by Justin Avern, Head of Media at the Fairtrade Foundation
Visiting Fairtrade certified co-operatives is one of the most tangible ways to connect with farmers and see first-hand the impact of Fairtrade. Visiting farmers can also provide invaluable insights into what our future work will look like. Justin Avern, Head of Media at the Fairtrade Foundation, reflects on his first visit to Fairtrade cocoa co-operatives in Cote D’Ivoire.
I recently returned from my first Fairtrade trip to Africa, more specifically to Côte D’Ivoire, to see more of how Fairtrade works on the ground, to hear from the people who are at the heart of the system, and ideally to witness the impacts.
The Côte delivers around 40% of the world’s cocoa, providing a large proportion of the ingredient to well known companies such as Nestle and Mars. As Euan Venters, Fairtrade Foundation’s Commercial Director, noted in the Guardian it was fascinating to see the journey from bean to bar, and through the new Fairtrade Sourcing Program, see cocoa grown in the middle of nowhere end up as part of chocolate bars rolling off gleaming stainless steel production lines in Slough and elsewhere.
Côte D’Ivoire coastline. Not Slough.
This was my first trip to Africa and I was unsure what to expect. What I found was a beautiful country, miles of white sandy coastline, (sadly much of it under a waste layer of plastic effluence) and a verdant green heart. It was also busy, with industry occurring wherever imaginable, from the city to the stalls that lined every town and village we drove through, selling and repairing, and mending.
Our first port of call before going out into the field was exactly that, the port at Abidjan where cocoa left the country. Huge sacks of cocoa were unloaded off trucks by workers before being tested and loaded onto pallets, ready to go onto boats. I tested the weight of one sack, and then swiftly moved on in case anyone saw my efforts.
Sacks on pallets
What interested me was how each stage of the cocoa journey became less large scale and more manual. Once we left the city we drove along roads through beautiful green countryside, through remote villages and jungle, though I always saw bicycles, motorbikes and cars (normally Toyota Corrollas) no matter how far between villages we were.
Each co-operative collects the cocoa from the individual farmers ready for delivery to the Ecookim depot at the port in Abidjan. But it was the previous stage of the journey that I found particularly interesting. In the field, the farmers do everything by hand – harvesting, preparing and collecting in readiness for the pick-up and transportation. The fields were often inaccessible to any method except foot so much of the harvesting happened on site, with the cocoa bean being removed from the husk and fermenting before being prepared for transportation, not least due to meaning much less being moved around.
Access to the farm
At the co-operatives I met farmers owning different size farms, from large (12-15 hectares or more) to small (1-2 hectares) before heading out into the field. All spoke passionately about the benefits of Fairtrade and the Premium. Though, there was much still to do, it was gratifying to hear that there were genuine physical improvements to their livelihoods and to their living standards that had been brought about. For me, it was great to hear about the aspirations they had for themselves and for their children.
One co-operative had bought several motorbikes. At first in my ignorance I was thinking this was a nice to have but surely not the best use of the Premium, until I heard how the bikes transformed many aspects of the farmer’s time, in terms of access to fields and to farmers living in remote areas, on top of the movement of goods and people and time saved. Motorbikes seem to have transformed their working and social practices in ways I had not considered.
This was my first field visit since joining Fairtrade and so it was good to see the results of efforts in the UK and elsewhere by Fairtrade supporters and campaigners in challenging the accepted norms in trade and pushing for change. To be more effusive, it was inspiring to see that having a cup of Fairtrade coffee or eating a Fairtrade banana actually mean better opportunities for producers and their families, be it through access to education, training or simply increased income. Like the journey of the cocoa bean there is a long way to go, but it’s definitely the right start, and a fairer one.