Monday, March 20, 2006

Why is Fair Trade Coffee Important?

Submitted by Joanne MacNevin
Global Classroom Teacher Team
March 20, 2006

Recently, while in Kenya, I had the opportunity to visit a coffee growers’ cooperative called the Muhuti Coffee Factory. The factory is a place where farmers bring their coffee ‘cherries’ (see photo - coffee berry) to be cleaned, hulled and dried before sending them off to auction. As we toured the facility, I was able to talk candidly with the coffee farmers and harvesters about what they do and how they make a living. Though I suppose the phrase ‘make a living’ hardly applies, since most Kenyan coffee farmers are not earning enough to adequately feed, clothe and educate their families. Many Kenyans who currently work in the coffee industry, as either pickers or plant workers, are earning what amounts to one Canadian dollar per day. Farmers can earn a little more, or a little less, depending on the price they get for the coffee at auction. As a result of recent low prices, some are finding now that they are operating their farms at a loss. Others have given up coffee farming in search of a better crop that will make them some money.

So why is Fair Trade coffee important? Why are more and more coffee shops choosing to sell Fair Trade coffee, especially when it is often more expensive than regular coffee? The answer is simple: Fair Trade coffee supports the farmer by giving the farmer a fair price for their coffee so that they can pay their workers’ wages and still earn enough to live on.

Here is what I was able to gather during my visit to the coffee plantation and factory in Kenya. According to the farmers I spoke with, the average coffee tree can produce between ten and twenty kilograms of beans per year. The farm I was on had approximately 500 trees. Coffee pickers, if they work hard, can earn between seventy to eighty Kenyan shillings per day, which works out to be just slightly more one Canadian dollar per day. The farmer would have to pay the pickers on a daily basis, but the farmer himself wouldn’t get paid until the coffee was sold at auction. The price the farmer would get would depend, then, on how much the coffee is sold for.

If the coffee is sold for a really low price, and the farmer doesn’t make enough money to cover bills, that individual farmer will have to sacrifice. Unfortunately, one of the things that gets cut is school fees. Even though primary school is now free in Kenya, there are still quite a few costs, such as books and uniforms, that can add up to quite a bit of money. Secondary school is not free; students who attend secondary are still required to pay fees on top of buying uniforms, books and supplies. I visited Muhuti Secondary School across from the coffee factory. At this school, many of the secondary students would attend school for the first term, when the coffee was being harvested, but would have to drop out by the second or third term because of lack of money from the coffee crop; the coffee farmers often wouldn’t make enough off their coffee to pay school fees for a full year. As a result, the education of their children suffers.

In another school we visited, St Thomas secondary school, the administration has decided to allow the students to stay in school, regardless of whether they are able to pay school fees or not. According to the principal there, it is more important to have a literate generation than an illiterate generation, so he chose to keep the students in school, learning. As a result of the students being unable to pay school fees, however, suppliers and teachers have to go without being paid for long periods of time. The teachers at this school showed an amazing dedication to the students, in my opinion, since they continued to show up and teach the students - even going so far as to give extra lessons on Saturday mornings - though many hadn’t been paid in up to three months.

It is important to remember that we live in a world in which getting the best price is paramount. It is so important, in today’s society, to save a buck in order to make a thousand, that the individual worker often gets lost in the shuffle of dollars and cents. The coffee beans, which were so painstakingly harvested and dried, are sold at auction for the best (aka lowest) possible price to the bidding corporation. The large company will then process, package and sell the coffee to consumers at much more than the original purchase price.

Fair Trade ensures that the farmer will get paid a fair price. I’ve met the coffee farmers, I’ve spoken to them and listened to their stories of hardship. Given that the price of coffee is currently very low, the hard times may be about to get harder. After meeting with the farmers, and getting to see the faces of the individuals who put coffee on our tables, I definitely think that it is time to support the farmer, not the corporation. So spend the extra few cents on a cup of java, and support a farmer through Fair Trade.


Blogger Muchunu said...

I would be glad if our Kenya's Coffee and Tea farmers were to gain access to deliver their farm produce to the entities that sell to the final consumers in North America.
Can FHF facilitate this.

4:10 AM  
Blogger Mike said...

I will only buy from fair trade coffee sellers that I KNOW visit the source of their crops for this very reason. I think it is crucial to make sure that the company you do business with is authentic, and cares about the world more than their bottom line.

2:42 PM  

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