Food Systems Podcast 50
In discussion with Amer Badawi
Thursday, Jun 01, 2023
In our special 50th Food Systems podcast, Mark Titterington talks to Amer Badawi, Head of Charters & Operations, Supply Chain Division, at the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) about why the grain trade is important in supporting food security. The discussion was recorded live at a recent webinar hosted by Coceral, the European association of trade in cereals, oilseeds, pulses, animal feed, olive oil, oils and fats, and agrosupply.
You were a private sector grain trader and you’re now representing a humanitarian perspective. What’s your view on why the grain trade is, or isn’t, important to food security?
Many people think humanitarian mandates and activities are very different from the private sector world of trading and shipping grain. Some things are different, but for the most part the private sector is integral to how the WFP works with the trading community, the world’s suppliers and the infrastructure on the ground in many countries. It’s an important objective to work with the systems that are available to support local economies.
Is it the most efficient way of allocating food within the world system? To what extent are you impacted in getting the food to those who need it most?
Traders need to follow what they can do for their shareholders. At the same time, the big question is whether the system as a whole runs in a way that allows for every human being to access food. Markets need to function naturally; that said, there needs to be a very focused and concerted effort to try and work with the humanitarian community to give it reasonable access to food instead of having to endlessly compete with other buyers.
As you’ve transitioned to the public sector, what stands out for you?
The private sector can determine that a certain trade is not for them. WFP is called on to help as a last resort, so determining whether or not a trade is for us is off the table. Our help is a necessity. The innovative part is to find a way, come rain or shine, to deliver the food, and it might not be the most efficient way.
The other thing that is different is that the world of trading can just do the narrow trade that makes sense for them. In the humanitarian realm you have to find every possible solution to every possible problem to make sure you deliver the goods.
Could you give us a sense of the challenges that you face?
Trying to fix a vessel to carry a commodity from A to B, the need to make sure all compliances have been addressed, requires quite a bit of vetting. It’s about ensuring that all the challenges have been faced or criticisms about trading with a certain flag or a certain vessel that has called at certain ports have been addressed.
Do you think the private sector understands just what a last resort you are?
I think there are a few WFP partners that understand well the way WFP works, but there are some that don’t. We can probably do a better job in developing broader communication with newer partners.
How often do you get no or limited responses to tenders you put out?
Let’s say we are tendering for a commodity that is going to an area affected by difficult conditions, hostilities and so forth. That would raise a question of whether a trader wants to be aggressive on that order. Some might feel this is the only way their grain can access that market. We see this situation with the Black Sea Grain Initiative. The resilience of the supply chain is something we’re all looking at and figuring out.
We’ve heard a very persuasive case that the market is doing the job in terms of allocation, by and large. But there clearly are times, the pandemic or global conflicts, when that’s not the case. Is there a broader role for governments and the public sector to play?
Of course, there is a positive role for governments to play. It will depend how one would analyze new rules, new regulations, enactments that come, and whether they’re well intended but they fall short, or whether they actually do serve a positive purpose. I think measured adjustments that are intended to serve a purpose and to support other nations within a geographical area and more broadly are obviously helpful for the trade and the humanitarian community.
How did the pandemic affect you and how do you plan for unforeseen shocks?
There were very difficult things to deal with. Most of us were at home, waiting for vaccines to emerge, and we had ships with grain not being allowed to enter ports. How do you deal with two-week quarantines, when labour workers can’t just open a laptop and discharge a vessel, they have to be there?
80% of our activities are emergency responses. We can continue to deliver under very, very difficult circumstances. We had a lot of cooperation from ports, port authorities and governments that needed the supplies.
Given you exist to respond to emergencies, what keeps you awake at night?
All of the above! Unexpected disruptions: you’re up at night trying to find any way to execute.
How greatly are you concerned about climate change and the impacts it’s going to have on your activities?
It’s a huge factor. Having been in the industry for three or four decades, I can see that things look different. There are so many manifestations of the way the climate is behaving, particularly of late. We should not take chances too much. Maybe we can now try harder and see if we can catch up with this more quickly.
What are the one or two things you hope can improve in terms of the interaction between humanitarian programmes and the grain trade?
It’s maybe a wider conversation about broadening the communication between the humanitarian and the private sectors. The structure of the humanitarian side is different in that it’s procuring goods, delivering and distributing them. Obviously, the private sector has shareholders, and the structure is to work for profit. Beyond that, it’s like a government school and a private school – both need to educate people. And that’s what we’re trying to do: produce, carry, deliver, distribute food for people on the planet.
If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 32-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.
Amer Badawi has been Head of Charters & Operations, Supply Chain Division, at the World Food Programme since 2017....see more Prior to that, he held various positions with the North American Export Grain Association (NAEGA), including as an Approved Arbitrator, Board Member, and Vice Chair of the Contract Committee. He has also served as member of the Management Council and stakeholder at the International Grain Trade Coalition (IGTC). As an experienced global commerce executive and arbitrator, he has many accomplishments in international trade and management. Amer is seasoned in contract negotiations, business planning and operational management, grounded in analytical construct, and has a multitude of professional attributes with a focus on streamlined and innovative business strategies that provide solutions to day-to-day challenges. He gained his BA from Ain Shams University, completed graduate studies at the American University in Cairo and the State University of New York Maritime College, and undertook Oxford University’s Executive Leadership Programme, Management and Strategy.