How are we ensuring one of the world’s most consumed nuts is supporting the farmers and communities behind it?

Healthy, nutritious and delicious, with many versatile ways of being incorporated into your diet – cashews are a popular snack choice for many. Primarily grown in Asia and Africa, with India, Cote d'Ivoire and Vietnam as the largest producers, cashews are also vital cash crops for farmers, processors and communities.

But like many agricultural supply chains, the journey cashew travels from seed to shelf, is incredibly complex with unique sustainability challenges. Operating closely at the farm gate and with 13 owned cashew processing and packaging facilities spread across the world, our cashew business under Olam Food Ingredients (OFI), is addressing these challenges head on.

Our efforts are underpinned by our Sustainability Framework to deliver a triple positive impact in the places where we source and grow our products, informed by 10 priority areas also known as ‘material areas’ that are mapped to the relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as well as the 9 Planetary Boundaries identified by the Stockholm Resilience Centre.

Supporting our farmers from the ground up

At the first mile of the cashew nut’s journey are the farmers – many of whom rely on cashew farming as their primary source of income. While the cashew trees themselves are easy to upkeep, the two-month harvesting period is a painstaking process. Farmers hand-twist the kernels one by one from its apple and at the end, they typically only have enough for five ‘snack packs’ from each tree.  The focus for Olam therefore, is how to help farmers produce more and better.

We are investing and partnering with others to train and equip farmers with the right tools and knowledge - everything from training on proper pruning and organic composting, to post-harvest processing and storage. This is the first formal education many of these cashew smallholders have had. We also distributed around 5,000 hybrid seedlings to our farmers between 2018-2019 to help increase yields.

Our field staff and partners are supporting over 100 cashew co-operatives, reaching some 50,000 smallholder farmers across rural Africa and Asia by helping them to increase their yields, ensure consistent quality and be more productive. Along the same lines, we’ve partnered with IDH (the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative) and Fair Match to in Cote d’Ivoire to establish a traceable cashew supply chain where farmers sell directly to us. These smallholders are also part of the Sustainable Cashew Growers Programme (SCGP), an ecosystem supporting them in adopting sustainable farming practices.

Between training and a more direct relationship with Olam, our cashew farmers have seen a 21% increase in yields since 2015.

Reaching farmers directly

With a lack of access to reliable pricing data, cashew farmers often sell at lower prices than they should. The transactional nature also means that the middlemen have no incentive to invest back into helping farmers grow better or more.

One of the ways we have responded to this is through Olam Direct. This holistic digital platform empowers smallholder farmers and improves their income by letting them bypass middlemen and deal directly with Olam. Available with or without internet access, it gives farmers access to latest market prices and allows them to transact directly with Olam, so they can retain more value from their crop. Olam’s dedicated teams on the ground are working to expand this further across its sourcing network across Asia and Africa. 

Cashew farmer Ms. Ro Cham Hoa, Vietnam

Olam Edible Nuts team providing training and support to the cashew community in Ghana

Investing in local processing capabilities

From shelling, to mechanical and hand sorting, to drying, roasting, dicing and packaging, there is a lot of value to be created from cashew processing.

Most of us are probably unfamiliar with what the cashew in our snack-pack or butter once looked like in its raw form. The cashew nut, which is actually a seed, is first removed from the underside of the cashew apple, then left to bake in the sun with its shell still intact. (Fun fact: the shell contains anacardic acid that causes skin irritations, which is why you never see shelled cashews on shelves.) The nut is then de-shelled and roasted or steamed to fully remove the skin.

Africa is one of the largest global cashew producers, but most of its raw cashew is exported to Vietnam and India for processing, as these markets have more advanced mechanised processing capabilities at lower costs. For this reason, we saw an opportunity to invest in processing in Côte d'Ivoire and Nigeria including installing modern machinery to mechanise and expedite the processing of organic and standard cashews. In doing so, we have created jobs for more than 6,000 workers at our two private processing facilities in Côte d’Ivoire, more than 90% of whom are women. At our Vietnam operations, women workers also outnumber men, comprising about 75% of the 5,000+ employees. They tend to be more adept at the delicate peeling process to remove the cashew nut from its casing, which is still required to be done by hand, even with increased mechanisation, to keep the kernel intact.  

