Concern and Accenture combine in Zambia and Malawi
Conservation agriculture proving effective among vulnerable African communities
The concept of corporate social responsibility (CSR) is well established, especially within multinational companies, but all too often it’s confined to an individual country.
It is rare that a CSR initiative helps the most vulnerable populations on the planet with a view to transforming their lives and economic wellbeing over an extended period.
One such case stems from an alliance between the Irish aid organisation Concern and management consulting and professional services company Accenture. They have been running an upskilling and conservation agriculture (CA) programme in Africa since 2010. Accenture has invested $4.8 million in the initiative that has reached more than 27,000 farmers and their families in Zambia and Malawi.
It is a story of the corporate sector engaging fully in Agenda 2030 whereby the project fulfilling the vision of 10 of the UN’s sustainable development goals, explains Concern international programmes director Anne O’Mahony. “As well as training farmers in conservation agriculture methods we worked with local communities to develop a supply chain that empowered women as entrepreneurs and used digital data technology to track the project.”
Former Concern volunteer David Regan, a current director of Accenture based in Ireland, has been centrally involved. He travelled with O’Mahony and Alastair Blair, Accenture Ireland’s country managing director, to Malawi in late February to see the results of the programme made possible by a grant from the Accenture global CSR fund.
Accenture helped ensure it was an integrated programme with advice on operating a small business, nutrition and water
He describes the visit as humbling given the scale of poverty. But there was obvious success evident as so many people had “made huge strides in their lives with the help of Concern and with the skills passed on in conservation agriculture”. Accenture helped ensure it was an integrated programme with advice on operating a small business, nutrition and water – backed up with useful technology.
He cites the case of a woman from a family of nine who because of poverty only received a partial education. She married and had seven children who were often hungry at night. But she was an energetic person who grasped every opportunity and was seen standing proudly beside her crops with a quality and yield discernibly above those in other fields grown using traditional methods. As a result, going through hungry periods at certain times of the year was no more.
CA is based on the concept that soil is best left undisturbed. Evidence suggests protecting the land rather than ploughing it reaps the greatest rewards – especially in developing countries exposed to drought and extreme weather in the form of severe flooding. A scenario predicted to become more frequent due to climate breakdown.
There is no single solution to ending world hunger but CA can play a part. Its main principles are minimising soil disturbance; protecting the soil by covering it and crop rotation. If land is protected from the sun and the plough, for example, it doesn’t harm the soil’s natural structure and it’s less prone to erosion.
The first principle encourages farmers to plant seeds with the minimum of soil disturbance by using simple tools. This has the added benefit of reducing the energy required to prepare a field.
The second principle encourages them to keep the soil covered throughout the year. This is done by leaving crop residues on the field or by planting a green cover crop. This keeps the soil cool and moist and retains the its optimum natural structure. The third principle is crop rotation, the basis of good farming practice everywhere.
This year was good for rain; the right amount at the right time
On location reports were an uplifting account of triumph over adversity; positive results were achieved despite flooding and dry spells in 2014-15; drought caused by the strongest El Nino for 35 years in 2015-16, Fall Army Worm infestations in 2016-17 and prolonged dry spell in the 2017-18 agricultural season. “This year was good for rain; the right amount at the right time,” says O’Mahony.
Official forecasts for the 2018-19 season, however, indicated 3.3 million people in Malawi would be food insecure and require humanitarian assistance. The ongoing challenges highlighted the need to build systems that include disaster mitigation and build the resilience and productivity of the agriculture sector. This project and the skills provided plays a part in this, she adds.
Then Cyclone Idai struck just as the harvest was about to begin; another reminder of how the dangers of climate change and extreme weather affect countries that have contributed least to global warming, but are the first and worst affected.
In the Nhamatanda District in Mozambique where Concern is working, 95 per cent of the maize, beans and ground nuts were destroyed by the floods, just weeks before they were due to be harvested. “It’s heartbreaking,” she adds.
For Regan it’s most unfortunate that the scale of damage appears to be so extensive. Maize crops produced by CA had been standing tall; almost double in size to normal, now flattened and destroyed. Much of Concern work now will be to help those affected get back on their feet and to see if a winter crop can be secured later this year.
The CA concept has been widely adopted though ironically “maize is king” when it might not be the most suitable crop to grow. That is why they encourage diversification to soya and ground nuts.
The programme gives individual farmers the skills to move from bare subsistence agriculture to income-generating farming. In addition, it has brought community-wide benefits. Not only has CA increased crop growth, it has reduced labour especially for women, who have more time to mind their children or grow a related business.
The farmer maintains part of the harvest to feed their family and will spend any income earned on the crops towards, clothing, education and medicine.
Their staff, he notes, 'like the idea of being involved in work that mattered'
Regan outlines how technology fits in. In most instances there is no electricity and no light though solar power is emerging as an option and there is increased use of mobile phones, which enable sharing of weather information and market prices – informing families on the best time to sell produce.
Regan says Accenture would like to continue to work with Concern and to use its CSR, which includes significant input from its staff in UK and US also, to provide skills in a wider context. Their staff, he notes, “like the idea of being involved in work that mattered”, particularly the younger generation, who increasingly like to work for companies with a genuine CSR approach.
O’Mahony says Concern in turn benefitted in terms of upskilling their staff, notably in how they teaching others in skills training, project and resource management, and starting their own business, while graduating them from extreme poverty.