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What Fairtrade means for Kilimanjaro coffee growers


An impact story on the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union, Tanzania

Written by Andreas Späth, January 2013 [see original story here]

What comes to mind when you think of Kilimanjaro? For most of us it's images of a beautifully cone-shaped volcano with snow-capped peaks surrounded by plains teeming with wildlife.

Coffee is not usually something that people associate with Africa's iconic mountain. So it may come as a bit of a surprise that some of the world's best Arabica has been cultivated on its fertile slopes and foothills since the beginning of the 20th Century.

Growing coffee on the foot of Kilimanjaro

The region's coffee crop is almost exclusively produced by the labours of thousands of small-scale farmers like Charles Makundi and Focus Maina who live and work on their family plots. Both, like the majority of their compatriots, are entirely dependent on coffee for their household income. But making a living from growing the beans that fetch top-dollar in the trendy coffee houses of the planet's capitals is not easy for any of them. If they sell their produce on the international markets, Kilimanjaro's humble farmers receive only a tiny fraction of the money paid for every cappuccino and skinny single latte.

Historic fluctuations in global coffee prices, plummeting at times below the cost of production, have often made survival next to impossible. Which is why Fairtrade, an ethical accreditation system that was established in Europe in the 1980s to afford smallholding farmers in developing countries easier access to world markets and more just recompense for their produce, has had such a big impact in the region.

Selling our coffee under Fairtrade certification has brought us many benefits,” says Makundi, “including better prices and improved lives.”

The KNCU Cooperative

Makundi and Maina belong to local coffee farmers' cooperatives, which since the 1930s have banded together under the umbrella of the Kilimanjaro Native Cooperative Union (KNCU), the continents oldest association of cooperative societies. Today, KNCU consists of 69 cooperatives representing some 68 000 individual farmers.

Cultivating fields that range in size from a quarter of an acre to five acres, the farmers grow an average of about 200 tonnes of coffee annually. Since 1993, when KNCU was first Fairtrade certified, between 60% and 70% of this has been sold as Fairtrade coffee, mostly in Europe, Japan and North America.

Its close association with Fairtrade has helped KNCU survive through some economically difficult periods in recent years. In financial terms the union, its member cooperatives and their farmers benefit in two ways: a guaranteed Fairtrade Minimum Price, which has at times been substantially higher than the conventional market price, and the so-called Fairtrade Development Premium.

The benefits of Fairtrade

The minimum price paid for Fairtrade coffee provides the farmers with a stable family income, allowing them to buy the necessities of life and move beyond an existence based purely on subsistence farming. But it's the development premium that really sets Fairtrade coffee apart from its conventional counterparts.

For every 50kg bag of Fairtrade coffee sold, KNCU receives about $22 in addition to the Fairtrade minimum price. This is the development premium which is administered collectively and democratically.

We talk about what we want the premium money to be used for in our local cooperative,” explains Maina, “but the final decision is made at the AGM of KNCU, to which each cooperative sends two representatives. Among the projects funded using this money are the nurseries that supply us with coffee plant seedlings. There is also an education fund for the children of members. The schooling of one my kids was paid for in this way“.

According to Sia Makishe, KNCU's Fairtrade officer, the union earns between $50,000 and $80,000 (ZAR 450,000-700,000)  in development premium per season. In addition to the nurseries and the scholarships paid to members' children, the money has been used to renovate administrative buildings, train staff, establish a marketing department which focuses on cutting out middlemen and enhancing exports, and to found the Kilimanjaro Cooperative Bank which gives members access to loans and other financial services.

Fairtrade and sustainable farming

Sustainability is another key aspect of Fairtrade. To ensure accreditation, a number of stringent, regularly audited requirements have to be met. The farmers are schooled in these Fairtrade standards and trained in sustainable agricultural practices such as composting and the use of local plants for insect and pest control. KNCU farmers do not apply any synthetic chemicals to their plots.

We also receive training in how to improve the quality and yield of our coffee crop,” says Makundi. “My family has really benefited from this as we have been able to increase our farm's productivity.” And that, of course, means more money to bolster the family coffers. Maina agrees that Fairtrade training has allowed him to raise his farm's yields and given him access to the necessary materials required to make his operation more successful.

Makishe emphasises that “through Fairtrade many of our women members have come to realise that they too can be leaders within their local cooperative societies – not just the men.” She also makes the point that Fairtrade has highlighted environmental issues in the region as farmers receive training on the impacts of, for example, pollution on local ecosystems.

With the effects of global warming becoming more and more apparent to all of us, Fairtrade's focus on environmental sustainability are of particular relevance to the coffee farmers of Kilimanjaro. While the flowering and maturation of their crops is crucially dependent on local weather conditions and the altitude at which they are grown on the volcano's flanks, the plants can only exist as long as they are fed by melt water from the glaciers on the summit. Climate change is sending these frozen irrigation reservoirs into rapid retreat, making the livelihoods of coffee farmers like Makundi and Maina increasingly precarious.

With so many benefits going directly to the coffee farmers themselves it's little wonder that more and more South Africans are enthusiastic about Fairtrade coffee from Kilimanjaro. Since May 2012, for instance, the coffee served at all Woolworths Cafés is brewed from a Fairtrade blend two thirds of which comes from KNCU. More recently, the retailer has also introduced KNCU Fairtrade coffee to its store shelves.

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