Fairtrade plants seeds of hope in Africa

Cotton picking in Africa. Picture by Trevor Leighton.
Cotton picking in Africa. Picture by Trevor Leighton.

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In Fairtrade Fortnight, RACHEL JONES looks at how business is booming for ethical products and what more could still be done.

In the poverty-stricken villages of southern Mali, cotton is providing a seed of hope.

This is an area of Africa where clean water and health care can be difficult to come by and children help in the fields instead of going to school.

The farmers rely largely on cotton-growing to make their living but it’s hard for them to compete with heavily-subsidised producers in the US, Europe and China.

So a Fairtrade initiative is vital for improving the lives of these hard-working but impoverished communities.

MOBIOM is the umbrella organisation for 73 village co-operatives that grow Fairtrade and organic cotton and mangoes. It is located in the town of Bougouni in the Sikasso region of southern Mali.

The idea is to give these producers a fair deal and help them compete on a world market dominated by rich countries.

The problems facing cotton farmers in Africa and India is one of the themes of this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight, which runs until Sunday.

‘One of the aims is to advertise the existence of Fairtrade cotton goods,’ says Sue James, chairwoman of Portsmouth Fairtrade Forum. ‘European and American cotton growers are getting huge subsidies forcing the world market price down and it’s too low for the producers in India and West Africa.’

Fairtrade clothing is stocked by many top retailers including Monsoon, Tesco, Topshop, Dorothy Perkins and Debenhams.

But Sue agrees it’s not always easy to find and there is much work to be done.

‘Everyone’s aware of Fairtrade food but it’s a bit more difficult with clothing,’ she says. ‘I think training staff to point people in the right direction is one area that needs attention.’

Another theme of Fairtrade Fortnight is Show Off Your Label. ‘It’s about telling people that you’re serving or buying Fairtrade coffee or that you’re wearing a Fairtrade T-shirt. It really helps to get the word out,’ adds Sue.

And this year the fortnight is also about celebrating an increase in shoppers choosing ethical products.

Sales of Fairtrade goods soared by 40 per cent in 2010 to an estimated retail value of £1.17bn compared with £836m in 2009.

Every day in the UK, we are now consuming some 9.3 million cups of Fairtrade tea, 6.4 million cups of Fairtrade coffee, 2.3 million chocolate bars, 530,000 cups of drinking chocolate and 3.1 million bananas.

Sue explains: ‘Some of the success can be put down to a growing interest in ethical purchasing. There is more of an interest in the impact of Fairtrade and the unfairness of producers receiving rip-off prices.’

The aims of Fairtrade are to get a better price for producers and guarantee that income, make payments for community projects as well as goods, promote higher environmental standards and stamp out practices like child labour.

The Fairtrade mark means that everyone in the supply chain has been checked to ensure they meet with certain standards.

Throughout the UK, groups promote Fairtrade, organise events and persuade businesses and organisations to stock the products.

If a town receives sufficient council support and has enough shops stocking products, it receives Fairtrade status. Portsmouth, Havant, Gosport and Fareham are all Fairtrade towns.

Gwen Blackett, who sits on the Havant Fairtrade forum on behalf of Havant Borough Council, says it’s important for council’s to lead by example.

‘Havant Borough Council has supported Fairtrade for a long time to support the people abroad who get very little for all the hard work they do,’ she adds.

‘It’s quite right that we should be involved. We can buy Fairtrade coffee and tea and encourage other organisations to do the same.’

Local events for Fairtrade Fortnight have included a curry evening at the University of Portsmouth and members of Portsmouth’s Forum giving out bananas in Guildhall Square.

And events continue beyond Sunday. There will be a Fairtrade meal at Havant United Reformed Church next Tuesday. The after dinner speaker will be Chichester-based Greg Valerio, the UK’s first Fairtrade jeweller. He is the founder of CRED Jewellery and has campaigned for 10 years to bring fair wages, working and environmental conditions to the miners who provide the metals for the industry.

The Fairtrade goods label has existed for more than two decades and the range of products has expanded from food to all kinds of goods, including cosmetics and clothing. Big suppliers are switching parts of their brand to Fairtrade – Nestlé Kit Kat and Cadbury Dairy Milk both now carry the logo. And supermarkets are increasing their Fairtrade stocks.

However Sue says there is still a lot of room for development: ‘I’m delighted with the way it’s grown and how much support there is for it but it’s still very small. It’s just a drop in the ocean in a way. If you look at all the tea and chocolate sold that isn’t Fairtrade, it’s very depressing. There is often real exploitation behind the things we buy.’

But ordinary people can help to find a solution.

‘Ask for these products, exercise your consumer power. It can really help,’ says Sue who adds that Fairtrade products are generally no more expensive than other goods. For her and many others the exceptions are worth the price.

‘It makes such a difference to people’s lives,’ she adds. ‘There are people who can now send their children to school and get health care because they’ve been paid a fair price.’