Talking farming with Fairtrade Africa head James Mwai

While agriculture is a major contributor to the economies of many African countries, most farmers on the continent remain poor. Fairtrade International has been helping farmers in developing countries to get better pay and access to markets. In Europe, products with the Fairtrade label have proved popular, showing that customers are willing to pay a premium to improve the living conditions of producers in developing countries. James Mwai, acting executive director of Fairtrade Africa, told How we made it in Africa’s Dinfin Mulupi why the African farmer is set to prosper.

Growing cotton in Senegal

Growing cotton in Senegal

How exactly does Fairtrade benefit farmers?

Fairtrade was set up because producers were traditionally disenfranchised or marginalised along the value chain. Its origins are in South America after the coffee crisis. Individuals responded to that particular challenge because they were aware that producers were producing high quality coffee but because they were part of global supply chains, they were totally invisible and therefore were left to the whims of commodity market swings, or traders and brands.

The first advantage for farmers is that through the Fairtrade system they become visible. There is recognition that behind this product… is a producer and that producer’s livelihood is affected by the price of this particular product. It also recognises that producers and consumers have an opportunity to engage. Consumers in some markets only care about cheap food… but there are consumers who are now more aware of the sustainability of their food. They also appreciate that, as a consumer, your lifestyle affects somebody else’s lifestyle. Every Fairtrade producer gets a minimum price [for their crops], which takes into account the cost of sustainable production.

You focus on crops such as coffee, tea and cocoa, which do not directly address Africa’s food shortage problems. Why?

In Africa we look at coffee, cocoa, tea, cotton, sugar, flowers, nuts and wine. In Africa we are dealing with about 700,000 producers. They are all members of 350 organisations, which we engage with as our unit of interaction. There is a space and a time to talk about food and nutrition and there is a space and a time to talk about farming as a business. If we all end up in nutrition there will be no cotton, no sisal… Many African countries have nothing else to export except agricultural products. Feeling up our belly is great, but ultimately we have to export. If we don’t export our currency will have no value. There is nothing that is going to replace agricultural exports in the short or long-term.

There are a lot of efforts to increase the productivity of farmers in Africa, but access to markets is still a challenge. Are we putting the cart before the horse?

We don’t talk to a producer unless there is a market. Doing it the other way round is a fatal mistake. You [cannot] believe that by somehow improving producers’ quality and quantity that automatically it will guarantee them market access. It is not automatic. You have to design it in such a way that you engage the markets from the very beginning. It is the market that determines the specifications of a product. If consumers want dark chocolate, then brands will source dark chocolate. So if you are making a different type of chocolate it doesn’t matter because you won’t sell it.

If you ask a farmer, “Why do you grow what you grow?”, the answers you will get are “my neighbour does it”, “the government told me to do it”, or “my father used to do it”. You very rarely get, “I am doing this because I looked around, found out what people were buying and based on that I decided to grow cabbages”. We are perpetuating a legacy of people continuing with enterprises not because they are competitive but because they are comparatively okay. Just because you grow beans does not mean that the market will take them. That is why giving producers information so they are able to make informed decisions is crucial.

Describe the future plans for Fairtrade Africa.

In the next couple of years, we want to make sure that we have several tea and coffee brands on the shelf. The growth of coffee and tea houses in Kenya gives us an opportunity to do that. We also think there is an opportunity to add value. If you look at the price of a cup of coffee at a coffee house and ask yourself what proportion goes back to the producer, you will be shocked. The only way to reverse that is for producers to start running their own coffee houses, which is unlikely because that is not their expertise. What we can do as Fairtrade is go to coffee houses and convince them to serve Fairtrade coffee and in doing so producers will earn more money.

Is there hope for the African farmer?

The African farmer has got a lot working for him or her. The African farmer has the market opportunity due to the fact that the population is growing and people have to eat. The fact that in a few years most of the population will be living in urban centres means that there will be less people producing and more people consuming. Farmers will be in a very good position, now and in years to come, to position themselves as the producers for hungry mouths in cities… Africa is currently the focus of large-scale investment for agriculture. The African farmer is sitting at a point where there is increased research… Investment in infrastructure – roads, ports and telecommunications – will allow African farmers to get their produce out quickly [and] to be able to communicate and get more information.