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Our Smallholder Farmer Project in West Kalimantan, IndonesiaAn interview with Julia Beier, Responsible Sourcing Manager at Beiersdorf, and Jenny Walther-Thoss, Sustainable Biomass Officer at World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) Germany

Jenny Walther-Thoss (left) and Julia Beier (right)

Julia Beier works in Corporate Sustainability. In close cooperation with the Procurement department, she’s responsible for our Responsible Sourcing program, i.e. ensuring that Beiersdorf procures its raw materials as responsibly as possible. This includes a smallholder project in Indonesia dedicated to promoting sustainable cultivation of palm (kernel) oil locally. This project was launched in 2018 together with the WWF and has been implemented with great commitment in West Kalimantan, Indonesia.

As part of this commitment, Julia met Jenny Walther-Thoss, WWF Germany’s expert for sustainable biomass two years ago. Since then, the duo has teamed up to manage the project jointly. We met them personally to gain a deeper insight into the project.

Why has Beiersdorf decided on the project in West Kalimantan at this particular time, Julia?

Julia: This project is very exciting for Beiersdorf because it’s part of a larger WWF landscape project aimed at protecting the green heart of Borneo – the second largest rainforest in the world. We are supporting a project in Kapuas Hulu District comprising three villages with a total of around 4,500 inhabitants, including 240 smallholder farmers. We want to help the smallholders to develop a more sustainable approach to cultivation by helping them raise their professional expertise. We support them in various aspects: From training for the farmers and their community, through social projects for the advancement of women, to improving the drinking water supply and of course, protecting the rainforest. This makes it a highly multifaceted project with a big impact on the ground.

What are the specific objectives of the smallholder farmers project in Indonesia?

Jenny: On the one hand, with this project we want to prevent smallholders from causing further deforestation. And on the other hand, we want to help them produce palm kernel oil sustainably in the future, to achieve readiness for a certification to the ISPO standard (Indonesian standard for sustainable palm kernel oil), and later also the RSPO standard (global standard for sustainable palm kernel oil). To this end, we carry out training courses with the smallholders on site, help them to get access to high-quality seedlings, and support them in providing proof of legality and compliance with industry standards. The aim is to give the smallholders better and direct access to the local palm oil mills and thus to the market – this will enable them to produce more efficiently and sustainably. In addition, we want to improve the living standards of the smallholders and their families by promoting not only the development of their working methods but also fundamental social aspects.

You are now already past the project’s halfway point, and have reported that the project has already achieved a lot. What progress has been made – and what are you particularly proud of?

Jenny: We have succeeded in drawing the attention of the local government and the local authorities to the smallholders’ situation. We have built a robust bridge between the authorities and the farmers – this is a great success for the project. There are actually quite a few training programs for smallholder farmers in Indonesia, but communication is often so difficult that the smallholders don’t know how to gain access to the aid programs offered. Moreover, Indonesia is a very diverse country. Local authority employees are often not from the region and therefore not from the same tribe – this sometimes creates communication problems. We are currently creating the basic legal conditions so that the communities and farmers’ groups can continue to have access to the official support programs even after this project has ended. 

Julia: A second major success is the training courses under way, which go far beyond the cultivation of sustainable palm oil. For instance, they include enhancing a clean and safe drinking water supply for the villages, the cultivation of rubber as a further source of income, the cultivation of fruit and vegetables for own consumption as well as sale, and the professionalization of local residents’ handicrafts. For the villagers, these are additional factors that strengthen their community and improve overall living conditions. These sub-projects have triggered such development momentum that a community itself has even decided to provide additional funds to extend the drinking water supply and connect a school. The local children are to gain vital knowledge of the importance of clean drinking water for their health and environmental education through focused instruction at this Green School. Beiersdorf and the WWF did not bring this project about, by the way – it was born solely through the tremendous commitment and enthusiasm of the community of the three villages.

Jenny: Another very satisfying effect of projects like this one is that you remove anonymity from a supply chain. The local farmers and Beiersdorf management meet personally, shake hands and say: “So you’re the ones at the other end of a supply chain!” We believe this approach will have a profound, long-term impact on the entire globalized industry in which we work. The smallholder farmers can then say to each other: “We’re cultivating a very important natural resource that is used for top-quality cosmetic products like Beiersdorf’s as a valuable raw material.”

What are the biggest challenges in the implementation of the project?

Julia: A major challenge for both Beiersdorf and the WWF is to ensure that all oil-palm plantations in the project region are legalized and sustainable principles are adopted – which are important requirements to obtain ISPO certification. Currently, only a fraction of smallholders is able to obtain ISPO certification. However, we try to reach ISPO readiness for the majority of the smallholders by the end of the project.

Jenny: Another political challenge is that palm oil is a very sensitive issue in Indonesia. If, for example, the EU Commission decides that palm oil should be banned from biofuels, such headlines also lead to negative reactions and rejection in Indonesia. In order to overcome these difficulties, WWF colleagues on the ground are doing a great deal of diplomatic work. The reality on the ground keeps bringing up new challenges, but this is exactly what makes working together so exciting and satisfying.

How is the project currently progressing, especially given the current crisis?

Jenny: Of course, COVID-19 is also influencing our work in Indonesia because the team is currently in lockdown. When collaboration with the smallholders is possible again, it will be our goal to advance the legality proofs so far that ISPO certification will be possible. The second goal is to put the drinking water supply on a stable and sustainable footing. And the third important goal is to secure smallholders’ access to mills as well as to certified, healthy seedlings. New seedlings alone can enable smallholder farmers to double their yield without the need for new land.

Julia, are there any other projects like this planned?

Julia: Beiersdorf wants to further expand its local commitment and continue to support even more smallholder farmers in the palm oil sector as well as in other raw material industries in future. Our aim is to progressively integrate projects of this type into our supply chain as we move forward. 

Julia and Jenny, a big thank-you for this fascinating conversation and the valuable insights you’ve given us into the joint smallholder project in Indonesia!

(This interview was conducted in May 2020. Jenny Walther-Thoss is no longer active at WWF Germany.)

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Katrin Selzer

About the editor: Katrin Selzer

Katrin has been working at Beiersdorf since 2003. After various positions in marketing, strategy, digital and PR, she is since September 2018 Senior Communication Manager and responsible for the topic of sustainability. For Katrin, sustainability has a high personal relevance, since it changes the world for the better – and she contributes by communicating about it. Her communication is very passionate and she tries to also push the topic forward. In her private life, she is constantly seeking new ways and means to live a more sustainable lifestyle and inspire others with it.