Corporate and cooperative interests equally important
In African countries, the fair trade movement is not only a political statement against neoliberal policies. Gaining access to new markets is also an important objective. Consequently, private companies and local elites are involved as much as cooperatives and activists in fair trade on the continent.
NAI-researcher Cristiano Lanzano conducts evaluations of fair trade and has assessed partners in India, Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya, Senegal and South Africa over the past five years. An evaluation normally starts at the partner organisation’s headquarters with a review of all the official papers. Do the rules and procedures comply with fair trade principles? What about transparency and democracy? Some partners are very small and have little more than a single office, while others have several production sites. Once this step is completed, evaluators make field visits.
“The partner’s economic performance is of little interest to us. What matters is whether the fair trade principles are put into practice, and if not, how to improve. I have never had the experience of a partner deliberately trying to dupe us. That doesn’t mean there are no deviations from the principles. In addition, nowadays it is common for partners to rely on other subcontractors. We don’t have a formal say over them, but we need to vouch for the final product as well as all the stages of its production. That sometimes complicates the evaluation,” Lanzano explains.
His most recent evaluation was of a fruit company in Côte d’Ivoire that focuses on coconut exports. As much of the work as possible is kept within the company, including harvesting, cleaning and packaging the product. An even more marked instance of this approach was apparent during an earlier assessment of a herbal tea project in Kenya. In this case, the whole community was involved and responsible for the complete value chain.
“The farmers were already organised around an irrigation scheme, so it was pretty easy to use the same network for tea production. Eventually, they built a factory for processing the tea and making the tea bags and selling the completed product in Europe. The cooperative also runs schools and other social services, and thus creates employment for community members. They were really doing well, but then, as with many others, they were hit by the global financial crisis, from which they are still recovering,” Lanzano says.
Historically, fair trade has its origins in Latin America, where, for example, coffee farmers have created cooperatives. They are often strongly opposed to neoliberal policies. In Africa, cooperatives tell a different story. Many involve local elites and often the ruling party. On the other hand, Lanzano argues, private companies have become more involved in fair trade in Africa.
“I think many of us in the movement were initially sceptical about the companies, yet some are as committed as cooperatives to the idea of fair trade. However, the common problem on the continent of poor or absent infrastructure and the limited means of allocating capital hampers their activities,” Lanzano adds.
Fair trade is often viewed as a political statement, and is often linked to other movements working for a fair and just world. However, Lanzano points out, people need to understand that the producers’ main concern may not be changing the politics of global trade, but selling their products on markets they would otherwise never access.
Started in the 1960s, the fair trade movement didn’t really take off until the late 1980s. As it grew bigger worldwide, cooperation on common guidelines became necessary. The World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) was created, and 10 general principles were formulated to define what fair trade is. In addition, WFTO developed assessment strategies to enhance the standing of the principles among partner organisations.
Two different concepts
Confusingly, there are two different ways of producing and selling with a clear conscience – fair trade and Fairtrade. The former sprung from a movement that wanted to reform trade and was often engaged in anti-WTO protests, debt-cancellation and protecting the rights of indigenous people. Fairtrade, by contrast, is a certificate a producer or a company can obtain for a single product. It is the same as when a mainstream food company has only one product labelled organic, whereas their other products not are in line with organic agriculture principles.
“The advantage is that Fairtrade and other certified products have reached mainstream shopping centres, while fair trade products were previously only available in certain shops. The downside is that big companies can choose to have a single certified product and get credit for it, even though other products are completely non-compliant. Sometimes the two systems overlap. For example, a WFTO partner may choose to get the Fairtrade label for a product and by that have a chance to sell to major commercial chains,” Lanzano says.