Monday, 12 July 2010

Harriet Lamb speaks with Ndumberi Coffee Farmers Co-operative

The Fairtrade Foundation Executive Director catches up with the Co-operative's chairman to learn more about its work.

Amid the muddy red earth of a Kenyan farm, stands a modest wooden meeting room full of the coffee farmers who sit on their cooperative's management Committees. But there is nothing modest about the trophy cabinet on the wall. It is bulging with cups and trophies that the cooperative has won: the second best cooperative in the whole of Kenya; the best managed coop in the District, the best loan recovery record, the highest payment rates to farmers... it's a proud record.

I've come to spend time in Africa, to listen to the Fairtrade farmers and workers and to the dynamic new team of their umbrella body, Fairtrade Africa. After ten years in Fairtrade, I want a longer time to hear from the producers about what is working well and less well and how we need to adapt and change Fairtrade for the future. And what better place to start than with the award-winning Ndumberi Coffee Farmers Co-operative Society Ltd. When I ask what they put their success down to, they say it's about hard work, leadership, transparency and accountabilty to their members.

They also talk of leadership and certainly that's a quality that shines from Raymond Gitau Wanjugi, their charismatic Chairman. Only two weeks ago I met him in the Fairtrade Foundation office in London as he came to represent Fairtrade Africa at the trade show, Caffe Culture. Now he tells me how the cooperative faced tough times over the past decades: the global coffee market was liberalised, prices collapsed, farm sizes were shrinking as plots were subdivided among children, productivity went right down. Gradually, the cooperative has turned all that round. They have organised intensive training for the farmers so as to improve productivity and, thanks to a Fairtrade grant, to build capacity of the managers.

They've made huge strides. Before, one coffee tree was yielding less than one kilo of coffee; now that has risen to 6 kilos - their plan is to get to 10 kilos before long. Then explains Raymond: 'We have put in a quality control lab so that we now know the grades of the coffee before we take it to the mill. Before, there was a lot of cheating - we'd take good grades and they would swap them for poor coffee and we couldnt do anything.'

Now they have ambitions plans to add more value to the coffee - they want to build a dry mill and market their own coffee in Kenya. Raymond says: ' Fairtrade has really opened doors for this cooperative'. He is certainly hoping that his recent visit to London will have opened a few more, so the cooperative can sell more of their coffee on Fairtrade terms. Certainly, the coffee farmers couldn't wish for a better ambassador.

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