Interview: Eugene Willemsen, CEO – PepsiCo AMESA
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Cover story: Eugene Willemsen, CEO – PepsiCo AMESA, shares the company’s “positive” outlook on sustainability

Cover story: Eugene Willemsen, CEO – PepsiCo AMESA, shares the company’s “positive” outlook on sustainability

In an exclusive interview with Gulf Business ahead of COP27, Willemsen sheds light on how sustainability and regenerative agriculture initiatives are transforming the company’s operations in Africa, Middle East and South Asia, and why COP27 can help drive change

PepsiCo Eugene Willemsen

As one of the world’s largest food and beverage companies, PepsiCo is no stranger to scale. One of the popular facts you are most likely to chance upon is that its products – across 22 brands – are enjoyed by consumers one billion times a day in more than 200 countries and territories around the world. That said if you stop to think about it: every time you enjoy a bowl of your favourite cereal and a glass of refreshing juice, or a flavourful pack of potato crips and a cool, fizzy soda, there’s a complex supply chain, involving farmers, producers, transport companies and retailers, working around the clock to bring these products to you. However, such popularity brings with it the responsibility to minimise the impact on the environment.

A year since its launch, the PepsiCo Positive (pep+) strategy has been the turning point for the company and even more so for its operations in Africa, Middle East and South Asia (AMESA). Through pep+, the company is committed to using its scale to build a more resilient food system, be a consistent top market performer, attract the right talent and be a force for good by doing what’s right for people and the planet. For a company that sources 25 crops and ingredients from over seven million acres of farmland in 30 different counties while supporting 100,000 agriculture jobs worldwide, pep+ is and will continue to play a significant role in driving its future.

Eugene Willemsen, CEO – AMESA PepsiCo, who has been with the company for 27 years, says, “I have seen the organisation striving to become better, stronger and more sustainable for the business and the communities it operates in. From being a side project to becoming the future of business, sustainability has become the bottom line for business resilience. pep+ connects the future of our business with the future of our planet, from sourcing ingredients to making and selling our products more sustainably. We are ‘Winning with pep+’ because the end-to-end transformation strategy puts sustainability and human capital at the heart of creating shared value.”

Scope of pep+
Willemsen has played a key role in driving the adoption of pep+ across the company’s supply chain in the AMESA region. “We are proud to have embedded our marquee sustainability strategy in every aspect of our business across the three pillars of Positive Agriculture, Positive Value Chain and Positive Choices.

“We remain an agricultural company at our core – a steady, sustainable supply of crops is central to our business. Under our Positive Agriculture pillar, we focus on spreading regenerative practices to restore the earth across land equal to our entire agricultural footprint and sustainably source key crops and ingredients. As per 2022’s estimates, PepsiCo in AMESA has engaged two million acres to implement regenerative agriculture practices and we aim to actively engage with around 250,000 people in livelihood improvement programmes across our potato agriculture supply chain by 2030.”
As part of the commitment to create a Positive Value Chain, the company is focused on being ‘Net Water Positive’ by 2030 and has targeted the achievement of net-zero emissions by 2040, one decade earlier than called for in the Paris Agreement.

“We have avoided the use of approximately five billion litres of water in 2021 compared to 2020 by changing the way farmers irrigate crops, focusing on at-risk locations and improving water-use efficiency in the AMESA region,” adds Willemsen.

Since 2021, PepsiCo AMESA estimates that it has improved water efficiency by 50 per cent in company-owned high-water risk plants across the region (excluding its newly acquired Pioneer Foods facilities in sub-Saharan Africa). PepsiCo AMESA further estimates that in 2021, it has replenished 2.5 billion litres of water through community partnership projects in six high-risk watershed areas through science-based interventions.
PepsiCo AMESA is gearing to expand renewable electricity sourcing to 100 per cent of its manufacturing electricity needs for company-owned sites by 2030 through regulatory unlocks and multi-stakeholder partnerships.

“We drove our climate agenda within our manufacturing operations by achieving 12 per cent energy use reduction versus 2015 and expanding solar deployment across 17 sites,” says Willemsen.
Within the Positive Choices pillar, the company has been leveraging its connection with its consumers, suppliers, partners, and the scale and reach of its global brands – all to drive meaningful positive impact at scale. “Being one of the global leaders in an industry driven by consumers, we have been evolving our portfolio of food and beverage products to make them better for the planet and its people,” he adds.

