds of Prosperity’ that teaches farmer families about health, nutritional diversity and hygiene.

Bringing health and nutrition benefits to smallholder farming communities

“Working with our smallholders to ensure that they and their families stay healthy through good nutrition and hygiene drives economic development and helps us to meet our goals on sustainable and profitable growth.”

Marc Engel, Chief Supply Chain Officer

Improving people's health and nutrition is an important part of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan – and our work with smallholders provides us with opportunities to make a real difference in often impoverished and undernourished communities. The 2016 Global Nutrition Report found that investing in nutrition is key to development efforts related to food, poverty, health, gender and employment. For every US$1 spent on nutrition, at least US$16 will be returned in economic benefits.

We work with a range of partners in this field – including the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), with whom our ambitious global programme aims to help improve the health and nutrition of 300,000 people in smallholder communities in our extended supply chain. The programme is particularly focused on female farmers, pregnant women and children, as GAIN’s research shows that they are key to stopping the cycle of malnutrition in impoverished rural communities. The integrated programme aims not only to improve the diets of farmers and their families, but to encourage handwashing to prevent the spread of disease.

As part of our commitment to supporting smallholder farmers and plantation workers we have invested in a social enterprise called BURN which is bringing an innovative cook stove to farming communities in Kenya and helping them cook more efficiently and healthily. More than 2.6 billion people around the globe do not have access to clean cooking facilities to meet their daily needs – and 90% of smallholder farmers cook in open wood-burning fires, leading to serious health and environmental problems. The programme is part of an Enhancing Livelihoods Investment Initiative (ELII), in partnership with Acumen and the Clinton Giustra Enterprise Partnership (CGEP).

Many other aspects of our Unilever Sustainable Living Plan also aim to bring benefits to smallholder farmers, and are described in our Sustainable Sourcing, Fairness in the Workplace and Opportunities for Women sections.

Building climate change resilience

According to the FAO, farmers in developing countries are the most vulnerable to climate change. We want all our farmer suppliers, including smallholder farmers, to have access to up-to-date knowledge on good farming practices, including how to adapt to climate change.

In our Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Code, we include a section on adaptation, and we consider ‘climate smart agriculture’ as an important aspect of sustainable agriculture, with particular emphasis on what farmers need to know when confronted with low rainfall and drought.

Improving standards in the salt industry

The salt industry in India is plagued by several social and health and safety issues. It is not uncommon for workers to be exposed to extremely high temperatures, lack of sanitation facilities and access to water. Many workers have limited protective equipment or access to regular health checks. 

We conducted a detailed risk assessments in our supply chain and as a result implemented Project CORE to improve working conditions and strengthen workers’ grievance mechanisms to highlight possible issues. In the words of a salt worker touched by the programme: “Previously we used to travel long distances to use the toilet. Sometimes, we control our bladder and tend to not drink sufficient water despite the scorching heat due to lack of toilets. Now with the toilets built, I find it very convenient and I am able to work comfortably.”

Delivering sustainable palm oil with smallholders

Following an update to our Sustainable Palm Oil Policy (PDF | 97KB), we are creating ‘production protection’ partnerships in the critical palm oil growing regions, Indonesia, Malaysia and West Africa, so-called because they blend together public and private incentives for sustainable land use that protect forests and improve livelihoods at the same time. 

An important area of focus is increasing the productivity of smallholder farmers and facilitating their inclusion into our supply chain in a particular jurisdiction, or political geography. For example, in Indonesia, we are working with the provincial government of Central Kalimantan and other regional stakeholders to support a ‘village by village’ approach to sustainable palm oil. This partnership will initially impact around 600 independent smallholder farmers on around 1,400 hectares of land, and is the first public-private partnership agreement among subnational governments and an international buyer on sustainable palm oil. Our engagement with smallholders goes beyond Central Kalimantan to include projects in Riau and North Sumatra.

Back to top