Cashew processing facilities in Nigeria

Assuring traceable and sustainable supply 

Today’s consumers are increasingly want to know where their food is from and how it is produced At Olam, we are helping our customers meet these demands with our unique business-to-business sustainable insights platform, AtSource. It offers a complete view of the entire journey of the cashew that customers are buying.

Our supply chains for Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria and Vietnam they can  track metrics like the social and environmental footprint of their cashew in these supply chains, from the farmer to their factory gate, with access to detailed greenhouse gas and water footprint analysis, fertiliser use, irrigation and land-use change. This insight informs action plans, and gives customers the opportunity to join us  in delivering sustainability interventions on the ground to improve these social and environmental footprints. It helps them deliver on their own sustainability targets and be more transparent with their consumers.

Many AtSource programmes also integrate certifications such as Organic and/or Fairtrade.In Vietnam for example, Olam assisted cashew farmers in Binh Phuoc, Ia Grai, Duc Co and Krong Pa to establish new cooperatives and achieve Fairtrade certification, which commands a premium. As they do so, they raise their incomes, which can be invested back into their farms, creating a virtuous cycle.

Thriving cashew communities

A successful farming ecosystem has to have a thriving community as part of it. Establishing trust and strong connections with our farmers and their communities over the years has been central to us being able to broach difficult yet crucial issues – such as child labour and deforestation – and work together on suitable long-term solutions.

Last year, OFI’s cashew team trained 2,500 farmers on child labour awareness. In addition to providing training and actions plans, we also invested over US$20,000 in education infrastructure – refurbishing school buildings and canteens, and providing school kits – supporting the community’s future generation.

In terms of wider community efforts, in Vietnam we have built four sets of public toilets and water wells while illuminating a 3km stretch of streets to improve sanitation and safety around our cooperatives.

Public toilets and water wells installed by Olam in Vietnam

Farmers under the Sustainable Cashew Growers Programme in Cote d'Ivoire

Then there’s the challenge of malnutrition in these communities, which when we talk about cashews as a great source of nutrients, brings a certain irony. Many cashew producers and their families are unable to access foods with the micronutrients needed for normal functioning of the immune system and optimal health. This has a knock-on impact on farmer productivity too. This was according to a nutrition survey we carried out in Côte d’Ivoire to better understand the situation of the cashew households in Olam’s sourcing network, which prompted a suite of measures to improve nutrition in our cashew communities under the SCGP.

These close connections allow us to strengthen supply chains, build resilience, and provide support to our employees and communities, especially in times such as during COVID-19.

Empowering women farmers

Female beekeepers in Ghana’s Bono and Savanna regions

In the Bono East and Savanna regions of Ghana, we’ve introduced beekeeping in partnership with German development agency GIZ to 400 women – mainly unemployed wives or grown children of cashew farmers. They receive beekeeping training, two hives each and harvesting and processing equipment, allowing them to earn their own income from the sale of honey and wax.

Since 2008, we’ve also been working with GIZ – through ComCashew – to support women with alternative sources of income to empower women and help tackle poverty in the cashew sector in Africa.

One story that has been particularly inspiring to us is that of Mme Amenan Constantine Kouadio, who came to Olam with an idea for us to outsource the processing of raw cashew nuts from Ivorian farmers to her own, women-only, co-operative that she’d set up, in Djekanou, Côte d’Ivoire. Twelve years later, the partnership continues to bear fruit for members of the Djekanou community, with better buying power, children attending school, and new ventures sprouting up to empower more female entrepreneurs and power the local economy.

Mme Amenan Constantine Kouadio in Djekanou, Côte d’Ivoire

"If you want to go far, go together"

There's an old African proverb - “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We know that the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals cannot be delivered alone. That is why we have focused on a multilateral approach wherever we can, to reimagine the cashew sector so that farmers prosper and communities thrive.

As one of the founding members of the Sustainable Nut Initiative (SNI), Olam is also helping to drive positive change towards sustainable production and transparency along the entire chain – to bring the nut sector to a higher level in terms of professionalism, sustainability and quality.

Premium sustainably sourced cashews from Côte d'Ivoire