Starbucks' Farmers Discuss the Impact of Fairtrade

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Images by B. Alter

It's been Fairtrade Fortnight, and in celebration Starbucks has released a special new Fairtrade coffee from Rwanda. It's part of their complete switch-over last year to selling only 100% Fairtrade espresso-based coffees in the UK and Ireland. This makes Starbucks the largest buyer of Fairtrade Certified Coffee in the world which is pretty impressive, no matter what you think of them.

This TreeHugger was invited to a Starbucks tasting and informal discussion with coffee farmers and producers from Costa Rica and Tanzania. As a long-time anything-but-Starbucks coffee drinker, I attended with some trepidation. Especially when the "partners" started yelling out their descriptions of the taste of the Rwandan brew. But as the farmers talked about the impact of fairtrade on their lives, my certainty wavered...

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Starbucks buys coffee from small farmers in 29 different countries. In order to be deemed fairtrade, the farmers have to fulfill criteria set down by the Fairtrade Foundation and Starbucks Cafe practices. Once they have achieved these multiple qualifications, Starbucks buys their coffee at a higher than market price and guarantees future purchases. This gives the farmers more stability and security; knowing that their crops will be sold.

The number of farmers agreeing to these farming methods has grown. For example in Costa Rica, there were 225 farmers in the co-op in 1960 and this has grown to 2,300 farmers now.

The farmers also receive a social premium; money paid on top of the Fairtrade minimum price that is invested in social, environmental and economic developmental projects. This is decided upon democratically by a committee of producers within the organization, or by workers on the farms and co-ops.

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Geoffrey mwa Ngulumbi, Fairtrade Farmer, Tanzania, Kili Cafe

It is the premium that makes the huge difference in the farmers and the villagers' lives. Globally, Starbucks contributed over $3.5 million in Fairtrade premiums for coffee-growing communities last year. Sales in the UK and Ireland are projected to generate a premium of more than £350,000 in the coming year.

In the Tanzanian village where Kili Cafe is grown, they built a school where they could hold classes, bought mattresses for new mothers and brought water to the community. In other towns they have introduced health programmes and training for workers as well as care for the elderly.

Starbucks has a Farmer Support Center based in Kigali, Tanzania. The agronomist and quality experts work directly with farmers to develop and use more responsible methods to grow better coffee, to help improve the quality and size of the harvest - and ultimately earn better prices for it.

Here farmers can learn about tasting and thus understand what they should be looking for. In the old colonial days, farmers just shipped off the beans and didn't worry about the tasting aspect. Many still are untrained and regard Nescafe instant as the ultimate! Other farmers have visited to learn from them but they don't tell them how to negotiate the price!

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Carlos Alberto Vargas Leitón, Costa Riva

Carlos Alberto Vargas Leitón, a financial manager from CostaRica, explained how teaching the farmers how to improve their sustainable practices improved their harvests. They are encouraged to improve waste disposal. Planting trees stops erosion. But most importantly, reduced water usage is emphasized. Coffee processing uses water. It was reduced from 50 litres per pound to 2 litres. With the profits made some villages can now afford machines to do this. They are taught about using less chemicals, and in some places flowers are returning, as a result. In the beginning only 40% of the crops met the Starbucks standards, now 80% do.

Starbucks also makes small loans available through Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund that provides financing for grassroots businesses in rural areas.

All in all, a lot to think about, and maybe I will order a "double tall non-fat extra-dry cappuccino to go" today.

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