Fairtrade co-op links up with women farmers

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An award-winning co-operative is forging closer links with women farmers as part of a new Fairtrade initiative.

The UK's Equal Exchange, which recently won the ‘Small Co-operative, Big Achiever award’ at Co-operatives United, is hoping Co-operative stores will find out more about their ground-breaking lines in coffee and rooibos tea, packaged as “grown by women”. The project, already supported by Northern supermarket chain Booths, sparked a lot of interest at the big Manchester event.

Sales Director Barry Murdoch was one of the team who went to Manchester to receive the award and spread the word about the new project which is helping women farmers in Nicaragua, Peru, and Uganda.

Mr Murdoch, who joined the Edinburgh-based co-operative seven years ago, said: “We launched the concept last September following research from our dealings with farmers which showed that, although women do a huge amount of agricultural work in the developing world, they don’t necessarily get paid for it. And if the husband gets the pay, it doesn’t necessarily get back to the household.

“Where women control household income, the family’s health, nutrition and education improves at a faster rate because less money is spent outside the household.”

He added: “A report done in Sierra Leone showed that for every ten dollars extra paid to women, men would have to receive 110 dollars for families and communities to gain the same benefits in terms of healthcare and feeding the family.

“So by working with women farmers and helping their co-operatives, the money can go much further.”

Mr Murdoch said Equal Exchange had a positive response at Co-operatives United, and a number of people said they would lobby societies to stock the products.

“We have opened discussions,” he said, “And we are hopeful we can take it further.”

Equal Exchange’s origins stretch back to 1979, when three voluntary workers returned to Scotland after working on aid projects in Africa. They had seen how small farmers were getting into debt due to the low prices they received for their products. Along with a sister organisation in London, Campaign Coffee, they started buying instant coffee from Tanzania. From small beginnings, they began to supply small independent shops and raise awareness of Fairtrade products.

The Equal Exchange range now stretches from the original coffee to rooibos tea, walnuts, honey, nuts, oils, and cocoa products.

Decades later, Fairtrade has gone mainstream, with even huge corporations like Nestlé taking some ethical retailing on board, but Equal Exchange still deals solely with 100 per cent Fairtrade concerns.

Said Mr Murdoch: “In recent years, we have seen a move away from those smaller pioneering companies to larger corporations who are developing Fairtrade products and making them more available, which is a good thing.

“But whether people are making the right choice in buying from companies who are not 100 per cent committed is something we would still question.

“We have to continually innovate to keep ahead of people like Nestlé and it is getting harder to get our products on the shelves of bigger supermarkets. The core of our business is still the initial supporters like Green City, Suma and fine food retailing outlets like delicatessens and wholefood shops.”

Equal Exchange also has an export business which does particularly well in Scandinavia and its business has continued to grow in difficult economic times. It currently supplies Palestinian olive oil to Co-operative retail outlets and hopes to extend the range of its products in stores.

The Co-operative was the first large retail organisation to show real commitment to Fairtrade at a time when it was not proven financially,” said Mr Murdoch. “We think they were very brave in starting the ball rolling.”

In 2012, Equal Exchange grew its trade by around 15 per cent and in 2013 they are planning a series of projects to raise awareness of their brand even further

Mr Murdoch added: “Our core business on the independent high street has been hit more than by any other sector by a recession which has seen many high streets taken over by Tesco Locals and charity shops.

“But by being innovative and building our relationship with Co-operatives UK we can still thrive.

“Next year we will be taking some time to better understand how we communicate with our customers and why they buy our goods.

“We will also be looking to see how we can expand things like the project with women farmers which are key to how we differentiate ourselves from our competitors and push the boundaries of what we can do to promote our values.”

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