Constructing water systems in a village in Ghana, training courses for South African farmers, better education in a little school in Kenya. These aren’t the first things you think of when talking about the Dutch supermarket giant Albert Heijn. But they’re part and parcel of it, says the supermarket chain. “It’s very much business-driven. It bears almost no resemblance to charity or good causes.”
Henri Zondag says the Albert Heijn Foundation, which he chairs, grew up out of the trade with African suppliers of vegetables and fruit. Both Albert Heijn and the suppliers themselves put part of their turnover into the foundation, which uses the money to finance various projects.
This is what paid for the water systems in Ekumfi Abor and Nanabin in Ghana. Every year, over three million tropical fruit salads are produced there for consumption in the Netherlands. Workers’ children had to walk miles often at night to fetch water for their families. The water infrastructure means the children now have time for other things. Work has begun on phase two of the project, the construction of a school. Mr Zondag:
“The projects are good for the suppliers’ staff, their families and local people in general. The link with our business leads to increased commitment to the production process and to the continuing high-grade produce which we demand.”
The idea is that healthier happier workers in Africa mean a better product in Dutch supermarkets.
The Albert Heijn Foundation is a shining example of what the present Dutch government wants to encourage: the business sector moving into development co-operation through generating sustainable trading partnerships. The hope is that making a profit can be a great incentive for projects.
Since being set up four years ago, the Albert Heijn Foundation has awarded 1.7 million euros to projects in Africa. Development aid was unknown territory for the supermarket chain, so help was sought from groups such as the Inter-Church Organisation for Development Co-operation (ICCO) and FairMatch Support.
The ICCO’s Willemijn Lammers is positive about the work with Albert Heijn: “We’re a kind of test, a monitor to check whether they’re on the right road. We’re pleased to help, because we feel that you can get a lot done with big retailers like this and can end up being able to do more for small farmers or workers in developing countries.”
Of course, aid involving businesses is nothing new. ICCO has been sharing its expertise since the 1990s with companies involved in development projects. The difference in cultures can sometimes be undeniable though:
“It’s a different kind of logic. A company will prefer to work in kind of quick bursts and does this very efficiently. An NGO will have more knowledge of the institutional contexts, the problems small farmers experience. You have to carry a company along with you and sometimes that means standing very firm.”
Tjerk Dalhuisen from the A SEED Europe environmental organisation is less enthusiastic:
“Of course, it’s great that a firm like Albert Heijn is taking on its social responsibilities and is looking at the circumstances under which people work, but that’s of course not the only thing. You set yourself a very serious question and ask why you have to get grapes from South Africa and why your beans have to come from Senegal or Zimbabwe. That doesn’t tally with any climate change and sustainable goals you may have. Then your work is counter-productive.”
Mr Zondag from the Albert Heijn Foundation remains upbeat. As well as the chain’s sustainable work in fruit and vegetables, there are possibilities in other markets.
“Flowers and nuts, for instance, we might be able to get them interested. We’ve arrived at the point where we are convinced that it’s worthwhile doing and that the model works. And that we can expand and accelerate the development.”