Partnerships for farmer empowerment
Starting in 2018, the PepsiCo Foundation has invested over $5.7m in CARE’s She Feeds the World programme, supporting 538,000 female farmers in mainly Egypt and Uganda, with a major focus on economically empowering women essential in making the entire food system stronger. Asmaa Mohamed Abdullah, one of the female farmers who is part of the programme in Egypt’s Beni Suef says, “PepsiCo and CARE have supported me, step-by-step in every way possible, in my potato farming techniques, helping me achieve a stable source of income. ”

Globally, PepsiCo’s five-year $20m partnership with USAID under the Women’s Global Development and Prosperity (W-GDP) Initiative supports the empowerment of women in agriculture and helps build a more sustainable food system. In Egypt, this partnership is expected to accelerate the adoption of regenerative agricultural practices and achieve farmer self-sufficiency across Chipsy’s entire supply chain by 2025. Mohamed Farrag El Zoghby, an Egyptian farmer who is part of the programme, says, “I am proud to be cultivating potatoes that reach most of the Egyptian society through my partnership with Chipsy. Without being part of the sustainable farming programme, I would not have increased my production or the quality of my yield. I have acquired the knowledge of modern irrigation systems, protected my farm, decreased my cost and above all made sure to follow decent workers’ rights for a better farming community.”

The $33m Kgodiso Development Fund, established as one of PepsiCo sub-Saharan Africa’s public interest commitments, is mandated to look at creating ‘shared value’ solutions that ultimately help build a sustainable food system by increasing inclusivity in agriculture, creating local employment opportunities, and increasing local procurement and supplier diversity.

Tackling food security
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations’ 2020 report, states that nearly 690 million people – or 8.9 per cent of the global population – are hungry, up by nearly 60 million in five years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that agricultural growth globally has slowed due to climate change and Africa has been among the most affected regions, with a 34 per cent reduction in growth in agricultural production.

Willemsen says, “As a leading global food and beverage company, we have a critical role to play in realising a more equitable global food system to ensure the communities we serve are free from hunger and malnutrition.”
As a contributor to meeting pep+ commitments, PepsiCo’s ‘Food for Good’ programme is partnering with communities worldwide with the aspiration of making nutritious food accessible to 50 million people by 2030. It has also participated in the Zero Hunger Private Sector Pledge, committing to invest $100m in positive agriculture initiatives by 2030 to help minimise waste and seek to create a more resilient food supply.

While PepsiCo Foundation has invested over $5.5m in AMESA’s food security programmes since 2018, the foundation has invested over $1.8m in Africa alone, reaching out to 2.6 million people with nutritious food. Another initiative, the Pioneer Foods School Breakfast Programme serves breakfast to over 34,000 children in 35 schools every day of the calendar, across seven provinces in South Africa since 2015. The $250,000 Nigeria Food Clique fund provides 600,000 nutritious meals to Nigeria’s hardest-hit communities. Recently, the company, in partnership with PepsiCo Foundation, has contributed five million meals to support relief efforts in Pakistan following the devastating floods that have impacted the country.


Taking on water stewardship
According to World Resources Institute, many African countries have extremely high-water risk, including vulnerability to droughts and floods, seasonal variability, and competition for available water. Already, one in every three people across Africa faces water scarcity. Nearly 400 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are denied even a basic drinking water supply.

Willemsen says, “We have adopted an approach to watershed management in the region that includes initiatives designed to improve water-use efficiency across our value chain: on farms and in manufacturing facilities; replenishing water and improving the health of the local watersheds that are most at risk and where we operate; and increasing safe water access for communities that face water insecurity, including scarcity and unsafe water sources.”

PepsiCo is helping farmers in Africa install water-saving irrigation technology and enhance irrigation practices in efforts to improve agricultural water-use efficiency by 15 -30 per cent by 2025. As a result, potato irrigation water use in high-risk areas of Egypt and South Africa improved, with the company avoiding the use of approximately 0.7 billion litres of water in 2021.

Additionally, PepsiCo AMESA is working towards achieving water-use efficiency in operations by implementing best-in-class water-use standards across facilities. While PepsiCo in Egypt and South Africa have replenished more than 1.5 billion litres of water in high-risk watersheds in 2021 – equal to 38 per cent of water consumed in our company-owned manufacturing facilities in high-risk watersheds, PepsiCo in Jordan has already achieved net-water positive status.

In 2021, the PepsiCo Foundation continued to expand the reach of its safe water access programme, providing safe water access to more than 68 million people since 2006, with a goal to reach 100 million by 2030. To continue to advance this goal, the foundation’s investments with WaterAid and World Wildlife Fund are focused on sub-Saharan Africa and will help improve water infrastructure, build new water supply systems and equitable sanitation facilities, and promote hygiene education.

Cutting plastic waste
The pep+ ambition aims to design 100 per cent of its packaging to be recyclable, compostable, biodegradable or reusable by 2025 and to cut virgin plastic from non-renewable sources per serving across its global beverages and convenient foods portfolio by 50 per cent by 2030. Marking one year of pep+, PepsiCo launches recycled plastic (rPET) bottles across some beverage brands in 10 AMESA countries by 2023.

