Monday, February 23, 2009

I could use a cup of Ugandan fairtrade coffee!

A great description of how life can be improved through fair trade cooperatives is found in the Guardian today.

The UK has an event that begins today called Fairtrade Fortnight. The event hopes to build awareness of fair trade goods that are available. As a part of the event, the Guardian had Harriet Lamb write a commentary. Lamb is executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK. Her piece begins by describing an Ugandan coffee co-op that has dramatically improved it's village.

Last week I saw this in action in Rwanda. Just 15 years ago, the country was utterly devastated. They are now rebuilding their economy, with organised smallholders at its heart. Just 15 years ago, Maraba village was one of the country's poorest, their low-quality coffee was sold straight off the bushes for passing prices to passing middlemen.

Today, the Maraba farmers have organised themselves into a Fairtrade-certified cooperative, have four washing stations – the first stage in processing coffee – have trained the first generation of cuppers, or tasters, who are constantly improving quality, and are commanding record premiums for their prize-winning beans. They are roasting and selling their coffee all over Rwanda as well as exporting it through Union Handroasted to UK shop shelves.

These are the most innovative farmers I have ever met – constantly researching new ways to improve productivity, such as making organic compost, or to add value, such as roasting at a village level using traditional techniques. And they have sparked an economic revival that sees Maraba now as among the more prosperous villages in Rwanda, as evidenced by the bustling bank and choice of hairdressing salons, while the farmers are now building and running a nursery school.

It is an economic revival that, with the right support, smallholders could lead worldwide. Some 450 million smallholder farming households cultivate two hectares or less, and with their families they make up a third of all humanity. Increasing their incomes will therefore be vital to improving the incomes of the poor. Indeed, because smallholders tend to spend more income on local goods and services, they could be the impetus that stimulates virtuous economic circles in local economies.

Organised groups of smallholders can also play a catalytic role in stimulating wider progress – on the environment and on social issues.

And smallholders hold the key to increasing food production. Small farms produce the bulk of many developing countries' food: up to 80% of Zambia's, for example. Much evidence points to their productivity – if given the right support.

That support is needed now more than ever. In Uganda, some tea-growers today spend more than 50% of income on food, up from 30% in the past. Some estimate the price of maize will rise by 27% over the next 10 years.

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