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Ten years on, a mark of success

IN THE steep hills of the Maraba district of rural Rwanda, the benefits of fair trade are clearer than they are in the aisles of Sainsbury’s. Pascal Kalisa, a 22-year-old Rwandan agronomist who grew up here, and now works for the Abahuzamugambi Co-operative, is one of 1500 people who receive an income from growing, washing, drying, pulping, sorting and packing the Bourbon coffee bean.

There are around 650 small-holder farmers, some them widows and orphans of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, cultivating the bean, which comes from one of the world’s oldest varieties of Arabica tree. Seldom grown commercially today, the trees produce a lower yield compared with many modern varieties, but the taste, according to connoisseurs, is “smooth, with a sweet fruity nature and a rich full body”. The beans become Café de Maraba, arguably Rwanda’s finest coffee.

The best beans are bought by Union Coffee Roasters, a UK-based ethical coffee company, which, supported by Comic Relief, launched Café Maraba Bourbon in Britain through Sainsbury’s. It is, says Steven Macatonia, chief roastmaster of Union Coffee, “a wonderfully developed, well balanced and zesty cup, with an intriguing depth that imparts deep milk-chocolate notes”.

It doesn’t seem that long ago that a cup of coffee after the church service was something to be endured, an act of tasteless solidarity with its distant producers. But as political solidarity has become more tasty, there has been an explosion of fairly traded goods on the high street. Cafédirect, for example, is now the UK’s sixth most popular ground coffee, and is shortly to go public with a £5-million share option.

Fairly traded brands now account for 15 per cent of the UK roast and ground coffee market — and coffee isn’t the half of it. Since the launch of the Fairtrade mark ten years ago this month, sales of all fairly traded goods have leapt from £2.75 million to a predicted £100 million this year.

As the supermarket chains have noticed gathering consumer interest, they have added their own fairly traded brands. Today there are nearly 200 lines, from tea and coffee to mangoes and pineapple, from fruit juice and snack bars to wine and honey. Since the first three products (Clipper Fairtrade tea, Green & Black’s Maya Gold chocolate and Cafédirect coffee) hit the shelves in 1994, the exploding demand has enabled food producers in developing countries to earn more for their labour and improve their quality of life.

Five million growers and families benefit from foods carrying the Fairtrade mark. Products are now sold in 17 countries through 235 traders and 452 companies. The march to mainstream visibility is confirmed by recent research which found that nearly a third of the population correctly associate the Fairtrade mark with the strapline “guarantees a better deal for third-world producers”.

When consumers buy products with the Fairtrade mark, they know that traders have guaranteed to pay the producers a price that covers the costs of sustainable production and living; to pay a premium, so that producers can invest in development; to make partial advance payments when requested; and to sign contracts that allow for long-term planning and sustainable production practices.

Of course, Fairtrade produce still only scratches the surface of the crisis faced by millions of small-scale producers facing unfair global trading rules; but burgeoning consumer interest suggests people are beginning to recognise that their purchasing power can tilt the balance in favour of the poor. In Rwanda, Pascal Kalisa has no doubts about the difference this makes. “Our whole area is more prosperous. As growers and people who work on the processing earn money, they spread it around among the local businesses. That way everyone benefits.”

For more information about the Fairtrade mark and Fairtrade Fortnight, see www.fairtrade.org.uk
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