Handicraft heaven

On my last day, we found ourselves in what I can only describe as ‘handicraft heaven’.  We have recently started working with a buyer in the US but all their handicrafts are procured via women’s groups based in Ghana.  These include clothes for women, children and babies as well as gift and homeware items, all made from batik-work.  There are Christmas decorations made from the typical West African glass beads and many soap products, including the well-known African black soap.  These items are also sold locally in a retail store behind the Koala supermarket.  Whilst one of the directors relocated to Ghana from the US over 10 years ago, much of the work is carried out by volunteers without whom the organisation would be much the poorer.

During the week, I have been introduced to some of the local fayre which is very different to the foods I am used to.  There is Fufu which is either cassava (a root crop like maize) or yam that has been boiled and then pounded and there is also Banku which is a fermented corn dough.  Both are eaten dipped into say an okra stew.  I was advised against them with this being only my first ever trip to West Africa; my colleagues were concerned that I would find them very hard to digest.  Instead I safely, and unadventurously, opted for the chicken and ‘Joloff’ rice which was really very nice.  (This rice is cooked in a type of stew and the word is apparently borrowed from the Wollof dialect of Senegal and Mali).  Throughout my stay I partook of the wonderful fresh fruit and juices; my particular favourite was the local bananas which are small, marked, bruised and full of flavour!

As always, the visit passed very quickly.  That said, it was very worthwhile and we achieved nearly everything we set out to achieve.  John is due to travel to the UK at the end of this month in order to complete his induction programme and to attend our AGM in March.  Thereafter he will return home where he should be able to find further lending opportunities for Shared Interest and more importantly bring benefit to more producer groups in need.

 

 

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Seeing the benefits of our lending

On my second day in Ghana, we went to visit a brand new SI customer.  This group has only recently acquired FLO-certification but for four products: cocoa, chillies, pineapples and sugar.  Most groups only apply for and maintain certification for a single commodity so this will be an interesting one to watch.  Normally we wouldn’t work with such a group as they did not meet one of our principal lending criteria; they didn’t have any export buyers when we approved their facility.  That said they have worked incredibly hard to boost the impact they have on their community and have succeeded in obtaining FLO-certification in order that they might trade their products internationally.  Our raison d’être is to work with the most disadvantaged so we felt we had to find a way of working with this group.  Indeed, within less than a week of us approving their smallish term loan facility, we were delighted to hear that they had succeeded in acquiring agreement from a major fair trade buyer in the UK to buy two types of their chillies packed in oil in glass jars for retail.

Our primary meeting at their headquarters was typically African; it began with a prayer and everyone was invited to comment if they wished to do so.  They all spoke with so much passion and gratitude; it was heart-warming and convinced me that we’d made the right decision to lend to them.  Things have not been easy for the group and at times they have had to take tough decisions and to prioritise due to a lack of funds.  Our funds will be used both to buy seedlings in order to ensure consistent quality product but also to buy a truck to transport their produce for sale, both locally and for export.  Previously, the lack of a truck has forced them to leave product to go to waste as they were simply not able to collect it from the farmers and deliver it for sale.  Not only was the cost of truck-hire very expensive, the drivers were too impatient to wait until the trucks were full which was of course inefficient and frustrating.

On our third day, we escaped from Accra into the countryside surrounding Akosombo.  We were visiting an existing pineapple customer on behalf of some of our colleagues as we wished to know how the harvest was progressing.  We met with all but one of the employees and had a brief meeting in the office before heading off towards the farm, stopping for some of the most amazing tilapia I’d ever tasted en route.

This group has delivered masses of social impact to the community.  Not only do they now have electricity pylons on the peninsula which they didn’t have prior to the creation of the group but they also opened a school in 2006; it is much nearer to the village meaning that the children have less far to walk along the very dusty tracks.  They also receive donations via a 1 cent/kg deduction in Europe on each box of fruit and this is spent on books and blackboards.  Lastly the Fairtrade premium that they earned in 2011 will be used for loans to members for both educational and vocational training.  This was agreed by the members at their AGM last September. 

The group was particularly badly affected in 2010 when Lake Volta flooded.  Whilst some of the water has now receded, the level of the lake is much higher than it used to be and it has devastated 8-10 hectares of the farm.  However the farm was not at full capacity so new acreage has been planted with rotational crops to bring year-round produce; the only problem is that the suckers take 12 months to mature.  Unfortunately some of the farmers chose to leave the group as they feared for its long-term sustainability following the flood but new entrants are now actively being encouraged to join.  

The intention here was that our monies (in the form of a term loan) were to be used to buy farming infrastructure and a truck.  We not only achieved this but we were also able to fund the relocation inland of their new electricity pylons when they were submerged by the flooding.  Likewise they were able to buy a mobile pumping machine as the fixed one was now in the middle of the lake!  Their transport capacity has doubled with the purchase of a new truck and not only that, they can now refrigerate their produce too.  One of the best parts of my role has to be seeing first-hand how our producer customers have utilised the funds with which we are able to furnish them thanks to our members’ investments.

