10 January, 2014

Fairtrade: connecting small producers with the rest of the world

by Martine Parry, Media Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation

2014 marks an important year for the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK: 20 years since we first saw Fairtrade chocolate, coffee and tea hit the shelves. Martine Parry, Media Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation, talks about what the past two decades have meant for Fairtrade farmers and workers and what the future holds.

20 years of FairtradeAs two more remarkable people have been appointed MBE and OBE in the 2014 New Year Honours List for their tireless campaigning for a change in trading relations, we embark on a new year which will mark two decades of campaigning around the UK since Fairtrade labelling was first launched.

Edward Le Quesne, 71, has been awarded with an MBE for services to the Community in Jersey. He was a part of the group that fought for fairtrade in Jersey and is very involved in the Methodist community on the island.

Campaigner Sue Good, 68, of Aberdeen’s Bridge of Don, was made an OBE for her services to Fairtrade and education. Many congratulations to them both.

The honours reflect individual achievements plus the energy, creativity and impact of local Fairtrade campaigns in regions on a grassroots level over the last 20 years. Awareness of the FAIRTRADE Mark has risen from 25% in 2003 to 78% last year through the vibrant and active grassroots social movement in Fairtrade communities. This includes over 560 Fairtrade Towns, 1,050 Fairtrade schools, 170 universities and colleges and 7,000 Faith groups. 

From modest beginnings in 1993 when campaigners collected till receipts and presented them to major supermarkets to call on them to stock Fairtrade products, to 1994, when the first chocolate, coffee and tea appeared on shop shelves, Fairtrade has grown to 450 companies now licensed to trade 4,500 Fairtrade products in the UK. These products range from traditional commodities such as coffee and tea, to cotton, raisins, spices, cut flowers, cakes and - more recently - gold, silver and platinum jewellery. Most importantly, 697 producer groups from 70 different countries now benefit from supplying the UK with Fairtrade produce.

20 years of Fairtrade


To mark the anniversary, I visited KCU, a co-operative of 60,000 smallholder coffee farmers in Tanzania that was the first group to be Fairtrade certified in Africa.

Coffee was the first Fairtrade product and is still, perhaps, the best known. Like Fairtrade, KCU has faced challenges which have staggered growth over the last two decades.

KCU has used Fairtrade Premium funds to push the co-operative and the community forward, including investing in an electrification project, building wooden bridges, four schools and a ward at the dispensary.  
KCU has always invested back in the co-operative and its members – from improving quality and buying hulling machines, to becoming major shareholders in Tanica, the only spray-dried instant coffee factory in East and Central Africa.

The co-operative also now owns a glass-fronted commercial centre and rents out office and shop space, as well as other properties. These stand as security, enabling KCU to qualify for loans to purchase the farmers’ coffee at harvest time and allowing it to overcome one of a co-operative’s biggest hurdles: access to credit. Diversification of income also helps reduce the reliance on coffee – a volatile commodity whose price dropped over 60% this year from the highs of 2011.

Africa’s first Fairtrade Gold

African goldDuring my visit, these pioneering smallholders welcomed another group of producers to their headquarters in Bukoba, north west Tanzania. This group wanted to learn from KCU’s decades of experience as members of a large, established co-operative selling into the Fairtrade market.

The visitors were a small group of gold miners from the Geita district, in Tanzania, and from neighbouring Uganda where the seeds of a gold revolution are being sown. Twelve mines in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya are on course to sell Africa’s first Fairtrade gold once they are able to meet Fairtrade standards and apply for certification. This is a lengthy and challenging journey as the standards are demanding: the achievements of KCU must have felt a long way away to the visiting miners. But it also gave them hope for the future. 

’Fairtrade is about learning from one another,’ said John Kanjagele, export manager for KCU.  The gold miners listened as John talked about how KCU took some early risks and then fought to establish itself over the years.

The more John spoke, the more it became clear that exploring the achievements of KCU was an inspiring way to cement what the whole movement has achieved in the past 20 years.

Olivia, a widow, has worked for KCU since its inception over two decades ago and is delighted at the future it has helped her provide for her children. 

She said: ‘If we don’t farm we don’t have food. Fairtrade is our lifeline. Without Fairtrade I would be here but in a dire state of poverty.’

John said farmers selling to the Fairtrade market are paid up to 100% more than those selling conventionally and each farmer has an average of one-and-a-half acres of cultivated land. He remembered back to the very beginning of Fairtrade in his organisation.

He said: ‘We took a risk and borrowed money in order to buy and sell a trial Fairtrade shipment. This hadn’t been done before. It was a very big gamble for us but we managed it. We were given advice on how to market and trade the coffee. We are now professionals.’

Moving forward

Events to mark the anniversary, assessing the achievements to date and the opportunities and challenges ahead, will take place around the country including ‘birthday’ parties in Fairtrade communities. This will culminate in a major multi-stakeholder conference in the autumn at a London venue (details to be released later in 2014).

The 2014 year-long programme will seek to bolster affinity and engagement with Fairtrade’s values, impact and ambition for the future as well as to inspire the continued purchase of Fairtrade products and increased public interest in campaigning for change in trading relations.

When the first products with the FAIRTRADE Mark appeared twenty years ago, industry commentators predicted a temporary fad that wouldn’t last or become mainstream. Today Fairtrade is part of the fabric of British society, the leading ethical label in the UK and the world.

Fairtrade Blog