From the Chingford Fruit October Publication – South African consultancy Blue North specialises in transforming agricultural supply chains, using its sound knowledge base and proven expertise to deliver practical, long-lasting improvements at ground level
Volatile prices, unpredictable weather patterns and surging demand from emerging economies are combining to threaten food security across the globe, putting farmers under more pressure than ever before. Never has the need to ensure sustainable long-term food production been so crucial.
Similarly, retailers selling the end product are coming under increasing pressure from consumers to source sustainably and reliably. They are being challenged on issues such as carbon footprint and ethical trading; and it’s clear that if they can’t provide the answers, their businesses will suffer as a result.
South Africa-based consultancy Blue North has recognised that agricultural sustainability is now a strategic imperative, both for retailers at one end of the supply chain, and farmers at the other—not to mention the importers and exporters who sit in between. Blue North was set up to assist businesses and supply chains to overcome sustainability-related constraints derived from consumer expectations and/or physical scarcity of resources. The company’s approach is to build clarity and understanding of sustainability, identify current and future sustainability-related constraints, and develop and implement the most appropriate responses within operations and across supply chains.
Blue North achieves this via a combination of sustainability strategy development and implementation; risk identification, prioritisation and response formulation; carbon, water and waste lifecycle analysis; and social compliance programmes development and implementation, as well as research and knowledge resource development. The company draws on the experience of a network of leading sustainability organisations such as the WWF, Forum for the Future and the Carbon Trust
“Agricultural sustainability is absolutely foundational. That’s our area of focus and the space where we have experience—and where need will continue to grow,” comments Blue North’s co-founder David Farrell.
Blue North’s clients are predominantly big commercial organisations—large exporters and importers of agricultural produce who must achieve a fine balancing act in interfacing between market demand and the realities of life for farmers, all the while demonstrating that they are managing risk effectively. With such conflicting forces at work within the supply chain, introducing an end-to-end sustainability strategy will always be a challenge, says Farrell. “For farmers or suppliers, business life is full of pressure, and to find the mind space to really stand back and reflect on sustainability as a subject really requires a different level of thinking. It’s not straightforward—it’s about challenging our very ideas about the way our modern society works, and that’s difficult. The challenge for us is finding a way to translate these concepts into practical programmes.”
Blue North’s first step is always to present its clients with a very clear concept of sustainability. “We have carried out a lot of research—almost at an academic level—to ensure that we are confident of our concept,” says Farrell. “And then we support that with knowledge resources—for example, we might do work on water, soil health or biodiversity, so that we can share those ideas with the client in order to have a comprehensive knowledge base on different pillars of sustainability.”
Having defined its concept, Blue North then conducts a risk assessment to identify areas of potential weakness. From this the most appropriate responses are identified and prioritised. The programme aims at building management focus and momentum early on: “We find points of leverage to provide a focusing mechanism, so we can do the important things first and deliver improvements early on. This makes the subject a little bit more digestible,” explains Farrell. What remains can then be translated into a sensible, executable sustainability strategy.
As it enters the implementation phase, Blue North draws on its extensive practical experience in rolling out large-scale sustainability projects. Farrell’s experience with South African exporter Colors Fruit, for example, includes work on broadbased carbon footprinting and putting in place a large-scale social compliance programme—all the while working with farmers on the ground. It’s that ability, he says, to take highlevel strategy and translate it into practical programmes that is the key strength of Blue North. “You can have a wonderful strategy,” he says, “but it’s no use if you can’t deliver it.”
One company currently benefiting from Blue North’s expertise is Chingford Fruit, whose client is a major UK-based supermarket. “In terms of the supply chain, Chingford are very close to their client, so they feel the pressure to answer sustainability challenges more keenly. And they are not just dealing with one country’s product—they source from around the world, so we’re talking multiple supply chains. They have retailers and consumers on the one side who are asking questions that they need to be able to answer effectively and with conviction related to sustainability subjects; and on the other side they’re dealing with agricultural businesses from around the world. Agricultural production everywhere is facing some fairly severe challenges right now related to issues such as water, soil and pest management; so the challenge is to make sure that Chingford has a sustainable business not just two years from now, but 20 years from now—one where they have a secure supply base and where their position with their market is secure.”
Blue North’s work with Chingford began earlier this year with a review of the company’s needs as well as the sustainability strategy of its retailer client. “The last few months have been very focused on building the most appropriate strategy—one able to effectively deliver sustainability across a complex supply chain,” Farrell explains. “Then we moved to developing more detailed risk assessment tools which we can use with the farmers supplying Chingford.”
Across all the supplying regions, Blue North has helped to create what are in essence sustainability ‘study groups’, consisting of farmers and Chingford’s suppliers. Within each particular product group, structures and forums have been created to facilitate meaningful discussions on how to deal with sustainability challenges, building off the reality and experience of the farmers who make up the supply base. These structures also provide the forums through which the participants will manage and report on the improvement actions identified. Practical engagement through these structures started in earnest in August. “This amounts to nothing less than a large-scale change management exercise: it is the only way to meaningfully grapple with sustainability and deliver real improvement,” says Farrell. “It’s going to take time: there’s no quick fix.”
In many ways, pressure from the end retailer is crucial in helping to drive a project of this nature to a satisfactory conclusion. “Chingford could see that if they didn’t respond in a meaningful way to the issue of sustainability, it was going to have a negative impact on their relationship with the client. We didn’t need to sell sustainability to them; they just needed some support in developing a programme to deliver.”
Looking forward, Blue North is seeking to remain within the agricultural sector and apply its extensive existing experience to agri-industries including the wine, vegetable and grain sectors. “We’re looking at companies with large agricultural footprints, and who have a great dependence on the ongoing health and viability of that agricultural base—that’s where we feel we can add the most value,” he concludes.