Friday, 27 August 2010

Barbara Crowther has a heart to heart with Akoma women's coop in Ghana

When I’m travelling, my name Barbara is very apt, because it means stranger or foreigner. On my first day in Ghana, I met another body that is truly living up to its name – the Akoma Cooperative Multipurpose Society. Akoma means heart – and this enterprising group of women have plenty of that.

Akoma specialises in the gathering and processing of organic shea nuts into butter – you can find them in Akoma’s own raw organic butter and soaps, as well as Visionary Soap Company products and Bulldog moisturiser in the UK. I’ve never seen a shea tree before – inside a green fruit (looks like a hard plum), there’s a smooth shelled nut, and inside that the kernel that produces this luscious oil and butter.
The process from nut to butter is incredibly complex –
involving parboiling the nuts before shelling, drying, crushing, roasting, milling, kneading, washing, boiling, skimming, and twice filtering before finally cooling to butter. It’s a wonder how anyone ever worked it all out. The kneading alone requires a full 45 minutes of elbow grease – it’s a proper aerobic workout, made easier if you do it in pairs. Singing really helps to keep up a steady rhythm, and a bit of dancing every now and again keeps energy levels high.  I try it, and am tired after five minutes – although my hands feel wonderfully soft for hours afterwards....

 In the last three years, the women here in the community of Puso Namogo, in the north east of Ghana, have taken what is traditionally a small scale domestic activity and turned it into an export enterprise, with both organic and Fairtrade certification. Akoma means the women have access to labour saving machinery to speed up the processing. A large basin of shelled nuts would have taken three or four hours in a mortar at home, but takes just three or four minutes to crush here using Akoma’s machine.

“We encourage each other to pack good quality nuts,” coop member Agnes Combeso tells us. For example we tell each other not to store the nuts as we sometimes used to, but parboil them early, so they don’t turn black. We encourage each other to do the right thing. Before, we would take our nuts to the market, and we often had to bring them home again because they didn't sell. Now we have a ready market and we don’t want to disappoint.” 

But it’s worth it, as the coop’s ebullient President Juliana Sampana, tells us, as the women are earning three or four times from their shea nuts than they used to. Fairtrade premiums from their first year’s sales were modest, but have enabled the coop to provide each member with free health insurance, as well as  new school uniforms for a child from each member's family. They've already bought the material to make up the uniforms..

Akoma has already expanded from 45 to 73 members but they’re reluctant to take on more members until they know there’s a bigger market for their products. There’s plenty of shea nuts around as well as lots of women wanting to join. The women of Akoma are brimming with ideas of what they could do, if they could increase their sales – buying computers and setting up a library so their children can study, wellingtons and gloves to protect them whilst harvesting the nuts, a crèche, a new health clinic and even ambitious talk of improving their kids’ access to secondary schooling. Their message to us as we prepare to leave is as heartfelt as their name – we want Akoma to grow and grow and grow - so please get more people buying our natural products.  But hey, before we go there's still time for one last dance...

Monday, 23 August 2010

The newest farmers to join Fairtrade by Harriet Lamb

A couple of hours outside Nairobi, we turn off the tarmac road onto a bumpy rough track. A long way further on, lurching around ruts and deep puddles, we pull up outside a small wooden hut where three old farmers have gathered to meet us. These are outgrowers, who grow green beans on their small plots with considerable support from the exporter Homegrown. In the hut, they show us the rough aluminium tray running down one side on which they sort out their beans. While the hut may be simple, the quality control is strict; if a bean bends too much, out it goes. The beans must be straight as a seargeant-major’s back - and as unblemished. Once sorted, they are stored in a small lean-to which is an improvised cold storage system – water is poured over pieces of charcoal packed behind chicken-wire covering all the walls, so keeping the beans cool until the lorry comes to pick them up for Nairobi. Record books are beautifully kept, everything noted down in careful hand.
A supervisor and two technical assistants explain how they support the farmers – constantly checking for any signs of disease or pests and offering the right assistance. In another wooden shed, chemicals are safely locked away.

These are probably the very newest farmers to join the Fairtrade system. In May, theirs were the first Fairtrade green beans ever sold - in Marks and Spencers. It has taken a long time to work out how to enable such outgrowers to participate in Fairtrade. In the end, they are organised into local groups, working through the exporter and certainly still very dependent on them. In six years time, say the standards, they should be exporting direct. At the moment, the scale of logistical and technical back-up provider by the exporter Homegrown makes that seem a tall order.

