Rio Viejo, Ecuador
* The project is not only about buildings, it's about changing lives.
—Maria Eugenia Castro, Fundación Dale
Dole Food Co. proudly stakes its claim as practicing corporate social responsibility (CSR) long before it became a catch phrase. The company points to the hospital it built for its Honduran banana, workers back in 1924 and a long list of CSR projects that have followed.
But for years, human rights groups have criticized the rampant use of child labor in Ecuador, says Sylvain Cuperlier, Dole's Paris, France-based vice president and director of worldwide CSR.
Inevitably, some of those kids were working in the fields. And some time ago, Human Rights Watch reported several cases of children working in banana farms, including some independent ones providing product to Dole.
Part of the problem was the lack of adequate schools in rural areas, says Mr. Cuperlier.
Seeking change, the giant U.S. fruit and vegetable producer recently partnered with Norwegian fruit and vegetable wholesaler Bama Gruppen AS to build a much-needed new elementary school in Rio Viejo, Ecuador. The project means hundreds more children will have access to education, Mr. Cuperlier says.
The old school had room for 80 children.
The new one, which opened just in time for the start of the new school year in April, can accommodate about four times that number.
The project “is not only about buildings, it's about changing lives,” says Maria Eugenia Castro, executive director of Fundación Dale, Guayaquil, Ecuador. Founded in 2001 by Dole's Ecuadorian division, the group focuses on improving the lives of the country's rural citizens. (Dale is a form of the Spanish word for “to give.”)
Funding for the $300,000 school was equally split between Dole and Bama Gruppen.
Stakeholders from both companies as well as the local community, union representatives and education officials were brought together in a project committee that met every four to five weeks.
One of the biggest issues was getting the community on board with the project. Fundación Dale asked the local government to donate land for the school, and, as Mr. Cuperlier recalls, community leaders were “a little suspicious.”
So the foundation took them on a road trip to a nearby school that it had built in 2001. There, local leaders had a chance to see what the new school would look like and how it would benefit the community by offering better educational opportunities to the kids living there.
Dole also made it a point to seek out the opinions of local citizens to ensure buy-in. “Having them involved in the decision-making helped,” Mr. Cuperlier says.
The construction committee made the major decisions, such as approving the school's design, while day-to-day efforts were overseen by Fundación Dale, working with Dole's local engineers and architects.
To keep the project on track, Dole's engineering department set the goals and timelines for construction. Daily reports recorded all the work undertaken in the previous 24 hours, and there were also regular reports that detailed funding provided to the contractor to ensure the project stayed within budget, Ms. Castro says. Each week, the engineering department outlined the building's progress to the executive committee.
Ms. Castro also distributed agendas and minutes for each meeting, pictures of the construction as it advanced, and information on how the project would affect the lives of those in the community.
Work on the school launched in early 2007, with a target completion date of April 2008. Heavy rainfall accompanied by frequent power outages nearly threw the project off schedule by hampering the progress of the welding team, Ms. Castro recalls. To get back on schedule and avoid undue safety risks, Dole rented diesel-powered welding equipment.
The project ultimately came in on time and on budget, with a grand opening ceremony held 15 April.
Now Dole hopes to get other clients, such as major supermarkets in the United States and European Union, involved in similar CSR projects.
Along with the obvious public relations benefits, such efforts help strengthen ties between the company and its employees. In Rio Viejo, for example, some Dole workers have children who attend the school. “When people feel the company is taking care of them, they work better,” Ms. Castro says. “They want to stay in their jobs.” –Susan Ladika
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