A day in the life of … Michael Gidney

Please describe your role I am responsible for ensuring the Fairtrade Foundation achieves its mission, which is to fight poverty through securing better terms of trade for farmers...

Please describe your role

I am responsible for ensuring the Fairtrade Foundation achieves its mission, which is to fight poverty through securing better terms of trade for farmers and workers in developing countries. This year marks the 20th birthday of the Fairtrade Mark. Over that time Fairtrade has grown into a vibrant movement for change, involving 1.3 million producers in 70 countries and hundreds of thousands of supporters across the UK.

How do you get started in the morning?

The best start to the day is when I’m visiting farmers. I have just come back from Colombia visiting Fairtrade banana producers, who sell bananas to the Co-op here in the UK among others. While there days began at dawn, with a quick hit of strong Colombian coffee and a drive into the lush banana growing areas. Days start early on the farms, partly because by late morning the heat and humidity are intense.

What do you think of co-operatives?

Visiting Colombia, I was struck by just how challenging banana farming is. This is a crop that grows profusely, in many regions across the world, and so it is tempting to think a banana farmer’s life is an easy one. In fact, bananas are very vulnerable plants, highly susceptible to infection, poor drainage and wind damage. On the Caribbean coast of Colombia, pests, tropical storms and strong winds are a fact of life. Banana farmers struggle to make ends meet in such difficult conditions, especially when the very low price we pay for our bananas in the UK means that often they are paid below the cost of production.

For smallholders involved in a Fairtrade co-operative, however, life is better in a number of ways. They earn a guaranteed Fairtrade minimum price plus an additional social premium, which they invest in their farms and their communities. This has brought real benefits: farmers have invested in health centres, a mobile ophthalmology clinic, better housing and education. But they have also strengthened their spirit of co-operation, which is helping them improve their farming practices. This has improved productivity on some farms by as much as 80%, while water and pesticide use have halved. The co-operatives have also established ‘Calamity Committees’, which help those farmers who suffer hurricane or pest damage to get back on their feet. Smallholders have invested part of their Fairtrade premium into hardship funds and each farmer agrees to provide one box of bananas per week to affected farmers to enable them to have something to sell until their own farms are productive once more. This is not only good for the farmer, but also for the wider community, and it is the way in which those relationships are valued and strengthened which is most striking about co-operatives.

What motivates you throughout the day?

During my visit to Colombia I was invited to open a new school that producers had funded themselves from Fairtrade premiums, in a very poor part of the country where previously children had been schooled in a pig-sty, sheltering from the sun alongside the pigs. In fact 14 different Fairtrade producer groups had come together to build this school, and so it really is a very broad community effort – it will transform the way children are schooled in the area. Again and again in Fairtrade you hear stories of how farmers are working together, often through co-operatives, to improve their farms, building better businesses and stronger communities.  It’s incredibly motivating to see such clear impacts and goes to show what can be achieved if we value farmers and the crops that they grow. The disgraceful fact is that too many farmers remain poor — half the world’s hungry are themselves farmers. Fairtrade is proof that it doesn’t need to be like this.

How do you wind down?

Living by the North Sea is a great leveller. It’s impossible to hold onto the stresses of the day for too long in the face of crashing waves and gales. Failing that, there is always a bottle of Fairtrade wine in the fridge!

FIND OUT MORE: View the full Fairtrade collection

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