Finding the sweet spot: Building the case of workforce nutrition

Unilever made a 750,000 Euro commitment towards the first multi-stakeholder global tea sector programme aiming  to improve the diets and hygiene of 300,000 workers and farmers in the tea supply chain, working with GAIN, the Ethical Tea Partnership and other private sector tea producing companies. Katja Freiwald, Global Director of Partnerships at Unilever, has been involved since the pilot in 2014. She shares the lessons learned so far.
Have a vision

I came to nutrition after marketing foods for eight years: I wanted to contribute more. I had a vision of better diets for smallholders working in Unilever’s supply chains, and kept that seed of an idea in focus. At that time, Unilever’s leadership was taking a greater interest in sustainability, so the environment was conducive. You need to find the sweet spot: the alignment between your own purpose, what your organisation stands for, and what is needed in society.


Be a pioneer

It can be daunting to pitch something new to the business. A key to success was identifying a small group of like-minded colleagues, ‘pioneers’ within the business who were on board with the sustainability agenda. Step by step, we have collected evidence and raised awareness around the importance of the right nutrition for workers and their families in our own operations and extended value chains. Our small ecosystem of ‘pioneers’ grew until we reached a tipping point: the idea of resilient value chains and a sustainable business has now become the norm.


Make the business case

What’s in it for the business? This must be clear. Of course, providing healthy diets for workers is the right thing to do. But as the largest tea buyer in the world Unilever also relies on a functioning and resilient value chain, and you can’t have that without healthy farmers and workers. Equally, consumers increasingly want to know about the impact companies have behind their brands. Unilever takes this seriously: brands without a purpose won’t have a future.  We found that these points made a business case for action.

Build the evidence

Assessing the impact of pilot programmes on farmers and workers - and on the business – was critical in making the case for future phases. The second phase of the programme, which tested effectiveness at scale, helped more than 135,000 workers and their families in estates in India, Tanzania and Kenya to have more diverse diets. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the programme improved supply chain workers’ perceptions of their employers in Assam (India) and Kenya, and that suppliers themselves valued the programme.


The power of partnerships

Unilever didn’t do this alone: we had a lot of partners who believed in it, including GAIN, the Ethical Tea Partnership, the Sustainable Trade Initiative, the Dutch Foreign Ministry, and suppliers who wanted to drive change. Convening a wide range of partners with complementary skills ranging from marketing to behaviour change communication was critical to building momentum towards greater investment. Likewise, a mix of public and private financing was key.

Leverage opportunities

Capitalise on the shifting landscape. The launch of our initial nutrition partnership with GAIN coincided with the launch of SDGs. Having SDG 2 focused on ending malnutrition helped us to make the investment case: there was a development need endorsed by the international community and governments; and there was a business case to build more resilient value chains with a healthier and more productive workforce.

Don’t lose touch with your ‘why’

Stay in touch with what keeps you motivated. I grew up in East Germany – the Berlin wall came down when I was ten years old. I can remember having food vouchers at school, but I can also remember community and sharing being important. It’s no coincidence that my first partnership in Unilever was around school meals with the World Food Programme, and my connection with nutrition has endured.

On a trip to India when we started the programme, I spoke to a grandmother who had done everything she could to provide a good future for her family: schooling, and a full stomach every day. As we talked about nutrition, I could see her realising that perhaps she had missed something, because she had been selling her most nutritious vegetables. It was a reminder that providing people with the right information about diet can be transformative. We can’t skip another generation: we need to give people the information and resources they need to provide brighter futures for their families.


Nutrition education is an important component of the Healthy Diets for Tea Communities programme.

It takes time

Rome wasn’t built in a day: it takes time to build commitment, and to get things right. It’s OK to start relatively small and build up to where you want to be. Our first workforce nutrition programme was within smaller supply chains, with gherkin workers and farmers. Once you have programmes running, changing nutrition behaviours also takes time. You might not get it right first time: hang in there, use data (e.g. consumer insights) wisely, apply lessons learned and stay true to your vision.


It’s not just about the money

I’m proud of the commitment Unilever has made, but I see a bigger opportunity: that of transforming the tea industry. As the world’s biggest tea buyer, Unilever has taken the first step: I hope that other tea buyers - and the biggest cocoa and coffee buyers - will do the same. If 58% of the adult population spend one third of their time at work and eat at least one meal there, the opportunities to improve their nutrition is far-reaching, and is absolutely within our reach.


Healthy Diets for Everyone in Tea Communities programme: 2019-2022


Reach: 300,000 workers and farmers.

Partners: GAIN, Unilever, Ethical Trade Partnership, other businesses

Locations: Africa and India (TBC)

Example activities:

  • Increase demand for nutritious foods through community-based events, training staff.
  • Increased knowledge and awareness through SMS messages, posters and booklets, training health and community members. 
  • Increased availability and access through planting fruit trees, kitchen gardens and distributing bio-fortified orange sweet potato plants.



Read more about Unilever's commitment to

Healthy Diets for Tea Communities project and Sustainable tea programmes