Sustainability is 
essential for growth

Insight 2/  / Sustainable Impact

key priority

For 45 years, we’ve been working to help the organizations that we support achieve economic and social impact. But we also recognize that sustainable entrepreneurship is an essential factor to grow and become future-proof. That’s why we make sustainability a key priority in our approach.

Which external developments affect our work?
When Rabo Foundation was founded, sustainability didn’t play as big a role as it does today. Over the past few years, several environmental changes have had a major impact on our work. Climate change has brought more extreme weather all over the world. In the Netherlands, for example, farmers adapt to long periods of drought through irrigation, and they benefit from more accurate weather forecasts. Smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, however, often don’t have access to that knowledge or the resources for investment. As a result, their crops frequently fail due to long dry periods or heavy rainfall, with lower yields per acre as a result.

How does Rabo Foundation deal with that?
Our new strategy is based on the understanding that only the combination of economic and environmental impact will result in greater social impact. Around the world, we make smallholder farmers and their communities more self-reliant by increasing their income, but also by teaching them more about sustainable operations. We invest in the sustainable growth of the harvest, reducing post-harvest losses, a stronger food chain and better adaptations to climate change. In the Netherlands, we mainly support social enterprises that also take sustainability into consideration and have embedded it in their business model.

We are currently investigating what adding environmental impact to our priorities will mean for our work. Which solutions are available for smallholder farmers to alleviate the consequences of climate change? But also: will we have to change our products as a result of that focus? We have set up pilot projects to gain new knowledge about these issues. An analysis of post-harvest losses, for example, has shown that farmers in Africa face a serious shortage of refrigeration facilities to store the food they harvest. So we organized a round-table meeting with farmers, merchants, financiers and start-ups held in Nairobi, which led to a test project with two cold storage hubs in East Africa. These are basically shipping containers equipped with a refrigeration installation and solar panels that can be trucked to where the crops are harvested. We are now studying the effect of this innovation and a potential business model.

What will we do differently in 2020 and beyond?
When we enter into a partnership, we look at how the organization deals with sustainability, and then we track the entire process. That way, we can make corrections along the way and offer solutions to improve sustainability. We also look for new business models and financing methods. We’ve financed cooperatives for 45 years, and we will continue to do so, but what has changed is that we consider sustainability when financing solutions that will benefit the cooperatives, but which they cannot pay for themselves. Our task is to identify these types of solutions and present them to the cooperatives. They may be innovative systems, such as the mobile cold storage facility, but they can also be simple improvements. We therefore think along with the smallholder farmers and cooperatives, and we connect them to smart solutions for sustainable impact.

Our new strategy is based on the understanding that only the combination of economic and ecological impact will result in greater social impact.

COMBINATION

Isabel van Bemmelen
Director, Progreso Foundation

Excellent quality wild cocoa grew naturally in the coffee farmers’ back yards in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Columbia. Yet they were unable to take advantage of that source of income themselves. “There’s a reason for that”, Isabel explains. “To do that, you not only need to know how to grow cocoa, you also need financial and practical resources. And you need to find a market to sell it in. Those are exactly the things that we help farmers’ cooperatives with around the world, so that they can earn a stable income.”

Motivation as driving force
How did the farmers in the Sierra Nevada come into contact with Progreso? “I’ve known them ever since I worked at Rabo Foundation, because the foundation has supported them since 2013. One day, I visited their cooperative Cooagronevada, where I learned that the cooperative’s 62 coffee farmers were looking for a new source of income due to the low prices for coffee. That’s how it always starts when we assist a group of farmers. They have to want to change something about their situation themselves. How we do that is custom-tailored to the individual cooperative. For Cooagronevada, the solution proved to be diversification by growing cocoa in addition to coffee.”

Bringing produce and buyers together
Before Progreso and Cooagronevada could move forward, they had to determine if the cocoa plants growing in their back yards had potential, and if it contained little to no toxic cadmium. “We always ensure that the farmers have a good product on their hands at the end”, Isabel explains. “Our partner Chocolatemakers in Amsterdam tested the cocoa and was immediately enthusiastic. They offered twice the local price, and were willing to continue buying the increased production from the project.”
“An important element of our approach is that we bring cooperatives and buyers together.

