Gaynor Bretherton visited the east African country of Malawi to see at first hand how Fairtrade is changing lives.
The journey from my lodge in Blantyre to the Kasinthula Cane Growers Association was arduous, sitting in a very uncomfortable local minibus for an hour and a half, in an inhospitable region of Africa. Being flung around corners and diving over potholes was bad enough, but in the scorching heat it was particularly gruelling.
When we reached the Chikwawa district, Charles Chavi, the manager of the smallholder’s project, greeted us and introduced us to 20 of the Premium and main Fairtrade committee members.
Under the shade of trees, the farmers asked what had brought us to their association and how we were involved in Fairtrade. They told us there were 282 smallholders involved in their association and that they were hoping to more than double the figure in the next few years.
They added that after a sticky start, due to the local currency being devalued against the US dollar and increasing interest rates, the farmers were now receiving a realistic wage and are on their way to breaking even. Kasinthula Cane Growers (KCG) was certified Fairtrade producers in 2002 and is currently supplying sugar on Fairtrade terms to the UK, Europe and the US. The additional income earned from the Fairtrade Premium (currently $60) is used on projects to develop the local and surrounding communities.
Premium Committee chairman Paul Nkanakhasu hoped we would return to England and continue to promote the Fairtrade sugar. “The projects are much needed to help us improve the living conditions of our community,” he said. “We have done so much but there is still a lot more to achieve and without the Fairtrade Premium none of this would be possible. Our children have a future now.”
Our next stop was the extension to the local medical clinic. The nearest district hospital is more than 5km away making it practically impossible for any villagers, particularly those that are ill or heavily pregnant, to reach, and the clinical officer was an infrequent visitor. So it was decided to expand the clinic, adding a maternity wing, with the government providing money for beds and other equipment.
And almost as important, the farmers voted to build a house next to the clinic to house a clinical officer and family, ensuring daily medical attention for the local communities. They have also funded four motorcycle ambulances to aid with transport to and from the hospital.
Our next stop was 30 minutes away – the first of the 12 boreholes funded by the Fairtrade Premium. Dug in the village of Kapasula in 2004, the pump means the villagers no longer have to rely on the river for drinking water or make the 2.5km walk to Siseu village to the government-built bore hole. Transport around the villages is provided by a three tonne vehicle bought with the Premium to assist the farmers.
The premiums over the past few years have also enabled the KCG to support a government electrification project. The villages where Kasinthula members live can now have electricity in their homes.
The service will be extended to other villages and, hopefully, by next year it will be available to a further 250 households. The infrastructure is provided at no extra cost but each household is responsible for installing wiring and fitting sockets to government standards. This can add up to a significant amount but the Premium Committee’s decision to set up a low-interest loan scheme has helped families enormously.
So those families who have built new brick houses with tin roofs in place of the small mud huts with thatched roofs can also have electricity connected very quickly, to complement their new builds.
The visit was a huge eye opener for us. All the farmers who accompanied us on our whistlestop tour were very eager for us to maintain our links with them and return to see the completion of another new project – a high school. Roll on 2015. And keep buying Fairtrade produce, it really does make a significant difference to so many communities.
• Gaynor Bretherton is Fairtrade Champion for South Ribble Borough Council, and was on the Fairtrade Committee that succeeded in gaining Preston, Lancashire, its Fairtrade Town status
Why spend more on tea and coffee?
Fairtrade ensures that disadvantaged producers in developing countries get a better deal for their crop, whether that is coffee, tea, cocoa, cotton or fruit and vegetables. The premium the farmers receive is used to improve their working and living conditions and for community projects, such as providing clean drinking water.
In order to be certified, the producers must maintain minimum environmental requirements, which require farmers to work to protect the natural environment and to minimise the use of energy, especially from non-renewable sources.
Some farmers have used their Fairtrade premium to invest in solar panels and other alternative fuel sources that protect local forests. Britons are among the most supportive of Fairtrade farmers, spending nearly £500m on Fairtrade products a year, including 20% of the roast and ground coffee we drink, and 20% of the bananas we eat.
History of the Fairtrade mark
Fairtrade labelling was created in the Netherlands in the late 1980s. The UK’s Fairtrade Foundation was established in 1992 as part of the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation International, which is responsible for setting and maintaining standards around the world.
The first British certification mark appeared two years later on Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate, shortly followed by Cafédirect coffee and Clipper tea.
Now the Co-op, which claims to be the UK’s leading Fairtrade retailer, stocks more than 100 products that bear the distinctive certification mark.
• Originally published in GreenerLiving magazine in April 2009