With the rPET bottles introduced in South Africa and Bangladesh earlier this year, PepsiCo is the first large-scale food and beverage company to launch locally produced 100 per cent rPET bottles in GCC’s Qatar and Kuwait by end of 2022. PepsiCo aims to continue its progress towards expanding plastic collection programmes to 14 AMESA markets by developing recycling infrastructure through advocacy and partnerships by 2023. As per 2021 estimates, PepsiCo supported the collection and recycling of 107,000 tonnes of plastic bottles and 19,000 tonnes of multi-layered Plastic (MLP) films across seven AMESA countries. This was delivered through mass collection partnerships, deploying reverse vending machines, launching incentive programmes, and partnering with recyclers for ensuring the beneficial use of collected plastics.

Earlier this year, in the capacity of Expo 2020 Dubai’s Official Beverage and Snack Partner, PepsiCo helped to reduce the use of single-use plastic, diverted at least 85 per cent of on-site waste and avoided more than 500,000 plastic bottles through Aquafina water stations as well as by replacing plastic bottles with Aquafina aluminium cans and glass bottles. In Egypt, as policymakers lay out an ambitious COP27 roadmap, PepsiCo launched the biggest PET collection programme in Egypt ‘Recycle for Tomorrow’ in 2021 and is now introducing locally manufactured recycled plastic bottles as part of its efforts to build a circular economy by 2030.

Supporting sustainable businesses
PepsiCo believes in leveraging the power of hackathons for nurturing young entrepreneurs to accelerate sustainable technologies through grants, mentorship and opportunities. With the MENA region’s startup ecosystem on an upward trajectory, PepsiCo welcomes the support from local governments to launch exciting editions of hackathons that push the envelope on circularity and positive change for the people and the planet. Earlier this year, PepsiCo Egypt partnered with the Ministry of Social Solidarity and Rise-Up to hold a one-of-a-kind hackathon for aspiring startups to work towards Egypt’s 2030 vision for zero hunger, gender equality and social development.

In 2021, PepsiCo partnered with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and the Foodtech Valley, to launch the MENA edition of its global Greenhouse Accelerator programme – a six-month initiative seeking to enhance innovation and sustainability through collaboration with purpose-driven brands from the MENA startup ecosystem that shared PepsiCo’s vision for a more sustainable food system.

Willemsen says: “The theme for the ‘2022 PepsiCo Greenhouse Accelerator: MENA Sustainability Edition’ was sustainable packaging and circular economy solutions. From a pool of more than 70 applications, we selected to support 10 companies from the MENA region. We recently announced UAE-based startup Nadeera as the winner of the programme. It will receive a grant of $100,000 and other benefits to scale its sustainable packaging solution and grow its business.

Read: UAE startup Nadeera receives $100,000 grant from PepsiCo to scale circular economy solution


Leading by example

Eugene Willemsen shares the significance of the upcoming 27th Conference of the Parties of the UNFCCC (COP27), especially for Africa and the Middle East

The World Economic Forum’s Global Risks Report 2022 ranks climate action failure as the most critical threat to the world and our planet in the next five to ten years. Each 1°C increase caused by global warming is projected to result in a 20 per cent reduction in renewable water resources, affecting an additional 7 per cent of the population – hindering economic growth, spurring migration, and even sparking conflict. Even though African countries contribute only 4 per cent of global emissions, they are suffering the most severe impacts of climate change. Ultimately, it becomes imperative to prioritise Africa’s case in the global climate change agenda as the continent is most vulnerable to the climate change crisis further driven by the pandemic.

Businesses such as ours play a vital role in advancing the overall environmental agenda. We recognise that to be resilient and successful over the long term we need to invest in building a sustainable future now. Multi-stakeholder partnerships are key, and to take these to scale we need a range of policy enablers that will help decarbonise the private sector to achieve a 1.5°C world. These include incentives for climate-smart agriculture, like soil sequestration credits, tax credits, loans and guarantees.

The 2021 UN Climate Change Conference (COP26) reaffirmed the need to take urgent action to combat climate change and now with the MENA region hosting the next two UN Climate Change Conferences – Egypt for COP27 and the UAE for COP28, we see an opportunity to increase support for regenerative agriculture, which can address both adaptation and mitigation, leading to the improvement of livelihoods and a more resilient food supply and this is a key focus area for PepsiCo both now and in the coming years. Additionally, as the case for green transition becomes stronger, there is an urgent need to prioritise the energy crisis by unlocking purchase power agreements (PPAs) and forging collaborations for increased investments in green innovation.
The meaningful change we need to take to address and mitigate the effects of climate change will be led by innovations that provide solutions. By bringing together global thought leaders, we will be able to hone this innovation into practice.

As we prepare to head to Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh [to attend COP27], I encourage us all to consider how we can put these topics squarely on the agenda. We are eager to lead by example and provide support for an accelerated progress towards creating new solutions to overcome climate change.

Read: PepsiCo AMESA: Pursuing a net zero future

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