The TH Interview: Nasser Abufarha of Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestinian Fair Trade Association

Photo credit: Chelsea Wills of The Change

I found myself ridiculously busy selling Kallari organic chocolate at The Green Festival in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, but whilst on a rare break I took the opportunity to wander over to the Canaan Fair Trade booth to have a nice chat with Nasser Abufarha about his views on organics and Fair Trade. You might think that Canaan Fair Trade selling olive oil from Palestine and Kallari selling organic chocolate from the Ecuadorian Amazon are worlds apart, and you‘d be right, but they are also united in their mission to help local people earn a sustainable income from their native produce. It was fascinating to hear Nasser’s points of view on how to ensure that Fair trade works and the importance of a product’s cultural context. Nasser Abufarha first came across the concept of fair trade in 1999 whilst studying for his PHD in cultural anthropology and international development at the University of Wisconsin. His local coffee shop, Michelangelo’s, served Equal Exchange Fair Trade coffee. Nasser became interested in the idea that the premium prices for Fair Trade products are paid by the consumer, not by the intermediary buyers, therefore not affecting the farmers’ prices. Nasser saw that with the Fair Trade model local producers are able to concentrate on creating and exporting a high quality finished product.

On his return to Palestine Nasser decided to create a brand of Fair Trade olive oil, which is known today as Canaan Fair Trade. Olive oil was the obvious choice since olive trees make up 80% of farmed land in West bank. He also astutely observed a growing market in Europe and the US for gourmet olive oils. Nasser believed that the choice to promote olive oil as a fair trade product would affect and benefit a large majority of small farmers. However the challenge he set himself was to prove much tougher than he originally thought.


First stop was the German Fair trade certifiers FLO to see if they could help with finding the general and product specific guidelines for olive oil. In the early Spring of 2004 FLO told Nasser that there was no such thing as Fair Trade olive oil and they didn’t think they could invest the time and money to help him to create the world’s first, especially in Palestine. Their assumption was that all good olive oil came from Mediterranean countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece. Although the FLO door had been shut firmly in his face Nasser wasn’t deterred. The answer was simple, he would just go ahead and do it himself. As a result he has created a fantastic example of how it is possible to create your own fair trade certified product without paying a big organisation to do it for you.

Nasser says that the most important part of setting up the Palestinian Fair Trade Association was making sure that the guidelines were appropriate to the culture they will apply to. One of his biggest criticisms of large certifiers, such as FLO, is that they apply the same guidelines globally, not taking into consideration the richness of the different cultures that the produce comes from. Nasser worked together with the Palestinian farmers to work out suitable guidelines, which were based on the usual Fair Trade guidelines, but which also adopted some traditions of the Palestinian farmers such as how they pay the mill owners who press their olives. Traditionally mill owners get paid 1 out of 15 litres of olive oil, the payment varies according to the quantity produced, so if it’s a good or a bad harvest this is fair for all - so why change it?

When the guidelines had been worked out, an independent third party, in the form of the IMO from Switzerland, was invited to Palestine to audit and ratify the Palestinian Fair Trade Association and the Canaan cooperative, qualifying their process. Since 2005 the PFA and Canaan have gone from strength to strength with the world's first fairly traded olive oil. In 2004 the local market price for olive oil was 7 – 9 shekels (Palestinian currency) per kilo and there was not much exportation. In their first year Canaan were the first company to pay 15 shekels for the oil. In 2005 the local market price leapt up to 16 shekels, but since Canaan had promised to pay 10% above the market price they started paying 20 shekels. In 2004 Canaan sold 30 tons of olive oil. In 2007 they are projected to sell 350 tons!

Other companies have taken note of Canaan’s pioneering spirit. Dr. Bronner’s Soaps found out about their work through Equal Exchange and have now put in an order for 80 tons of olive oil a year from Canaan. The ethical brand management company The Change found out about Canaan through Co-op America and have started working with them to open up new markets for an extended range of products which includes cous cous, sun dried tomatoes, tahini, sesame seeds, almonds, honey, za'atar (thyme) and capers. For each of these new products Nasser tells us they are continuing to develop specific product guidelines, auditing and certifying them, insuring internal control. They pay 10% above market price for fair trade and 10% above market price for organic. Canaan received their organic certification in 2006.


Photo credit: Chelsea Wills of The Change

Nasser says that at the beginning of this process the Palestinian farmers were suspicious of the Fair Trade idea – why would people pay so much more for their products? What’s the catch? But the concept of ethical consumption has gradually sunk in and they are very grateful for the opportunity they’ve been given to create a sustainable income for themselves and their families. They appreciate that their cultural identity of the olive tree is being celebrated around the world.

Nasser encourages all small producers around the world, who cannot afford the current Fair Trade certification, to develop their own clear and comprehensive fair trade process that is traceable and which can be audited by a third party. He says that really this is the only way we can allow the fair trade movement to develop – we need alternatives to the current system.

Thanks to TH’s Sami Grover, who also works for The Change, for putting me in touch with Nasser and providing a great example of the amazing work The Change is doing to help producers like Canaan Fair Trade reach new markets. Nasser complimented The Change, saying how wonderful it was to find open-minded people who connected with Canaan’s passion and have a real interest in the context of the product.

Coming up soon on Green Festival Radio will be the presentations from the Chicago event. You will be able to hear Nasser's presentation and you'll be able to hear another presentation about Fair Trade in Conflict zones like the Middle East - an important and complex topic which Nasser and I didn't have time to discuss. ::Canaan Fair Trade ::Palestinian Fair Trade Association

The TH Interview: Nasser Abufarha of Canaan Fair Trade and the Palestinian Fair Trade Association
I found myself ridiculously busy selling Kallari organic chocolate at The Green Festival in Chicago a couple of weeks ago, but whilst on a rare break I took the opportunity to wander over to the Canaan Fair