The subsistence farmer’s son pushing for a better shake for smallholders at spices brand McCormick

McCormick's chief sustainability officer at a vanilla farm in Madagascar. Handout via REUTERS/McCormick
  • Michael Okoroafor, McCormick's chief sustainability officer, grew up on a farm in southern Nigeria
  • The Maryland-based company has pledged to increase the resilience of 35,000 farmers in its direct supply chain by 2025
  • In Indonesia and Vietnam it is providing suppliers discounted rates on working capital financing if they comply with its sustainability standards
  • McCormick has also taken steps to source directly from farmer cooperatives to reduce payments to 'predatory' middlemen

December 2 - Michael Okoroafor’s resume makes impressive reading. He has a PhD in organic polymer chemistry from Michigan State University, 40 or so patents to his name in cutting-edge packaging technology and had a string of senior roles in blue-chip firms, including Coca-Cola and Kraft Heinz, before becoming chief sustainability officer at the U.S. food company McCormick & Company.

But that’s only the half of it. Okoroafor’s achievements are built on the back of growing up as the youngest of four siblings in a single-parent household (his father died when Okoroafor was four years old) in an Igbo-speaking region of rural southern Nigeria.

“My mom was a subsistence farmer (who) used to grow yams, cassava, corn, bitter leaf, bananas, plantains … and she was able to make enough money from farming to send me to a boarding school, and that changed the trajectory of my life,” says Okoroafor.

The experience has left him with valuable insights when it comes to helping deliver on his employer’s vision for farmer wellbeing. McCormick, which specializes in herbs and spices, has pledged to increase the resilience of 35,000 farmers in its direct supply chain by 2025.

The target forms part of a wider series of supply-related commitments, including the promotion of female empowerment and pursuit of regenerative agricultural practices – all of which will also be critical to meeting McCormick’s Science Based Targets’ goal of cutting its emissions from purchased goods and services by 42% by 2030.

McCormick isn’t alone in recognizing the centrality of farmers in a more sustainable food system. In the run-up to last month’s COP27 climate summit, Mars, McDonald’s and PepsiCo were among a dozen or so “big food” brands to publicly back a high-profile report from the Sustainable Markets Initiative’s Agribusiness Task Force calling for regenerative farming to become more economically compelling for small producers.

In a case of rare alignment, the role of local agriculturalists in the co-design of environmental policies is also projected to emerge as a critical theme at the United Nations COP15 biodiversity summit, which kicks off in Montreal, Canada, next week.

Indigenous communities in particular are becoming increasingly vocal about their omission from large-scale nature-oriented interventions – an oversight referred to as “exclusionary conservation” by groups such as the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity.

A woman harvests chillies in Indonesia's West Java province. REUTERS/Beawiharta

So, how might companies and other influential organizations best integrate smallholder farmers into their sustainable agriculture endeavors?

Okoroafor’s advice is threefold. First, don’t think of farmer support as charity. “I don't know any farmer in a farming community who is looking for a handout. They just want to do well … and earn a good living

To that end, McCormick has set up a series of projects that provide key inputs such as agronomic know-how and cash loans to increase their yields and thus derive a higher income.

The Maryland-based company is currently running a pilot scheme in Indonesia and Vietnam, for example, that provides suppliers with discounted rates on short-term working capital financing. The pilot is linked to McCormick’s sustainability standards: the closer the supplier’s compliance, the better the rate.

Set up in conjunction with the International Finance Corporation and U.S. bank Citi (through its $500-million Supplier Finance offering), the initiative includes a capacity-development and empowerment component, which is aimed specifically at women pepper farmers in Vietnam.

The project builds on the existing work of a large team of agronomists that McCormick employs to train smallholder farmers in its five key supply chains (black pepper, cinnamon, oregano, red pepper and vanilla) in sustainable farming techniques.

“The misconception about these farmers is that people think they're waiting for freebies. No, they're not. They just need a boost, and then they can take care of themselves,” says Okoroafor.

The second insight he takes from his childhood experience is to invest in truly understanding the on-the-ground barriers and challenges faced by farmers.

He offers the example of the “predatory” role of middlemen. The remote location of many farming communities makes accessing points of sale difficult. As a consequence, they frequently sell to intermediaries, who collect their produce at the farm gate but pay significantly below-market rates.

“Farmers will do their farming from morning to night, they harvest the crop, and then they sell it to a middleman in the village, who sells it to another middleman in the town, who sells it to another … these middlemen will be driving a Mercedes Benz, while the farmers stay impoverished.”

In response, McCormick requests its export partners to source directly from farmer cooperatives wherever possible. Okoroafor declines to disclose the company’s payment formula, but he insists that smallholders are “now getting more than they were getting before”.

Members of an indigenous group at the COP27 climate summit, in Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

A higher gate price is not the only upside. McCormick also offers additional services such as health insurance, interest-free loans, and access to cost-saving inputs. Cooperatives certified under the Rainforest Alliance standard also qualify for premiums, or one-off bonuses.

In the Sava region of Madagascar, for instance, this approach has resulted in farmers from nearly 50 villages introducing improvements to land management and biodiversity protection, as well as becoming skilled in value-added process such as vanilla curing.

A similar arrangement in Guatemala has led to 500 smallholder cardamom and allspice producers swapping out the use of firewood in the drying process in favor of a solar-powered alternative.

All these ancillary benefits are delivered in alliance with expert third parties, which points to Okoroafor’s third main piece of advice – namely, the essential importance of working through trusted, local implementation partners.

Again, Okoroafor draws on his upbringing. In his home village, smallholder farmers don’t grant “social license” to companies on the back of complex management toolkits or detailed contracts, he says: “They shake your hand”.

“If you don't understand the culture, you're dead,” he adds, noting that “somebody who understands India cannot do it (understand the culture) in Mozambique.”

As such, all McCormick’s NGO partners pursue a policy of employing local representatives with an intimate knowledge of the target farming communities, Okoroafor maintains.

How far these supplier relationships meet the growing demand of farming communities for an equitable voice remains an open question, however – not just for McCormick, but for all corporate and government actors.

The inclusion of “adequate, horizontal and culturally relevant” governance and participation mechanisms is essential to addressing the inevitable power asymmetries in multi-party development projects, argues Miguel Valderrama Zevallos, author of a damning new report from the Forest Peoples Programme about the impact of forest conservation efforts on indigenous communities in Peru.

The report points to the preamble of the United Nations’ original Convention on Biological Diversity, signed 30 years ago, which affirms the “desirability of sharing equitable benefits” from efforts to conserve the planet’s natural biodiversity and to “sustainably use its components”.

McCormick’s sustainability chief says he couldn’t agree more with the need for communities to fully participate. “At the end of the day, nobody cares about what we do; what people care about is making an impact in these communities,” he states. “And that's also how you build an enduring business”.

Opinions expressed are those of the author. They do not reflect the views of Reuters News, which, under the Trust Principles, is committed to integrity, independence, and freedom from bias. Sustainable Business Review, a part of Reuters Professional, is owned by Thomson Reuters and operates independently of Reuters News.

Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to The Ethical Corporation since 2004. He also writes for a range of UK and international media. Oliver holds a PhD in Anthropology / Latin American Studies from Cambridge University.