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Aranyak Sanyal (Olam Intl): «Harvesting in times of Covid is not straight forward»

Olam Coffee

LONDON, UK – The current COVID-19 pandemic has an impact not only the demand side, but also the supply side, in the coffee producing countries. Aranyak Sanyal, Head of Olam’s Arabica estates in South and East Africa, speaks in this article of the challenges of harvesting during COVID in Olam’s estates in Zambia and Tanzania, where extra measures are being implemented on the ground to keep pickers and communities safe. And this hasn’t been straight forward, as the article mentions, even convincing the local workers to wear masks was tricky at first because they’re traditionally associated with black magic!

While many coffee shops worldwide remain closed for business, it’s harvest time in Zambia and Tanzania, where Aranyak Sanyal, who heads up Olam’s Arabica estates in South and East Africa, has the mammoth responsibility of ensuring that 13,000 workers stay safe as they cherry pick their way through over 3,000 hectares of coffee trees.

As both countries continue to battle against the upheaval of COVID-19, coffee production, which provides an income to nearly 1,000,000 farming families in Tanzania and Zambia, has been allowed to continue – in modified fashion.

Olam’s single origin certified estates, located in the stunning Mafinga Hills of Zambia’s Northern Province and along the Ruvuma River in Southern Tanzania – favoured for their gentle microclimates, rich volcanic soils and rainfall – employ over 13,000 workers during the harvest season from the surrounding communities, the majority being women.

And for most of them, the remoteness and mountainous terrain of these regions – favoured for their gentle microclimates, deep soils and rainfall – mean the estates offer the only formal employment for nearly 1,000 kilometres.

Of course, the working from home scenario isn’t an option at this end of the coffee chain so safety has gained heightened significance in the COVID context, to protect our workers and at the same time maintain the quality and flow of washed, natural and honey coffees from the estates, to coffee cups around the world.

But the usual table stakes measures to keep workforces safe amidst the current pandemic – distributing PPE and enforcing social distancing – aren’t as straight forward to apply in a place where wearing masks is associated with black magic, a high temperature is brushed off as ‘normal’, and being confronted with the “strange object” that is the thermometer is avoided however possible. Then there’s the double dilemma that the lack of literacy in these deep rural settings means that very few have ever heard of terms like “social distancing” or “viral transmission”, yet the proliferation of misinformation across social media is widely accessible and taken as gospel.

Nevertheless, we’ve found ways to ‘speak the same language’ to get the message across in a local context. Pickers understand they have to keep a distance of ‘one coffee tree row’ between one another – equivalent to 5-7 meters – in the field, while in the drying area the tables are rearranged, creating empty corridors to distance the quality controllers who pluck any defected beans from the raised beds to ensure a perfect lot. On our Tanzania estate, the Massai security guards, brandish 2-meter sticks instead of their traditional spears, as a visual reminder of safe distancing. And when it comes to hand hygiene, as an alternative to singing two rounds of “Happy Birthday” to fend off the virus, workers follow the step-by-step illustrations attached to the 70 hands-free washing stations – fashioned from jerry cans, a stick and a rope – that are dotted amongst the coffee trees.

Then there’s payday which, being the largest agricultural employer in Zambia and Tanzania, would normally bring huge numbers of workers to congregate at the estate offices. So instead, multiple meeting points have been set up while we fast-track viable means of cashless payment systems.

Anyone suspected of carrying symptoms is sent to the on-site isolation building for testing and observation, though thankfully there haven’t been any confirmed cases to date.

Beyond our estates, we’ve deployed motorbikes to disseminate WHO advice via loudspeakers throughout the surrounding villages, and have donated several thousand masks, thermal scanners and contactless hand washing devices to District Administration Offices. When some of these supplies were held up by border closures, we contracted local tailors to make 20,000 reusable cloth masks – in line with CDC (Centre of Disease Control) guidelines to plug the gap.

Olam has always been ‘hands on’ when it comes to ensuring the tens of thousands of farmers and pickers who plant, harvest and nurture our crops across rural Africa, Asia and the Americas, are supported. Whether this is providing agronomic support to increase smallholder yields and incomes, or training the first women tractor drivers in Zambia, it’s a commitment that comes from our belief that great coffee is rooted in something deeper than rich soils – people that are knowledgeable, resilient and empowered.

Africa hasn’t yet been hit by COVID in the same way as Europe and the US, but it will compound the vulnerabilities already experienced by this rural workforce over the course of this year. This is hugely concerning and why we’re innovating as best we can to continue providing employment and safeguard local communities should the pandemic really hit.

I feel an enormous sense of responsibility to be entrusted with stewarding the livelihoods of thousands of workers, on whom our ability to continue to supply our award-winning beans to roasters and coffee lovers worldwide, ultimately depends.

Aranyak Sanyal
Head of Olam’s Arabica estates
in South and East Africa