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Our New West Africa Office

Having failed to make the very same journey back in November due to fog at Amsterdam airport, I was inevitably somewhat perturbed to watch snow falling the day before my departure.  However I need not have worried as the journey from Newcastle to Accra, Ghana went very well and I was met as planned by John Dossou, our new Ghanaian colleague, who is to be responsible for our West African lending from a base in Accra.

One of the first things that struck me about Ghana and its capital city was its patriotism; the Ghanaian flag was flying everywhere.  I soon found out that this was primarily due to Ghana beating Tunisia in the Africa Cup of Nations on the night of my arrival and going through to the semi-finals of this auspicious tournament.  The final result had been 2-1 in the last minutes of extra time but at least John had been merrily occupied watching the football whilst waiting a very long time for me to clear immigration.

Our first day was spent visiting our new office in Accra and getting to know our new office-sharing partners, Fairtrade Africa and FLO.  As we only lend to FLO-certified producers (or to WFTO members), both parties are convinced that this office-share agreement and the potential collaboration it brings should ultimately be very beneficial to the producer groups with which we are both working directly, albeit in different capacities.

John also took me on an interesting shopping expedition in an attempt to help him kit out his new office.  Had any of the shops, including a big department store, accepted credit cards, we might have made some progress; we didn’t!

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Meeting the people

Everywhere we had been during our trip, people were decorating hotels, streets, houses and municipal buildings with green, white and red flags in preparation for 16 September, Independence Day.  This year the date has particular significance as much of Latin America will be celebrating 200 years of independence from the Spanish.

We were staying in Huatusco, a lively town in a bowl surrounded by mountains and an extinct volcano, in order to carry out a due diligence visit on a new prospective customer.  We were welcomed into a professional, well-run business by open, funny and charming people with whom it was our pleasure to spend two days.  (In fact, everyone we have met in Mexico has been delightful).  They helped us to understand their business fully, showed us all their facilities and introduced us to a number of their producer members.

Mexico Blog Post

One of the ladies had left her sons tending her parcel of land whilst she took up the role of Secretary of the Board.  She was evidently relishing the experience and the opportunity which she would not have been able to take up had the co-op not offered her accommodation locally.

Another producer had started delivering his coffee to the co-op back in 1992.  In 2000 he became a member and when we met him, he was in his fourth year of serving on the Members’ Committee, having just been reelected for a second term.

The company’s motto is ‘Nadie llega lejos sino sabe a donde va’ which translates as ‘No one goes far without knowing to where they are going’.  This saying obviously has significant meaning but was likewise very apt for a long and tiring but fascinating and inspiring journey around part of Mexico.

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All aboard!

Later that same evening we caught an overnight bus from Tuxtla Gutierrez to Veracruz, the second of the 14 Mexican regions we would be visiting on our travels. If I’m honest, I was not looking forward to the experience but I need not have worried. The standard of driving here is excellent from what we have seen and the bus was very, very comfortable; the latter is particularly important in Mexico as the distances are simply vast.

Unfortunately for us, ours was the only bus delayed out of the station due to the incoming vehicle being affected by local landslides and impassable roads. Whilst we waited from 11pm until 2am for the ‘off’, we were glued to the television showing the devastating effects of the flooding in Veracruz. We saw much evidence of this as we travelled along although I’m very pleased to say that it did eventually stop raining during the journey. It’s a very rural area and the living conditions in places are really quite impoverished so the last thing the local people need is to be deluged.

Once again, we were kindly met at the bus station by a representative of the co-operative we would be visiting. After a couple of hours’ further travel when we were just five minutes drive away from our destination, we became stuck in a roadblock due to a strike. We were initially told that no one would be going anywhere until 6pm – it was then 1pm! Taxi drivers mainly were protesting because of the price of petrol – MXN 9 which is the equivalent of less than 50p. Despite not having eaten since yesterday, there was simply no way round so we just had to sit it out; it was all incredibly good natured and there was a definite Latin American feeling of ‘qué será será!’ Eventually, after only one hour, we were allowed through the roadblock, leaving the fabulous butterflies and a very interesting array of insects behind us.

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There are worse places on earth …

Mexican Building
As expected, the weather finally caught up with us today and we were unable to get to Jaltenango due to the closure of the road.  This was a great shame as we had hoped to be able to advise a new client that we would be able to work together for the coming harvest.  We will just have to do so ‘virtually’.  Consequently we found ourselves ‘stuck’ in San Cristóbal.  I use the term loosely as it is a simply wonderful place and much as I had imagined Mexico might be: culturally diverse, traditional, ethnic, colourful and with very clear, breathable air the higher up you get.

Mexican Building

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Anyone for a cucaracha?

The whole of Chiapas (the region through which we are currently travelling) is a part of the Mayan traditions and culture.  Here in Tapachula, we are very close to Guatemala and many migrants have crossed the border.  They have brought their customs with them and the women still wear skirts made of fabric denoting where they are from.  Two women wearing skirts of different fabric are able to communicate in Spanish but their own dialects are too diverse so they are unable to understand each other when speaking in dialect.