In late 2018, we began doing that via an online platform where reliable coffee producers and buyers can find one another. If we can obtain the funding, we hope to expand it to a cocoa platform as well.”

Stronger through knowledge and funding
“We provide small-scale projects with knowledge and capacity, so the organization can roll out projects on its own. In this case, we taught 15 farmers about organic cocoa production, fermentation and drying techniques. We also supported the cooperative in setting up an internal fund, so that more farmers will be able grow cocoa via the cooperative in the future. Finally, with donations by Rabo Foundation and their own contributions, the 15 cocoa farmers learned how to build drying tables and fermentation boxes on their own. They can then transfer that knowledge to others in the future, and it helps them to carry on independently, which is our actual goal.”

Enthusiastic and independent
Chocolatemakers has since purchased the first shipment of chocolate from the Sierra Nevada, and more farmers from Cooagronevada and three other cooperatives have joined the project since 2019. “With the increase of scale, they’ll eventually gain a stronger position together, but the main impact we see at the moment is the farmers’ enthusiasm. With a diversified income, they’re much less dependent on the price of coffee. And most importantly: thanks to the knowledge, funding and sales market we were able to provide together with Rabo Foundation, they can keep everything running largely on their own. They still get training, support and advice; now it’s online due to the coronavirus, but in the future it’ll be on location as well. But in the meantime, the production and processing of the cocoa beans in the remote mountainous region is continuing under its own power.”

How can you best support coffee or cocoa farmers? “By looking at what they need together. With favorable loan conditions, training and access to the right sales market, they can improve their living conditions on their own. Like the coffee farmers from the Cooagronevada cooperative, which has been 

Cooagronevada cooperative

Colombia


Isabel van Bemmelen
Director, Progreso Foundation

Coffee farmers
grow sustainable
cocoa

Case Study
Cooagronevada, Colombia

growing sustainable cocoa since 2019”, says Isabel van Bemmelen. She is Director of the Progreso Foundation, which works for the sustainable development of coffee and cocoa cooperatives. 

Insight 2/  / Sustainable Impact

Sustainability is 
essential for growth

For 45 years, we’ve been working to help the organizations that we support achieve economic and social impact. But we also recognize that sustainable entrepreneurship is an essential factor to grow and become future-proof. That’s why we make sustainability a key priority in our approach.

Which external developments affect our work?
When Rabo Foundation was founded, sustainability didn’t play as big a role as it does today. Over the past few years, several ecological changes have had a major impact on our work. Climate change has brought more extreme weather all over the world. In the Netherlands, for example, farmers adapt to long periods of drought through irrigation, and they benefit from more accurate weather forecasts. Smallholder farmers in Africa, Asia and Latin America, however, often don’t have access to that knowledge or the resources for investment. As a result, their crops frequently fail due to long dry periods or heavy rainfall, with lower yields per acre as a result.

How does Rabo Foundation deal with that?
Our new strategy is based on the understanding that only the combination of economic and ecological impact will result in greater social impact. Around the world, we make smallholder farmers and their communities more self-reliant by increasing their income, but also by teaching them more about sustainable operations. We invest in the sustainable growth of the harvest, reducing post-harvest losses, a stronger food chain and better adaptations to climate change. In the Netherlands, we mainly support social enterprises that also take sustainability into consideration and have embedded it in their business model.

We are currently investigating what adding ecological impact to our priorities will mean for our work. Which solutions are available for smallholder farmers to alleviate the consequences of climate change? But also: will we have to change our products as a result of that focus? We have set up pilot projects to gain new knowledge about these issues. An analysis of post-harvest losses, for example, has shown that farmers in Africa face a serious shortage of refrigeration facilities to store the food they harvest. So we organized a round-table meeting with farmers, merchants, financiers and start-ups held in Nairobi, which led to a test project with two cold storage hubs in East Africa. These are basically shipping containers equipped with a refrigeration installation and solar panels that can be trucked to where the crops are harvested. We are now studying the effect of this innovation and a potential business model.

