Football’s winning ingredients can help forests in Kenya and Tanzania

Teamwork, competition and game-changers are all needed to transform commodity chains that currently drive deforestation.

As I sat on the plane last weekend to return to the UK from a workshop in Nepal on deforestation, my thoughts turned to football, not that I like the sport – rugby’s my game.

But it was football that popped into my head. It had dawned on me that the hallmarks of a winning team are also the key ingredients that could transform commodity chains linked to deforestation to ensure social responsibility, long-term economic viability and environmental sustainability.

Take East Africa. Part of the problem is that too few consumers and key players in supply chains there are aware of the impacts household necessities have on forests. For example, maize mills and beef processors appear blissfully ignorant of the impact of their trade chains on forests. Of the people who do understand, many perceive it as purely an environmental issue, not realising the business and societal benefits of taking action.

While it may be obvious that unsustainable extraction threatens the long-term security of supply of forest products (timber and charcoal), deforestation also undermines the security of other commodity chains in ways most people don’t realise. When forests fall, soils suffer. Erosion increases. Water supplies change. Pollinators of important food crops – such as bees – decline in number.

That means everyone’s affected – from producers and investors, to retailers and consumers.

Football is a team sport and a combination of tactics and skills are needed to win a game. For forest-risk commodities, efforts on the supply side (e.g. securing land tenure and enhancing land use planning, agricultural productivity and forest management) must be complemented by efforts on the demand or market side

IIED explored this topic in recent research on Kenya and Tanzania. In March 2014, we held a workshop in Dar es Salaam to explore opportunities, involving individuals representing private sector, public institutions and civil society and with expertise in different commodity trade chains.  The issues, incentives and ideas that emerged are what got me thinking about football.

Teamwork and tactics

Football is a team sport and a combination of tactics and skills are needed to win a game. For forest-risk commodities, efforts on the supply side (e.g. securing land tenure and enhancing land use planning, agricultural productivity and forest management) must be complemented by efforts on the demand or market side. 

So called ‘demand-side measures’ include import legislation, public procurement policies, roundtables and certification schemes, voluntary private sector moratoria, investor disclosure initiatives and consumer campaigns. The best chances of these demand-side measures succeeding come when a cast of actors come together and apply a mix of tactics.

For example, efforts to improve the beef industry in the Brazilian Amazon have included a combination of campaigns by Greenpeace, commitments and voluntary moratoria by key corporate players (meatpackers, supermarket chains and international leather brands) and formation of the Brazilian Roundtable on Sustainable Livestock to develop principles and standards.

The combination of federal action, Greenpeace campaigns targeting consumer-facing companies such as McDonalds, and improved corporate procurement policies by Cargill, a major commodity trader, has worked to promote sustainable soy production in Brazil. Such collective action can make a difference.

Competition for places 

Just as competition for places can benefit selection of the best football team, new forms of comparative advantage are starting to emerge for these commodity trade chains. 

In a society with a growing educated middle class, and where media and civil society are increasingly aware of societal concerns, future comparative advantage based upon sustainable sourcing (avoiding deforestation and responsible use of natural resources) and stakeholder value (meeting the needs of producers and consumers) will have increased resonance.

But questions remain as to how applicable the many emerging examples of demand side measures are to less developed countries where conditions and needs are very different. Many of these measures have been developed for large-scale international movements and trade in commodities (e.g. measures implemented in the EU for timber, palm oil and soy originating from South America, Southeast Asia and Africa).

But demand-side measures developed in Kenya and Tanzania need to work for commodities such as charcoal, timber, maize and livestock that are primarily destined for the rapidly-growing domestic (urban) and cross-border markets. They also need to adequately consider the needs and realities of smaller-scale farmers, community-based forest management and the informal sector that is prevalent in all these commodity supply chains. That’s where football’s third winning ingredient comes in.

Leaders and game-changers to take action

Any football team needs leaders and game-changers to make the difference. The same can be applied to the main actors involved in forest-risk commodity trade in Kenya and Tanzania.

While much attention focuses on the impact of foreign investment and demand, there is a need for locally-owned industry leaders — companies who can best understand and serve the needs of the domestic markets — to commit to making a difference.

Strategic opportunities exist to develop certification schemes and multi-stakeholder roundtables, and for companies to actively seek to understand and strengthen relationships and support along the length of their supply chains. 

In an environment where public sector governance shortfalls and policy implementation challenges dominate public discourse, there is a need and opportunity for public institutions such as protected area authorities, armed forces, universities and hospitals to show leadership in developing  sustainable sourcing as part of their procurement policies.

And there is also a need for civil society to play much greater campaigning roles with regards to sustainable commodity chains.

With the goal of reducing the harmful effects of deforestation, it will take teamwork, competition and game-changing leaders to score and keep on scoring.

Simon Milledge is the head of IIED’s forests team (

An issues paper and declaration will emerge from this work in Kenya and Tanzania, findings which will be relevant to many other parts of the world where growth in domestic markets is taking place and the need to assure sustainable sourcing of commodities and responsible consumption. The project is funded by UK aid from the UK Government, however the views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of the UK Government. This post originally appeared in the IIED blog.

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