TV PRESENTER and businessman, Nick Hewer talks about his visit to St Lucia to see first-hand the impact of Fairtrade for farmers.
Some 25 years ago I went to St Lucia with a group of people who were investing in a hotel in the holiday resort of Soufriere. While there, and enjoying some of the luxury the island has to offer, I was approached by a very tall Rasta gentleman called Michael who asked if I would give him my shoes. I must have looked a sympathetic sort. He appointed himself as our guide and at one stage invited us to meet his family. The place they lived in was a bare shack, an unpainted wooden hut and his mother eked a living, walking miles and miles to the local market to sell the bananas he grew.
For me this was an introduction to the starkness of the life of a banana farmer. I never forgot the bareness of their small, two-roomed home and the distances which had to be walked to earn enough to feed a family.
When I came across the Fairtrade Foundation’s Make Bananas Fair campaign earlier this year, I immediately recognised its significance. It is very easy, when we are shopping in our supermarkets not to think about the farmers who grew what we are buying – what conditions they are working in, are they being paid enough to build a future for themselves, will their buyers suddenly disappear leaving them without security.
When I was invited by the Foundation to visit St Lucia I leapt at the chance to find out about banana farming there today – and the impact that Fairtrade has on the producers of the island.
Since I returned from St Lucia I have been asking every shopper I meet if they know the price of a bunch of bananas and no one has had a clue. This is the cruelty of our system. This popular commodity, a product that has hacked its way half way across the world ... people just lump it into their shopping trolleys and don’t know what it costs. At the other end, the supply end, they know what it costs them – they are struggling.
Here we can be disrespectful to our food, throwing bananas away when they are just a bit speckled, stores refusing to stock them if they are not the absolute correct shape and size. We don’t think that someone has got up, struggled on a hillside in St Lucia slipping and sliding to tend to their crops, cutting them down, washing them, dragging them to the distribution centre ...
We have a duty in a highly developed western democracy to have a care for where we buy things and not act irresponsibly. We should pay our way. Why should we always be diving down to buy the cheapest without a care for what the bloke at the other end is getting for it?
Financially I am in a cushioned situation and in this country I look out for Fairtrade. But I know there are families who do worry about how they will pay for their next meal. People who are dependent on food banks can’t be expected to pay a little more, but there are plenty of people in the UK who can.
If the Fairtrade price is a fair price we have to persuade retailers to pay it. I have seen how Fairtrade works for myself and I can tell you that Fairtrade puts a stake in the ground for the growers. The minimum price gives them a security they need. The additional premium, the money their co-operative gets on top of this price, means facilities for their communities – the schools, the clean water, the medical supplies...
While I was in St Lucia I met Moses who told me how he felt there was a stigma to being a farmer – it was something that people did if they didn’t have the skills to do anything else. Moses is showing the young people in his community that a farmer can be a modern-day businessman, an entrepreneur – he has bought extra land and is diversifying into pineapples and other crops which he supplies to hotels. He is also, as I told him, that rare individual - an entrepreneur with a conscience - having spent money on a dilapidated nursery school which people were avoiding because it was in such a state – transforming it into a welcoming place to be.
I also met Ritina, a woman farmer whose daughter, thanks to Fairtrade, has been awarded a scholarship for secondary school.
I have seen for myself that buying a bunch of Fairtrade bananas is changing people’s lives. And we have a duty to look after the other guy, to give them a bedrock that enables them to build a good life for their family and enables them to diversify.
In the Windward Islands it was the British Government who decades ago actively encouraged the switch from growing sugar, which was in decline, to bananas. Life is tough for these farmers, dealing with volcanic soil, hard to farm, often on sloping ground. They have also faced devastating tropical storms, floods and hurricanes – the latest, hurricane Tomas, all but decimating the smallholder farms after all that hard, hard work, fast work, fruit that took months to grow. Meanwhile EU trade reforms mean the preferential trade terms for selling to the UK no longer apply making things insecure and guarantees of Fairtrade even more vital.
In the UK when we hear about supermarkets on the news, we hear about battles for price comparisons and price reductions. No one will have failed to notice the crisis that supermarkets are facing at the moment. But are their declining profits all about price?
I am interested in the reputational damage that can occur if a retailer or a business hasn’t got its wits about it. According to articles I have read, suppliers to some of our supermarkets have been treated harshly. A supplier in Somerset might be told ‘lower your prices or we will switch to a supplier in Hungary’. But in business you have to earn people’s trust and respect and even their affection.
However to give another example in my opinion Waitrose has engendered a loyalty among its suppliers and consumers. So also have Sainsbury’s and Co-op and Marks & Spencer. A business in these times of scrutiny will find a lack of loyalty will now hurt them. A reservoir of goodwill is needed and supermarkets risk running on empty in the face of the price cutters.
The British, I think, are a fair people and they don’t like to see in a retail environment suppliers being treated badly or the staff being unhappy. Because the British are a fair people, seeing a business stocking Fairtrade bananas or coffee or other products does something to build trust and affection for a retailer. Third party verification builds a bridge of confidence for the consumer, between the producer and corporate business.
The retailers must be encouraged to take a responsible view on this. We know that the British public are decent, generous and fair and given a choice, and certainly if the price is all the same, they will buy Fairtrade. I say to businesses ‘start building up a reservoir of goodwill with your customers, because unless they are really pinched financially, they will pay a penny or two extra for their bananas. This makes no difference to them – and it makes a world of difference to some bloke in the driving rain in St Lucia or a woman in the beating sun in Colombia.’