Who grows your coffee?

26 Nov 2012 18:15

by Kate Lewis, Product Manager

Today sees the start of the Fairtrade Foundation’s coffee week.  Kate Lewis, Product Manager for the Fairtrade Foundation, explains why coffee is still the most recognised and purchased Fairtrade product.

Many of us love to start the day with a good cup of coffee, whether it’s enjoyed in the comfort of our home or bought on the way to work.  In fact, an estimated 1.6 billion cups are drunk worldwide everyday. And its popularity is growing as global consumption has almost doubled in the last 40 years and is set to rise further – particularly in the emerging economies of India, China and Brazil.


Being lucky enough to have visited Fairtrade coffee farmers in Peru and seen the red coffee cherries ripe for picking on the coffee plants, I have nothing but admiration for coffee farmers. Growing coffee, like growing any other food we love to consume, is hard work. Coffee around the world is mainly grown by smallholder farmers, usually on small plots of lands. Almost 25 million smallholders produce 80 per cent of the world’s coffee, according to the International Coffee Organization (ICO), and coffee provides a livelihood for a further 100 million people in coffee producing countries. Coffee is the world’s second most traded commodity after oil and the most valuable and widely traded tropical agricultural product, earning $23.5 billion for coffee exporting countries in 2011.


So you would think that with these impressive statistics the life of a smallholder coffee farmer would be a good one. But many farmers fail to be adequately rewarded for their work. Most farmers harvest their coffee crop and sell it straight to local traders, often agents for processors, exporters or international traders who benefit most from the coffee trade.


Coffee prices are notoriously volatile and farmers’ incomes crashed during the coffee crisis of 1999-2004 when oversupply of coffee saw prices plummet to a 30-year low, trapping farmers and their families in chronic poverty.  In fact it was low prices and this inequality for coffee farmers that inspired one of the founding fathers of Fairtrade, Frans van der Hoff, a Dutch priest living with Mexican coffee farmers, who aimed to rewrite the rules of trade by using the normal channels of business but enabling the producers and consumers to set the rules. He explained: ‘To pay the producer the real price for producing a product is not only economically rational but is grounded in the most elementary of ethical principles.’


The first coffee carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark in the UK was launched 18 years by Cafédirect, and now Fairtrade coffee delivers significant producer impact a for 361 producer groups in 29 countries. Uniquely, Fairtrade empowers farmers to address key social and environmental challenges by ensuring a fair price and the Fairtrade Premium –additional income to invest in agricultural improvements such as processing facilities to improve the price they receive for their beans, or in community projects such as clinics, classrooms and clean water. Last year, £2.7million globally was paid to producers in Fairtrade Premiums.


Fairtrade also supports farmers to strengthen their co-operatives, provide members with technical and marketing services and implement programmes to increase yield and quality, enabling them to offer reliable, secure and sustainable supplies of coffee beans to coffee companies.


Coffee farmers like Agustine Vadyath, a member of Fair Trade Alliance Kerala, says thanks to Fairtrade he feels more secure about his future now. ‘I used to sell in the local markets and also to people that come to this house and buy,’ he said. ‘But in the market you get only the price of that day, there is not a fixed price. I had all but ignored my coffee plants since the markets were so unsteady and I could not meet costs. This is the third year running that I have managed to sell my coffee through Fair Trade Alliance Kerala for a good price. I am now encouraged to tend to the crop well. I can get the money in my hand. It is a better price.’

We’re celebrating Fairtrade coffee all this week over on our Facebook page, find out more here.

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