What will we do differently in 2020 and beyond?
When we enter into a partnership, we look at how the organization deals with sustainability, and then we track the entire process. That way, we can make corrections along the way and offer solutions to improve sustainability. We also look for new business models and financing methods. We’ve financed cooperatives for 45 years, and we will continue to do so, but what has changed is that we consider sustainability when financing solutions that will benefit the cooperatives, but which they cannot pay for themselves. Our task is to identify these types of solutions and present them to the cooperatives. They may be innovative systems, such as the mobile cold storage facility, but they can also be simple improvements. We therefore think along with the smallholder farmers and cooperatives, and we connect them to smart solutions for sustainable impact.

Our new strategy is based on the understanding that only the combination of economic and ecological impact will result in greater social impact.

COMBINATION

Coffee farmers
grow sustainable
cocoa


Isabel van Bemmelen
Director, Progreso Foundation

Cooagronevada, Colombia
Interview
Case Study

How can you best support coffee or cocoa farmers? “By looking at what they need together. With favorable loan conditions, training and access to the right sales market, they can improve their living conditions on their own. Like the coffee farmers from the Cooagronevada cooperative, which has been growing sustainable cocoa since 2019”, says Isabel van Bemmelen. She is Director of the Progreso Foundation, which works for the sustainable development of coffee and cocoa cooperatives. 

Isabel van Bemmelen
Director, Progreso Foundation

Cooagronevada cooperative

Colombia

Excellent quality wild cocoa grew naturally in the coffee farmers’ back yards in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Columbia. Yet they were unable to take advantage of that source of income themselves. “There’s a reason for that”, Isabel explains. “To do that, you not only need to know how to grow cocoa, you also need financial and practical resources. And you need to find a market to sell it in. Those are exactly the things that we help farmers’ cooperatives with around the world, so that they can earn a stable income.”

Motivation as driving force
How did the farmers in the Sierra Nevada come into contact with Progreso? “I’ve known them ever since I worked at Rabo Foundation, because the foundation has supported them since 2013. One day, I visited their cooperative Cooagronevada, where I learned that the cooperative’s 62 coffee farmers were looking for a new source of income due to the low prices for coffee. That’s how it always starts when we assist a group of farmers. They have to want to change something about their situation themselves. How we do that is custom-tailored to the individual cooperative. For Cooagronevada, the solution proved to be diversification by growing cocoa in addition to coffee.”

Bringing produce and buyers together
Before Progreso and Cooagronevada could move forward, they had to determine if the cocoa plants growing in their back yards had potential, and if it contained little to no toxic cadmium. “We always ensure that the farmers have a good product on their hands at the end”, Isabel explains. “Our partner Chocolatemakers in Amsterdam tested the cocoa and was immediately enthusiastic. They offered twice the local price, and were willing to continue buying the increased production from the project.”
“An important element of our approach is that we bring cooperatives and buyers together.

In late 2018, we began doing that via an online platform where reliable coffee producers and buyers can find one another. If we can obtain the funding, we hope to expand it to a cocoa platform as well.”

Stronger through knowledge and funding
“We provide small-scale projects with knowledge and capacity, so the organization can roll out projects on its own. In this case, we taught 15 farmers about organic cocoa production, fermentation and drying techniques. We also supported the cooperative in setting up an internal fund, so that more farmers will be able grow cocoa via the cooperative in the future. Finally, with donations by Rabo Foundation and their own contributions, the 15 cocoa farmers learned how to build drying tables and fermentation boxes on their own. They can then transfer that knowledge to others in the future, and it helps them to carry on independently, which is our actual goal.”

Enthusiastic and independent
Chocolatemakers has since purchased the first shipment of chocolate from the Sierra Nevada, and more farmers from Cooagronevada and three other cooperatives have joined the project since 2019. “With the increase of scale, they’ll eventually gain a stronger position together, but the main impact we see at the moment is the farmers’ enthusiasm. With a diversified income, they’re much less dependent on the price of coffee. And most importantly: thanks to the knowledge, funding and sales market we were able to provide together with Rabo Foundation, they can keep everything running largely on their own. They still get training, support and advice; now it’s online due to the coronavirus, but in the future it’ll be on location as well. But in the meantime, the production and processing of the cocoa beans in the remote mountainous region is continuing under its own power.”