PepsiCo's Eugene Willemsen on how we can enable sustainability together
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Interview: PepsiCo’s Eugene Willemsen says building a culture of sustainability together is critical

Interview: PepsiCo’s Eugene Willemsen says building a culture of sustainability together is critical

PepsiCo’s CEO for Africa, Middle East and South Asia tells Gulf Business why the company is driven by sustainability and focused on supporting communties in the region

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PepsiCo AMESA CEO Eugene Willemsem

Recently, we celebrated World Environment Day. As a company focused on sustainability in the F&B industry, what is your perspective on environmental priorities for this year?
We have ‘Only One Earth’. The United Nations Environment Programme’s first-ever theme for its global environment gathering in 1972 was so true then and couldn’t be truer today as the ‘Web of Life’ frays at an unprecedented rate. Our time is running out.

Five decades on, humanity celebrated World Environment Day to commemorate the long and strenuous road in our struggle for cleaner water and air, making the restoration of the planet’s ecosystem a collective responsibility for societies, businesses and individuals.

In my perspective, this is a time for both reflection and action – creating impetus for change that will drive a more responsible and sustainable world, thereby helping the planet thrive in the process. ‘Only One Earth’ is both a celebration and a call to action – not just today or tomorrow, but every single day.

Currently, consumers are leaning towards more sustainable options, what are your thoughts on this?
Now more than ever, consumers are acutely aware of the interconnected nature of our global food systemm – its importance to our planet, its support for our communities and its fragile gift of providing nourishment to billions of people across the world.

Climate change is reducing the soil’s potential to grow food and sequester carbon, increasing our vulnerability to extreme weather events and impacting water quality and biodiversity. The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated these challenges and highlighted the inequalities that underlie much of our food system and our societies.

Our current trajectory not only threatens the health of our planet and communities, but also presents challenges (and therefore opportunities) for corporations that are committed to changing our climate course. The proportion of consumers are, rightfully, demanding products that are more sustainable and made with minimal impact on the environment is growing by the day.

We source crops from over seven million acres of farmland in 60 countries and has deep roots in the global food system. We are working to transform the way we create shared value and thus ensure we operate within planetary boundaries and inspire positive change. ‘PepsiCo Positive’ is the future of our business, our roadmap to ensure that, as a global food and beverage leader, we reflect this in our role in the transformation of the global food system.

How is the company supporting sustainable agriculture in the AMESA region?
We are spreading the adoption of regenerative farming practices across seven million acres, approximately the equivalent of 100 per cent of the land used we use around the world to grow crops and ingredients for our products. These efforts are currently estimated to lead to a net-reduction of at least 3 million tons of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions by 2030. Additional 2030 goals include improving the livelihoods of more than 250,000 people in our agricultural supply chain and sustainably sourcing 100 per cent of our key ingredients.

Building on a decade of progress with our Sustainable Farming Programme, we (PepsiCo Africa, Middle East and South Asia) continue to collaborate with over 23,000 farmers across the region to improve famer capabilities, especially in agricultural resilience. In markets such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and South Africa, 100 per cent of our potatoes are sustainably sourced.

Our global programme with CARE – She Feeds the World- empowers women farmers in Egypt and India, providing training on sustainable farming and climate-smart practices to ensure long-term sustainability of their land. Our partnership with United States Agency for International Development aims to accelerate the adoption of regenerative farming practices among 1,500 farmers in Egypt.

Tell us how the company is encouraging efficient water use across the region.
Our “Net Water Positive” ambition aims to reduce the absolute water use by us and our partners. Ultimately, the goal is to replenish back into the local watershed at least 100 per cent of the water used at company-owned and third-party sites in high water-risk areas. We are also committed to improving operational and agricultural water-use efficiency to support these local water replenishment initiatives and will also step up our initiatives on, public education, advocacy for smart water policies and regulations and adoption of best practices with key partners in the community.

While we are very proud of our achievements in reducing water usage in high-risk sites by 36 per cent compared to 2015 and our replenishment of 45 per cent of water used in our plants in 2021, we are striving to do more. In 2021, our partnerships with World Water Fund and She Feeds the World have helped replenish 148 million and 60 million liters of water in Pakistan and Egypt respectively. We are now targetting to replenish 100 per cent of the water used at snack plants in Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh and Dammam. We have also implemented the Alliance for Water Stewardship standard for equitable use of water in manufacturing plants in Pakistan.

Through our partnership with WaterAid India, we aim to support the provision of safe access to water for 27 million people in India.

What, in your opinion, is the future of packaging?
We are actively partnering with other stakeholders in the plastics value chain to innovate the future of packaging, improve recycling infrastructure and educate and empower consumers to make the best environmental choices. During a year when the recycling industry faced unprecedented challenges both from Covid-19 and relatively low oil prices, we remained committed to driving progress toward our plastic waste reduction targets. We recognised the short-term challenges in supply and cost, and reaffirmed our commitment to advocating for, and contributing to, a circular economy. Launching our first 20 per cent rPET (recycled plastic) bottle in South Africa and a 60 per cent rPET bottle in Bangladesh, we have also introduced recycling programmes across seven countries, and worked with government to ensure rPET approvals in nine countries. Under Egypt’s Recycle for Tomorrow platform, over 11,000 tons of plastic was collected in 2021.

Read: PepsiCo expands recycling and collection initiatives in the Middle East

Our partnership with the Crown Prince of Dubai’s initiative – Dubai Can – aims to encourage a culture of refill and reuse to reduce single-use plastic water bottles by installing Aquafina water stations across key locations in Dubai, supporting the UAE’s drive for a more sustainable future. We’ve also partnered with the UAE Ministry of Climate Change and Environment and Foodtech Valley to launch the MENA edition of our global Greenhouse Accelerator programme.

Recognising the power of emerging startups in driving change, the programme supported 10 companies in the MENA region that are working on accelerating environmental sustainability in the food and beverage industry through disruptive technologies.

In Saudi Arabia, we have partnered with Naqaa Sustainability Solutions to set up recycling bins in various key locations.

We hear you are headed to COP27 this year. What are you most looking forward to in terms of furthering sustainability in the region?
All businesses must play a 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. As we prepare to head to COP 27 in Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt, I see an opportunity to increase support for regenerative agriculture in Africa, addressing both adaptation and mitigation. The improvement of farming livelihoods and more resilient food supply remains a key focus for us in the coming years.

We stand ready to support the Egyptian government as it develops its plans for COP 27, and we also look forward to partnering with the government of the UAE as it prepares for COP 28. We are already partnering with the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development this summer to engage the youth of Egypt to imagine what the country could look like in 2030 by conducting a “Hackathon” that will mobilise innovators and entrepreneurs to help accelerate the country’s progress toward its Sustainable Development Goals.

Multi-stakeholder partnerships are key to decarbonise the private sector in order to have any prospect of achieving the maximum 1.5°C global temperature increase and a range of policies and incentives for climate-smart agriculture, soil sequestration credits, tax credits, loans and guarantees will be necessary.

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