Having managed politely to decline the ‘hot’ sauce I was offered at breakfast, I found myself turning down cucaracha at lunchtime!  For the non-Spanish-speaking amongst you, cucaracha means cockroach but I discovered it is also a type of crab here in Mexico.  Having spent the morning with one of our current customers discussing various issues, we were invited to lunch by the General Manager.  We enjoyed some interesting debate during which he remarked that ‘Shared Interest has to exist primarily for its investors’.  Their kindness also extended to driving us across the mountains for five hours to ensure we arrived safely at our next appointment at Comitan.  I’m sure the view is wonderful but thanks to Daniel, the current tropical storm, we saw a lot of low, grey cloud from the incredibly windy roads.  Tropical storm Earl is now apparently hot on the heels of Daniel.

On the way we passed numerous ‘ejidos’ or small communities, in the true sense of the word, that is ‘communal’.  These date back to the Agrarian Reform of 1910 and most of the companies we are visiting have based their constitutions and thus their democratic processes on the way of life and the values of the ‘ejido’.

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And I thought it rained a lot in Costa Rica!

Today I met up with Hugo and we took a plane down to Tapachula.  It’s a very green region (of which much more later!) and we flew in over growing areas for bananas, mangoes and corn.

The taxi ride into town was very civilised.  It is built on a grid-system so there are numerous intersections but instead of having lots and lots of traffic lights, every driver simply gives way to the next.  Whilst this may be slow, it works and there is something very warming about a traffic system built on good old-fashioned values of politeness and patience.

Just before we arrived at our hotel, the heavens opened.  Water was gushing down the sides of the roads, the thunder was thunderous, the lightning was too close for comfort and the locals were huddled in lines under whatever protection they could find.  There have been some flood warnings in the area as well as four deaths due to landslides following a recent tropical storm.  Looking at the paper, more storms are on the way but then this is hurricane season and so to be expected.

Hugo took me out tonight for what will no doubt be the first of many tacos.  We were lucky enough to wander out when the rain had stopped because when it started again, there was simply no let up.  I had never seen anything like it – the roads turned into rivers, literally.  Coming from Costa Rica, Hugo took it all in his stride; it rains a lot there too!  We managed to hail a cab to go back to the hotel which was an absolute godsend.  It only had one wiper on the driver’s side but I was reliably informed that more than one was unnecessary!

As I lay in bed watching the rainwater seep in between the cracks in the brickwork – not in the least surprising in view of the quantity of water that had fallen – and considering if I would be able to sleep in view of the noise level being created by the rain, I couldn’t help wondering how affected the rest of our trip might be by landslides and road closures.

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Do not enter lift…

Hugo, my colleague based in Costa Rica, and I are off to Mexico to visit some existing customers and to let another producer group know that we would like to start working with them.  We will also be carrying out a due diligence on a new prospect in the hope of being able to work together for the coming harvest, due in the autumn.  It is also a great opportunity for Hugo and I to catch up.  We only tend to meet up two or three times a year so most of our communication is via Skype or email and whilst technological advances have been amazing, there is nothing like face-to-face contact.

I flew in a day earlier in order to try to acclimatise.  Mexico City (or DF – distrito federal as it is known here) is just simply huge but then it needs to be to house its 100 million inhabitants.  The millions of homes are quite simply indistinguishable from the air and they go on forever.  And I used to think that London was sprawling!

Whilst I was very tired on arrival at my hotel, my attention was definitely caught by the sign next to the lift.   ‘Do not use in case of fire’ – all pretty standard stuff – ‘or earthquakes’!  The instruction makes perfect sense but brings home the geographical volatility of this region.  On closer inspection, there are signs everywhere for Evacuation Routes and Security Zones.

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Yeah Of Course I’ll Run in the Chilli Costume

Planning to take part in the Great North 10k to raise funds for Shared Interest Foundation seemed like a great idea. That was until the time came that I had to start training. Two weeks before the run, after a long and lazy holiday. Adding to the pressure of actually getting out there and doing some running was the challenge of running in the infamous Shared Interest chilli costume.

My colleague Sally, who some of you may recognise as the Shared Interest Banana, gave me some great tips for running a la chilli and made sure I pinned up my outfit so as not to trip over during the run. After requesting a target of at least £100 in donations to run in the outfit I was, surprisingly enough inundated with generous support from friends and colleagues!

As part of the Foundation Management Team I am lucky enough to see the direct impact of the work that those funds support. From assisting producers in times of emergency to supporting the growth of businesses through investing in business skills, the Foundation is a real source of support for fair trade producer groups. Knowing this made running – however slowly – the 6.1miles round Sunderland’s coast and city centre a lot easier, even when I passed colleagues on other side of the road, who were clearly much closer to the finish line than I was!

After the run the team (pictured) headed off for a much needed soft drink and rest in the local pub. Hopefully, the Sunderland 10k will continue to be a great source of fun and fundraising for Shared Interest Foundation, and perhaps the chilli outfit can be passed on as the baton for next year’s runners, any takers…?

Fun Run

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