Fairtrade’s premium living

Most people travel with a suitcase bursting at the seams with clothes to suit every occasion, but Henrik Rylev of John Burton coffee traders in New Zealand packed his full of soccerballs on a recent trip to Sumatra.

“My colleague Danny Mosca and I took 40 soccerballs with us, kindly donated from his football club. As soon as we saw a child on the streets of Aceh we starting handing them out,” Henrik  says. “I’ll always remember arriving at the community of Wonosari (part of the Kokowagayo or more commonly known Wanita Gayo women’s cooperative) and seeing the young kids perform a traditional welcome dance. When we gave them the soccer balls to play with, they were hysterical with excitement.”

The smiling faces of the local children were just the first of many Henrik would see. The real purpose of this trip for seven Australian and New Zealand representatives was to further develop relationships with Fairtrade cooperatives and see how the Fairtrade premium was being utilised, an additional sum of money that goes into a communal fund for farmers to use to improve quality, productivity and conditions in their community.

Guests spent four days travelling around Sumatra, focusing on the highlands surrounding Takengon in Aceh, Indonesia.

For dc Specialty Coffee Roasters Operations Manager Rob Stewart, the trip to origin was his first.

“Dc buys a lot of Fairtrade coffee for its retail range and particularly a lot of Sumatran coffee. It’s an origin we’ve always had on our books and always will,” Rob says. “We’re in a position to start working with different cooperatives and I knew that to invest in Fairtrade further, I wanted to understand how the cooperatives worked.”

On retail shelves, Rob says in his experience, consumers will select coffee based on whether it’s Fairtrade first, because it’s familiar and fits in with many people’s sustainable values, second to values of freshness or quality roasting. “It’s becoming a non-negotiable to have Fairtrade credibility,” he says.

Rob and the other participants had plenty of opportunities to see the impact of Fairtrade for themselves, including visits to the Wanita Gayo women’s cooperative. The group toured its newly installed raised drying beds, a pulping facility, and a community hall, all part of the community’s development priorities. Women’s health was another priority item, with the cooperative investing its Fairtrade premium funds into programs aimed at improving early detection of cervical cancer.

“It was interesting to see what different cooperatives valued. The smaller, younger cooperatives were investing in manufacturing equipment to help complete hulling or milling, such as a new computerised colour sorter, as well as cupping training or the employment of a chief of quality to maintain consistency. They had a great understanding how better equipment can help them grow and attract more members,” Rob says. “Whereas the more ‘established’ cooperatives used their Fairtrade premium to focus on the individual needs of their community members, such as investing in general medical needs.”

Others communities chose to use the premium fund to educate younger members on cultural identity and values such as traditional customs and dancing. Between visiting other cooperatives, such as the Item Reje Gayo cooperative, Koperasi Baitul Qiradh Baburrayyan (KBQB), the oldest and largest Fairtrade cooperative in Sumatra, the Koperasi Pedagang Kopi Ketiara Cooperative (known as Ketiara), and the farm of entrepreneurial farmer Syahru. Rob says the dirt roads and one-lane highways were a hair-raising experience, but not once did he see an accident.

“More than the non-existent driving rules, I was impressed with just how well organised the cooperatives were, and how happy they were to be Fairtrade,” he says. “When you think that some of the cooperatives can have 100 to 1000 members, it takes an incredible amount of organisation to manage, and they each do it incredibly well.”

The group also visited the Sumatra Coffee House site, which processes coffee from Wanita Gayo and its partner cooperative Permata Gayo. Upon looking at the crops, Henrik Rylev of John Burton noticed just how much climate change had affected the region.

“We should have been looking at red cherries and the season was only just starting,” he says. “That was scary to see. There was nothing to buy and bring home. It’s all delayed by three months.”

What Henrik did taste, however, was “phenomenal. This was really uplifting because it tells me the fact the farms were so well maintained. Many are working with agronomists and it means the farmers are invested,” he says. “There was evidence of leaf rust and borer beetles but the farmers have done a lot of work to combat their spread, and this says a lot.”

Henrik used the trip to connect with existing cooperative relations and reconnect with places he’s bought from in the past 10 years. He says he’s been “a Fairtrade fan” for a while now, especially since working as an importer and forming close relationships with the people he buys from.

“There are lots of good certification schemes all doing a good job but I think at the moment Fairtrade is the most honest and ethical way of supporting coffee growers,” Henrik says. “The dollar market has dropped completely right now so if you’re not a Fairtrade grower, there’s not much money coming your way. Fairtrade is paying 20 US cents (per pound as Premium) more to farmers than other normal schemes, and that makes a big difference.”

To share the story of Fairtrade, Henrik plans to share his trip experiences with New Zealand roasters.

“We totally believe in it and will work even more closely with Fairtrade to spread the word because from what I saw, not only are the farmers happy, but the people on the processing side are all very much behind it, and that’s something you don’t hear about,” he says.

On a visit to a central exporter office working with Fairtrade cooperatives Qahwah, Lauser Antara, and Megah Berseri, guests witnessed the painstaking work of women who hand-sort coffee beans. In the large room, each station was set up to identify and remove damaged beans. Bean by bean, they were checked and rechecked, finalising their sorting before being packed for export. Meanwhile on the farm, women dressed in brightly coloured clothes would sing and laugh together as they harvested coffee.

For Colin Cappelleri of Seven Miles Coffee Roasters, the trip was a real eye-opener into the sustainability of future coffee production.

“I couldn’t help but think that we throw away coffee all the time, which is such a waste [when the farmers work so hard],” Colin says. “I saw the producers pick and sort through the beans one by one with a smile. It gave me a new appreciation. I had never really thought about the sustainability of production until then.”

Over the five-day trip, Colin saw very few young producers, signalling a genuine concern for new generations to follow in their parents’ footsteps.

“We need to keep coffee production a sustainable industry. By Fairtrade paying a premium, it’s actually helping to show the kids that you can make a living from this profession,” he says. “Without it, the next generation will just watch their families struggle and they won’t be incentivised to continue. We need to give the farmers a decent income and standard of living so the next generation will want to take over.”

To support the cause, dc’s Rob has already committed to buying coffee from Ketiara, a cooperative of 900 female members.

“Everything about this co-op impressed me. The facility wasn’t necessarily the best one we saw, but we saw its commitment to improving their profiles, listening to the market, taking feedback, and investing in training, which follows Specialty Coffee Association and Q grading protocols,” Rob says. “I now know that we’re talking the same coffee vocabulary.”

Rob took home some washed Bourbon to enjoy, and like the rest of trip participants, memories of happy faces.

“The trip to me reaffirmed why I support Fairtrade,” Rob says. “It’s given me more confidence to stand by it with conviction. It’s truly a cause we support and one to get behind.”