In other ways, the beans seem a great crop for the farmers who start harvesting only two months after planting and are getting good yields.  But, they say, ‘We need more market’. So far, only a small percentage of their beans are being sold as Fairtrade. The good news is that you can now buy them in Sainsburys as well as M&S.

That evening we stay with an old school friend of mine in the hills outside Nanyuki. She’s also hosting hordes of teenagers who have turned up unannounced. So I am balancing piles of shopping including a huge chocolate cake and innumerable eggs on my knee as we swerve along a rough track to her house. The landscape is breath-taking here in Laikipia which, according to a local leaflet, is second only to the Maasai Mara in terms of wildlife numbers. Which is not altogether comforting to know when my friend’s mobile phone rings – a neighbour warning that there has been a torrential downpour and one car is already stuck in the mud. Before long, we’re stuck too, the wheels spinning hopelessly with the axel sinking ever deeper into the mud - until a local tractor lumbered up effortlessly to pull us out without blinking so much as a headlamp.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Hannah Harris back in London, new website launched!

Just in the nick of time, the website is finished!

Great timing as the AFN (Fairtrade Africa) were facilitating consultations on the New Standards Framework during the last week of July. I managed to highjack the agenda for 10 minutes to give a quick overview for the producers about their new website. They are particularly excited about the prospect of traders being able to access the new product catalogue and pleased to see that they will be able to edit their own profiles and have a page to directly market their business.

Next job is to ensure traders are aware of it.... that sounds like a job to do back here in London!

'A house to call my own' - Panda flower farm, Kenya by Harriet Lamb

If Tambuzi flower farm is one of the newest to join Fairtrade, Panda is one of the most established, their Joint Body famous for their proud record of investing their premium. It’s no wonder that so many Joint Bodies on other farms go to visit Panda to get ideas and inspiration.

They have built a ‘Posho Mill’, outside which workers are queueing to buy the subsidized maize. On the notice board an official letter has been signed and pinned up: ‘Due to the global financial crisis and rising costs, the Joint Body is pleased to announce that we will be subsidizing maize......’

In the line we meet Sarah Njaeri, a single mother who works in the green houses and whose boy,  Alan, is now in the third year of university at Naivasha. He has had his education subsidised right through secondary school by the Fairtrade premium and plans now to train as a teacher. In 2004, the Joint Body bought small plots of land for 221 workers, who are gradually paying back the loans. Then, in Phase 2, they borrowed again now to build themselves houses. One of the first to finish is Leah who cannot stop beaming with pride as she shows us round. ‘On my own, I would never have had the money to do this,’ she says. ‘It was my dream to build a house to call my own.’
The house is spotless with white net curtains hanging to decorate the walls. Her sister is staying with her and is washing clothes outside, her little girl hiding round her legs. Rent in town keeps rising, comment the other workers, and is so expensive ; ‘You are always fearing the landlord’s knock. But paying back on the loan on your house is more friendly.’ There’s no electricity yet and no water – that will only come once they have saved enough.

All the flower farms are acutely aware of accusations that they are drinking up too much water.  Arguments rage on both sides. The detractors say the farms consume vast amounts of water, sucking Lake Naivasha dry and lowering the water table. The farms themselves reply that they are self-sufficient in water, keen to show how they harvest all their water needs themselves, that the lake has been shrinking for decades, that the problem lies further upstream with deforestation and climate change to blame for falling water levels. But all the farms accept that perception is nine-tenths of reality, and so are working hard on their environmental credentials. 
The other big argument is around working conditions. There are of course, as in every industry, the rotten flowers and just a few weeks ago a TV documentary in Kenya exposed bad conditions on a farm. But most of them are among the country’s leading employers, generating jobs in a country hungry for employment. Around 100,000 workers are directly employed on flower farms with a further 1.2m indirectly earning a living from the industry. Indeed, flowers are now the third largest export earner in the country after tourism and tea, bringing in around $500m a year. Many farms  recognise the unions and pay above the minimum wage. At Panda, the minimum they pay is Kenyan shillings 5,228, as compared to the national minimum agricultural wage of Kenyan shillings 3,600. Which is why many workers  travel from all over the country to get a prized job on a flower farm.
That poses a problem with which the Fairtrade system is constantly grappling. Under Fairtrade rules, the premium cannot be used for purposes such as wages which properly belong with the employer and would undermine normal collective bargaining by trade unions. So the Joint Body uses the funds for other investments such as educational bursaries for their children, building schools or putting in drinking water for the local communities. But often the workers come from far away and want to invest in their own home communities – or they want the cash; but then the premium would soon disappear and would be meaningless divided between all the workers’ different communities, unable to achieve any lasting change......
The arguments go round and round. At a meeting of African producers in Nairobi at the end of July, a new solution is proposed: that a certain percentage could be allowed to be distributed to individuals. The proposal is not yet fully framed but will be fed into the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation’s international standards committee for full deliberation.

