Sherry-Lee Singh, director of sustainability for the Walmart Foundation, is no stranger to sustainable development and agriculture. In 2007, Singh joined the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she worked with some of the leading experts shaping the global development world.
“I like to say that I got a second master’s on the job really learning from people on the front lines,” said Singh. “I still carry that knowledge through my work today.” Now, Singh’s work leading Walmart.org's sustainability initiative focuses on creating food supply chains that are socially and environmentally sustainable.
During her #HeiferTogether discussion with Heifer International Chief of Mission Effectiveness Hilary Haddigan, on August 12, Singh discussed some of the work that the Walmart Foundation is doing to help create a more equitable global food system and how the farmers involved have found themselves more prepared to deal with the coronavirus pandemic.
- Singh’s work with the Walmart Foundation focuses on inclusion. That is to say, helping small-scale farmers access and connect to broader, formal markets. Many small-scale farmers who aren’t connected to fair markets rely on middlemen to buy their crops and livestock. While this does provide some income, prices are often woefully low.
- By “formal markets,” Singh doesn’t mean Walmart (though there is another branch of the Walmart Foundation dedicated to sustainably sourcing products). “Formal markets are quite broad and include public institutional procurers who are out there,” said Singh. “Government public school feeding programs, for example.” The goal with every project is to connect farmers to the best possible buyer, whether that be a local organization or an international business that requires products to be exported. But, regardless, the fit has to be both socially and environmentally sustainable.
- “We’re looking at the farm system,” said Singh. “We’re looking at what are the crops that are grown naturally today. What are their resource dependencies? What needs to shift to create sustainable landscapes?” She cited a partner-led project in Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s dry regions. Farmers here are reintroducing drought-resistant crops that fit with the natural topography of the area. It’s important, Singh notes, to ensure that the crops grown are in-demand and have an active market. Additionally, farmers are experimenting with energy-efficient irrigation systems and studying rain patterns to learn exactly which crops can be grown.
- Farming is no simple task, and in order to sell their goods to formal markets, producers and co-ops must meet myriad requirements, including quality control standards, certifications and vendor registrations. Many small-scale farmers are unable to meet these requirements, and that’s another area where the Walmart Foundation comes in. Singh and her team work to pinpoint what these producers need to be able to sustainably meet these demands and build their projects accordingly.
- Grants and projects from the Walmart Foundation have indirectly helped many farmers suffering during the COVID-19 pandemic – now partnering producers are growing crops that they can consume in difficult times, that are profitable to sell and that can be grown in their specific landscape. This increased income and food security has prepared them for success even in times of crisis. “Broadly speaking, farmers have had a mix of relevant crops – they’ve had crops that have relevant domestic markets, and they’ve had a mix of storable crops to the extent that they’ve had beans and grains that they could store at home and, in that sense as well, access to food crops,” said Singh.
Upcoming webinars include conversations with Donnie Smith, founder of the Smith Center for International Sustainable Agriculture at the University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture, on August 19.