Black gold then; black gold now

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This November, we mark 25 years since Fairtrade labelling was first launched when Mexican coffee farmers teamed up with the Max Havelaar Foundation, a Dutch NGO. In the Netherlands, Max Havelaar is a byword for standing up against trade injustice. The classic book, Max Havelaar by Multatuli, exposed the desperate conditions on the coffee farms in Indonesia, then ruled by the Dutch.

To mark the past 25 years, I visited KCU, a cooperative of coffee farmers in Tanzania who were the first group to be certified in Africa in 1990. Today they have a membership of 60,000 farmers across the region. Coffee is central to the lives of KCU’s smallholder members.

“When the coffee season is on, you can feel it. When people are selling coffee, you can see the money circulating in the town – people are buying fish and meat,” said John Kanjagaile, KCU’s charismatic export manager. “But when the season is off, everyone is quiet. The town is dead and moneyless.”

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The smallholders of KCU first came together in 1950; but in the late 1980s the International Coffee Agreement collapsed, leaving the cooperative on shaky ground and many producers in shambles. At first, the cooperative did not think they could come through the crisis or export overseas, but with support and pre-finance from Fairtrade they sent their first container, marking the start of a dramatic recovery.

“From that moment we became players in negotiating on the best possible price. We became experts in selling coffee – to Fairtrade and to the conventional market,” Kanjagaile said. “You cannot attach a monetary value to what we learn in Fairtrade on transparency and the environment.”

And KCU has stayed at the forefront.

Too often people assume smallholder farmers will be conservative, slow to change. Think again. KCU is now the first organic certified Robusta coffee exporter from Tanzania. They have used Fairtrade Premium funds to push the cooperative and the community forward, including an electrification project, building wooden bridges, four schools, and a ward at the dispensary.  

And they have always invested back in the cooperative and its members – from improving quality and buying hulling machines, to becoming major shareholders in Tanica, the only spray-dried instant coffee factory in East and Central Africa.

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They also own a charming 16-room hotel on the shores of Lake Victoria, a swanky commercial centre renting out office and shop space, and a bank. These properties stand as security, enabling them to qualify for loans to purchase the farmers’ coffee at harvest time and allowing them to overcome one of a cooperative’s biggest hurdles: access to credit. Diversification of income also helps reduce the reliance on coffee – a volatile commodity whose price dropped over 60 percent this year from 2011 highs (Read more about the issues in coffee).

While visiting KCU, we were accompanied by a small group of gold miners from Tanzania and Uganda who are interested in joining the Fairtrade system (read more about my visit with the miners here). It was a poignant moment: the first Fairtrade group in Africa meeting a group still at the very beginning, as we explore how Fairtrade could work for these gold miners. The two groups eagerly exchanged views: how they built their cooperative, searched for market, and more.

“I feel so happy that we have small-scale miners here. Coffee used to be called black gold – that is our gold. It is on top of the earth, yours is under the earth!”  said Vedastus Ngaiza, the CEO of KCU, with a smile.

And before the end of the day, the topic turned to the launch of the FAIRTRADE Mark in East Africa, with Fairtrade coffee, tea and chocolate already on store shelves in Kenya. The KCU team excitedly discussed how Tanica could become Africa’s first instant coffee carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark, available in all good Tanzanian stores.

And I thought to myself, now this is all quite a birthday present to celebrate 25 years of Max Havelaar; a gift from the ever innovative smallholder farmers of Africa .image