Sustainable Softs: What does “Fairtrade” Mean for Africa’s Coffee and Cocoa Farmers?

You’re probably vaguely familiar with the concept of Fairtrade chocolate or Fairtrade coffee. You’ll know that, if you buy Fairtrade products, you’re somehow helping communities in developing countries where the tea, coffee or cocoa is grown and harvested. That’s true (so keep buying Fairtrade!), but we can go a bit deeper.

Fairtrade is best described as a “movement”. Its reach stretches from the Americas, through much of Africa, to southern Asia. In the words of the Fairtrade Foundation: “Fairtrade is about better prices, decent working conditions and fair terms of trade for farmers and workers…For most Fairtrade goods there is a Fairtrade minimum price which is set to cover the cost of sustainable production for that product in that region.”

On top of fair prices, Fairtrade certification offers farmers a ‘premium’ (additional money above the Fairtrade price), which is put to use improving local communities in any number of different ways. Farmers and workers determine where these funds are most needed – in education or healthcare for their children; improving their businesses; or building vital infrastructure such as roads and bridges for their communities. Here, we going to take a quick look at a couple of Fairtrade cooperatives in Africa, and see how their farming communities benefit from Fairtrade prices and premiums.



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Lake Kivu, Rwanda. The slopes above the lake’s eastern shore in Rwanda’s Mabanza district are home to some of the country’s most pioneering coffee farmers – members of KOPAKAMA. Photo Credit: Kuoni

For the farmers of KOPAKAMA cooperative (an acronym from Koperative y’abanzi ba Kawa ba Mabanza, or “Agricultural Coffee Co-operative of Mabanza”) in Rwanda, Fairtrade premiums have meant access to electricity for the local communities, and funds for the improvement of coffee-treatment facilities.

Established in 1998, almost half of KOPAKAMA’s 600+ members are women. The cooperative’s focus on women’s empowerment is particularly noteworthy, almost unique. Many of KOPAKAMA’s female farmers were left widowed in the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and have taken to farming coffee out of financial necessity. The cooperative now produces high-quality Arabica beans, some of which may end up in your morning coffee. In 2014, to coincide with International Women’s Day, Sainsbury’s – the world’s largest retailer of Fairtrade products – launched the Kopakama Ejo Heza Fairtrade Ground Coffee in the UK. This was the first fully-traceable coffee grown by women to be sold in a mainstream supermarket. Fairtrade prices and premiums have helped this small group of farmers to achieve things they may never have thought possible just a few years ago, and they are optimistic for the future.


“I am very positive about the future of coffee farming here…My daughter would be very happy to be a coffee farmer. She can see that it is our coffee which is earning our living for us and she knows it would earn her an income.”

Bernadette Noukantagona, former Chair of KOPAKAMA’s Women’s Association, speaking to Nilufar Verjee in 2014


The women of KOPAKAMA (Rwanda) with Nilufar Verjee (bottom row, far right), visiting in her capacity as Commercial and Marketing Director of Twin Trading. Photo credit: Twin Trading


Entreprise Coopérative Kimbre (ECOOKIM), Ivory Coast

Just as coffee is central to the communities within the KOPAKAMA cooperative, cocoa farming often forms the core of Ivorian farming communities. This is certainly true of the communities that have coalesced to form ECOOKIM, a Fairtrade union of seven separate Ivorian cooperatives. Each cooperative comprises small-scale farming families across four of the Ivory Coast’s poorest regions: the Moyen Cavally region, Bas-Sassandra, Haut-Sassandra, and Marahoué.  Cocoa provides up to 70% of these families’ incomes.

The direction of Fairtrade premiums is determined by ECOOKIM’s General Assembly – the union’s highest decision making body, which consists of all cooperative members – which has moved forward with a number of life-changing projects since ECOOKIM’s cocoa was Fairtrade certified in 2010. These have included the purchase of organic fertilisers, programmes to raise awareness of child labour, and training to increase productivity and cocoa quality. In addition, money made available to the General Assembly helps it to coordinate efforts to provide for its members. At the most fundamental level, this means purchasing and distributing sacks and tools for harvesting their cocoa. But it also means constructing schools (such as one at the village of Dibobly, in western Ivory Coast), assisting with healthcare costs and providing training in key business skills.

Ernest Koudadou Konan, a coca farmer and producer liaison officer with the ECOJAD cooperative, part of ECOOKIM. Photo credit: Eric St Pierre/

Yet just as important as highlighting what Fairtrade premiums provide, we should remember what they help prevent. The humanitarian record of the Ivory Coast’s cocoa industry is truly awful. In the past decades, countless thousands of children and young men have migrated, or been trafficked, into the country from neighbouring Mali, Guinea and Liberia, to be put to work on cocoa plantations, labouring long days for little or no pay. Children can be bought as cocoa workers for 250 US dollars. And this problem has shown little signs of abating in recent years. Tulane University’s national child labour surveys in the Ivory Coast and Ghana showed that the number of child labourers in cocoa increased in 2015, to 2.1m. Of those, 96% were found to be involved in “hazardous activity”. Undercover journalists and NGO officials report children – some as young as 5 – hacking cocoa pods open with machetes, using chainsaws to clear trees, and dragging heavy sacks of cocoa beans through plantation undergrowth. Often, families are forced to put their children to work on their cocoa plantations out of financial necessity. As schools in rural Ivory Coast and Ghana – the world’s two largest cocoa producing states – are few and far between, many of these children are deprived of a fundamental right, as laid out by the United Nations: the right to an education (look for Article 28 of the Convention in the link).

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A young child labourer uses a machete to crack open cocoa pods at a farm near Abengourou, in the eastern Ivory Coast. Photo Credit: Fortune


Fairtrade premiums go some way to shield children from these “worst forms of child labour”. Not only do they allow communities to invest in schooling infrastructure, they also provide a steady income, irrespective of the fluctuations in global cocoa prices, such that families can afford not to have their children work long, arduous days on cocoa plantations. Child and slave labour is prohibited on all Fairtrade-certified farms. The Fairtrade Foundation also promotes high environmental standards, sustainable agricultural practices and environmental stewardship focusing on organic farming methods. As we have seen, the premiums make a real difference for the people who ultimately receive their benefits.


“We are excited about the new projects we will now be able to achieve. We have big plans to invest in renewing our aged cocoa plants, a warehouse, trucks to transport cocoa, school improvements, drinking water, and more. We are working to build up the strength of our members and their communities.”

Moussa Bamba, President of ECOOKIM, on news that Italian confectionery company Ferrero had committed to purchase 20,000 metric tonnes of Fairtrade cocoa from ECOOKIM between 2014 and 2017


You may never meet the women of KOPAKAMA, caringly cultivating their coffee plants on the slopes overlooking Lake Kivu; you may never meet the Ivorian children, benefiting from an education as a result of the Fairtrade premiums flowing into their communities. Their lives may seem faint and distant. But remember: your choices have consequences. Consume responsibly. Consume ethically. Look for FAIRTRADE Mark. Choose Fairtrade.



Some useful links:

Here’s a list of companies committed to sourcing “ethical chocolate”.

You can also check out the Fairtrade Foundation website, and read up on some of the coffee and cocoa farmers (among others) benefiting from its work.

I’d also highly recommend you watch this short 4-minute video from a 2015 Fortune article. It highlights the ongoing humanitarian problems in the Ivorian and Ghanaian cocoa industries.

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