Thursday, 12 August 2010

A light bulb moment at Tambuzi by Harriet Lamb

Sometimes, reality disappoints our expectations. Not so Tambuzi flower farm, in Kenya’s central Highlands, which is everything a flower farm should be. You are greeted on arrival by a gentle purple swathe of lavender, next to the green patch of mint and with bubbly warmth by the chatty owners, Maggie in a blue flowery dress and her husband Tim, who as we walk is constantly plucking off buds for us to smell the different sweet scents. In among the rows of roses, the supervisor sports a wonderful tall, white bonnet with an extravagant bow – which would win her first prize in the Easter bonnet competition and would look at home in a Caribbean Sunday church outing. She has gathered the workers together to plan a day off for the referendum on 4 August when Kenyans are voting for or against the proposed new constitution. At the reception, there’s a stunning bowl of special new crinkly pink roses.

Tambuzi has only just become Fairtrade certified and they have had, as Tim laughs, their road to Damascus-conversion. You can buy their Fairtrade roses online with Interflora – and I know that I will be tapping in my orders. The company are most excited about having proper written contracts for the first time – they cannot believe it - while the workers formed their Joint Body at the end of last year. They have gathered to meet us in an open air hall, next to the ‘Fairtrade suggestion box’ on the wall. It was full, they said, with workers’ proposals about how to use the Fairtrade premium and they show us the typed out list of needs.

For them, as for so many workers and farmers in Kenya, electricity is a major issue. People were using up to 10% of their income on paraffin the price of which has risen by 9% a year for the past 5 years. So on many farms, such as Panda flower farm, the Fairtrade premium has been invested in buying solar panels and lamps. These give light, save the expense and hard work of going to town to buy paraffin which also gives off unhealthy fumes, and can be used to power a radio or, critically, charge-up mobile phones.

Everyone in Kenya has a mobile phone, and in every village, houses are painted with the bright green adverts for, the dominant local supplier. But with no electricity, people take turns collecting the villagers’ phones, walking to the local phone-shops and queueing to recharge them. It’s a day’s enterprise. Now, says Maggie at Tambuzi, just as mobile phones have enabled Africa to leap-frog technology generations, so solar-energy may cut out the need for laying expensive electricity lines. It’s certainly been her light bulb moment.

Monday, 2 August 2010

Introducing the South West Fairtrade Website

The first ever regional website dedicated to Fairtrade has launched.

In a collaboration between more than 20 Fairtrade Town groups and over 600 supportive businesses in the South West, the South West Fairtrade website went live today, proving that the South West is a leading region for Fairtrade in the UK.

The site, designed by ethical web designers, Green Hat, and sponsored by the South West Regional Improvement and Efficiency Partnership and the Co-operative membership, provides Fairtrade shopping information, good practise ideas and news and events from across the region. You can also find your closest Fairtrade campaign group and get involved with action and events in your area.

The aim of the site is to raise more awareness of Fairtrade across the region and benefit more farmers in developing countries who are guaranteed a fair price and a premium to fund community projects with Fairtrade. Recognising the natural links between farmers in the South West and in developing countries, it's hoped that the area will embrace the ethos of Fairtrade and the rights of farmers to receive a price which covers costs of production and basic living costs.

Launched ahead of the ground breaking Fairtrade Procurement Conference, the first of its kind, to be held at the Eden project on 19 October, the site will enable all areas in the region to access ideas and information and link with other local campaigners.