Ethiopia: ‘You can only fight a pandemic together’

In an interview with the Agency for Business & Economic Development (AWE), Joost Hemmelder from Tradin Organic explains what the food company has learned while dealing with the pandemic.

AWE: Mr Hemmelder, COVID-19 is now well established in Ethiopia and is posing major challenges for the economy in the country. How have Tradin Organic and the local plants of your sister companies Sunvado and Selet Hulling been affected by the pandemic?

Hemmelder: In many respects, we were in uncharted territory when we started establishing supply chains for avocado and sesame oil in Ethiopia. One very good example is avocado processing. Although a large part of Ethiopia’s fruit farmland is covered by avocado trees, they’re usually only used to provide shade. But we wanted to use the ripe fruit in the food trade and to build a market-oriented and competitive value chain for it for the first time – and to our delight, the project with the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH kicked off very well. Then the coronavirus situation suddenly erupted at the beginning of the year, and that presented us with many unexpected challenges. The safety of our employees was our top priority. To allow us to properly assess the situation and take the best possible precautions, we suspended operations at our local factories from April to May. We were able to use this downtime productively, not least thanks to the additional support from GIZ under the COVID-19 Response programme. We developed a holistic strategy to enable production to resume safely and efficiently, and we provided training for our employees and suppliers on the changed working conditions. 

Which specific measures have you implemented? 

Above all, we wanted to make the working environment for our employees and suppliers as ‘crisis-proof’ as possible. To achieve this, we made structural changes in our factories, for example we enlarged work areas and also improved sanitary facilities. Where mobile working was possible, we provided additional equipment for virtual meetings. We also carried out training courses on coronavirus-related protective measures in cooperation with local hygiene inspectors and scheduled regular health checks. And we provided hygiene items and helped with COVID-19-related medical expenses that were not covered by health insurance. What I found particularly impressive was that everyone, from our own staff to our partners at GIZ, worked together to implement the protective measures, and that has certainly paid off. Our factories have been open again since May, and there has been no significant coronavirus-related downtime since then. 

As an international company, Tradin Organic faced a worldwide pandemic that ultimately affected all company locations. To what extent did the situation in Ethiopia differ from the conditions and challenges in other countries?

In Ethiopia, as in many other developing countries, the situation was influenced by people’s standard of living and local political conditions. Europe saw much more government support and a more reliable flow of information at the outbreak of the pandemic. The economic situation of the Ethiopian population is much more unstable than that of our employees at our headquarters in the Netherlands, for example, so our Ethiopian employees were naturally more worried about the impact COVID-19 was going to have. If you lose your job in Ethiopia, you have fewer alternatives, and financial buffers and social safety nets are not as readily available. This meant that our top priority in dealing with the pandemic had to be establishing a basis of trust between the company and its employees and suppliers. We wanted to show our people that they could talk to us freely if they had problems, and that their jobs would be safe even if they were ill. In Ethiopia, we spent a lot more time than elsewhere explaining the various safeguards in detail to our employees and showing them why these measures were necessary. 

Why did you choose the develoPPP.de programme to help you build up your supply chains and introduce COVID-19 protective measures? 

For companies to make progress with sustainability in developing countries like Ethiopia, you need multidisciplinary partnerships and collaboration. Here, large international organisations such as the German Development Ministry (BMZ) and GIZ are of course positioned and networked in a very different way than private companies, both technically and financially. We had already experienced the very efficient approach of our colleagues from develoPPP.de when we set up the value chains for avocado and sesame oil – so when the pandemic suddenly threatened the safety of our employees and the maintenance of our supply chains, it was all the more important for us to have a strong partner at our side to help us implement the necessary protective measures as quickly as we could. One of our main reasons for working with GIZ is that the company was very proactive in that it thought ahead early on and offered financial and technical support for coronavirus-related measures.

How would you rate the cooperation with GIZ on the ground?

I particularly like the pragmatic approach taken by everyone involved. Even though we had all suddenly found ourselves in a completely new situation, with unclear regulations and a high degree of uncertainty, all of our colleagues in Germany, the Netherlands and Ethiopia always communicated effectively with one another, and that helped us to surmount many hurdles.

What lessons have you learned from this difficult situation for the future?

The crisis has strengthened our resolve to continue engaging in dialogue with our employees and to actively involve them in important decision-making processes. We’ve noticed how creative and flexible our people are, even in exceptional situations, and how important mutual trust is in a crisis. After all, a pandemic can only be fought together. 

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