Fairtrade International

Demand for fair trade cocoa, coffee, and bananas grew by 27, 18, and 12 percent respectively by 2016. By the end of 2014, global retail sales grew to $5.44 billion.

The goal is considered honorable; consumers appreciate being able to help make life better for farmers and laborers in Africa. But on some farms in Kenya, Ghana and Cameroon, reality among the crops seems quite different.

By Kait Bolongaro, Brandy Miller, Selase Kove-Seyram and Maurice Oniango

Since the early 1990s, fair trade agriculture has been touted as a tool to help farmers in developing nations raise their income by securing better prices for raw products that enjoyed high demand in Europe and the United States.

Most of the intended beneficiaries are in Africa, and grow labor-intensive crops like cocoa, coffee, tea, flowers, and bananas.

The standards are high: From production to shipping, nearly every step from farm to table has to be certified, by a number of organizations. In this system, many farmers who decide to adopt organic and fair trade practices sell produce and flowers to cooperatives, which in turn receive money from Europe-based Fairtrade International.

Fairtrade cooperatives are supposed to function as democratic unions, where members decide how premiums are divided and monies spent. Members are also required to be small-scale producers who run their farms independently. Fairtrade promises to protect laborers on certified farms, where decent working conditions and employee rights are respected.

The reality of fair trade in Africa, however, falls short of the goal.

Reporters from 100Reporters and Journalists For Transparency found small-scale farmers who supply Fairtrade International products living in abject poverty, unable to afford basic needs, such as medicine or  education for their children. Meanwhile, unfair employment practices on some Fairtrade-certified farms persist.

Workers were found toiling in hazardous conditions for wages that did not cover basic needs, in apparent violation of Fairtrade standards. In Kenya, women said they were ordered to work with agricultural chemicals on flower farms when pregnant, that caused them to miscarry.

In a written statement, Fairtrade International said that it took seriously any breach of standards. “No certification system, company or individual can give a 100 percent guarantee that a supply chain is free of unacceptable labour practices, but Fairtrade ensures that if we receive information on any violation of the rights of children or vulnerable adults, we take immediate action to protect the impacted individuals,” said Eric Fichtl, a spokesman for Fairtrade International. “We work with national protection agencies and/or human rights organizations when possible to ensure duty bearers engage in safe remediation and secure the impacted individuals’ long-term well being.”

The harsh conditions exist as a stark backdrop to rising demand for fair trade products.

According to Fairtrade International, from 2015 to 2016, demand for fair trade cocoa, coffee, and bananas grew by 27, 18, and 12 percent respectively. By the end of 2016, global retail sales grew to $9.45 billion, up from $5.7 billion in 2010.  

European consumers – principally in France and Germany – are willing to pay a significant markup for goods with the Fairtrade International label. They believe that by doing so, they are helping improve the lives of farmers who’ve won certification.

But the process has not been as fair, transparent, or as democratic as some farmers–or consumers–expected.