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Inclusive business approaches to cope with the economic crisis – a view from the agribusiness sector

  • It's a critical time for the global food system—as it faces the impacts of the food price, water, energy and environmental crises.
  • WBI's Executive Development Program explored agribusiness strategies in low income markets.
  • Agribusiness leaders from the length of the value chain, from the likes of Unilever down to SMEs participated in five days of case studies, lectures and simulation exercises to explore agribusiness models that create economic opportunity and contribute reductions in poverty and malnutrition.

It was clear from the lively discussion at this month's event that there is no longer room for 'business as usual' when it comes to corporate social responsibility. Business leaders from the length of the agribusiness value chain debated strategies to promote business opportunities in low income markets that create local economic opportunity and contribute to reducing poverty and malnutrition as part of the World Bank Institute’s new Executive Development Program on Inclusive Agribusiness: Fighting Poverty, Hunger and Malnutrition .

Outcomes from the discussions were clear—opportunities do exist for business at this critical time for the global food system, even in the face of the food price, water, energy, and environmental crises. And in times like this when the impacts are spreading to less developed countries, ensuring that markets reach and benefit the poor producers and consumers is all the more important. The program featured examples of innovative approaches taken by companies, both large and small, in the agribusiness sector. These ranged from Pepsi-Co 's efforts to improve efficiency of water usage, such as through the "More Crop per Drop" program in India, to the Ugandan small business Numa Feeds that reduced wastage and air pollution from grain milling as part of a 100 day rapid results initiative facilitated by WBI .

The past decade has seen increasing dialogue between the private sector and the development community, including on business contributions to achieving the Millennium Development Goals , and including the launch of the Business Call to Action last year. With corporate cut backs worldwide, private sector engagement on development is being revisited from all angles, but the 4 billion people living at the base of the economic pyramid may yet prove to benefit from one bright spot of continued economic growth during the crisis. The question remains to be how to scale up local enterprise that meets local needs. Nearly 30 speakers offered inputs ranging from senior industry leaders to university and business faculty to experts from business alliances and development organizations, including from across the World Bank and IFC.

Professor Ray Goldberg of Harvard discussed the private sector's role in alleviating poverty and malnutrition.

Chris Delgado and John Lamb from the Bank’s Agriculture and Rural Development team set the scene by laying out the scale and complexity of the challenge facing the food sector. It was not a pretty picture. Yet as Professor Ray Goldberg of Harvard noted, people sign up for a program like this because they want to do something, and the food crisis offers an opportunity to push for change – “we are in the middle of a revolution” in the food system, he asserted. Large-scale agribusiness has a lot to gain and a lot to lose, so the incentive is there for companies to engage even when many of the topics from access to arable land to ensuring affordable food supplies are inherently political. Collective action is needed and the challenge was issued for firms to envision what enhanced corporate responsibility "CSR ++" might look like in the sector.

During the session on business and development post-crisis and the role of innovation, partnerships and knowledge exchange, Miguel Pestana, Vice President of Global External Affairs at Unilever shared how the company’s long term strategy includes the poor as consumers and producers, and argued that this will give Unilever an sustainable advantage overall. An optimistic Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of WBI, got the panel to agree on the need to foster innovation, “many of today’s priority development challenges are also impacting business operations, increasing costs, and forcing revisions to strategies,” he said, “we need to foster innovative business approaches, and reinforce learning and knowledge sharing among practitioners on what works.” Jane Nelson of the CSR Initiative at Harvard agreed – arguing not just for innovation in business products and services, but also within the financing instruments and policy sphere and prompting debate on what development institutions, such as the World Bank , can do to incentivize continued business engagement.

Sanjay Pradhan, WBI's Vice President, at the Agribusiness Marketplace.

Participants explored potential partnerships at the "Agribusiness Marketplace," where companies and organizations working in the field of sustainable agribusiness showcased their work and innovations. The nearly 50 participants selected for the over-subscribed program hailed from 22 countries and spanned the supply chain from the largest food companies (such as PepsiCo and Mars) down to small and medium enterprises, in addition to representatives of a wide spectrum of sectors, including foundations, governments, and donor agencies.

"Our objective is to put into practice the World Bank's commitment to building an inclusive and sustainable globalization and its renewed commitment to respond to the global food crisis," said Program Creator and Leader Djordjija Petkoski, "According to our president, Robert Zoellick, it is our priority to support inclusive and sustainable globalization as a vehicle to overcome poverty, enhance growth with care for the environment, and create individual opportunity."

WBI partnered with several organizations to produce this second in its series of Executive Development Programs , including Harvard, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, InWEnt, SNV, Wharton Business School, and other departments within the World Bank Group. The next in the series, focusing on Fighting Corruption through Collective Action in Today’s Competitive Marketplaces will be held at the World Bank in early June.

Last updated: 2009-05-07

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