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October 2005
Big Noise: Fair Trade Grows in Kenya
By Rachel Cernansky

 

As someone who has tried to seek fairly traded products since I learned of the concept five years ago, I’ve joined campaigns promoting a fairer global marketplace, pushed my local coffee shops to stock their shelves with fair trade beans, and talked with many about the role we, as consumers, play in determining the ethics that run global trade. In recent years the ‘movement’ for fair trade has exploded into a multi-million dollar industry. I’ve found it more than encouraging that consumers in the West are growing a demand for ethically produced goods.

I found more encouragement on the streets of Thika, Kenya, a largely agricultural town about an hour’s drive north of Nairobi, where I joined some local farmers marching in a demonstration for fair trade. We all wore shirts imprinted with, “Kilio Kikuu”—translated from the Kikuyu language, the largest tribe in Kenya, as, “Join the Big Noise.” It was the Kenyan launch of Oxfam’s “Make Trade Fair” campaign seeking not only to raise public awareness of global trade issues, but also to educate farmers in particular about the precarious situation behind the economics of modern agriculture. A petition was started, aiming to collect one million signatures, to present to the WTO conference this December in Hong Kong.

The fair trade movement in Kenya is still in its early stages, and this demonstration was quite small, but it was a start indeed. Coordinated by a team of local sustainable agriculture organizations, farmers came from all around central Kenya to join in this day of big noise. One of the key players was the Sustainable Agriculture Community Development Programme (SACDEP), an NGO that works with individual small-scale farmers—perhaps owning an acre or two each—teaching sustainable farming practices within a broader education on the ecological devastation caused by land-clearing, farming with artificial chemicals, and the threats increasingly posed by GMO crops. Once a farmer joins the network, he or she (most farmers are women) pays a small fee, and for the time they belong (as long as necessary to sustain the acquired methods without further assistance), they attend seminars, form a community network, and host visits by organization field workers.

Staff trained in areas ranging from agricultural practices to marketing techniques visit farmers at their sites to brainstorm with them and discuss ideas for how they can, for example, implement crop rotation with their current system, or ways they might vary the final forms in which their products are offered. Making and bottling banana jam instead of only selling fresh bananas, for instance, is one of the many improvisations that have helped farmers increase their product selection and efficiency in transporting to the marketplace. Aside from helping to cover organization costs, the membership is intended to create a sense of ownership of their new knowledge and skills.

Particularly at a time when the larger farms in Kenya—where 70 percent of the people depend on agriculture—are increasingly using environmentally destructive practices, these collaborative efforts have led to a real sense of community among farmers. Shortly after the first day of Big Noise, I attended a meeting of farmers in a nearby village, who gather weekly to review progress and discuss any recent successes or failures. A water collection system was one of the newer endeavors—an open tank to catch rainfall and a catchment system to harvest rainwater from the roof—a scheme of immense importance in a region deprived of rainfall for most of the year. As with people all around Kenya, these farmers were curious and full of questions about how things operate in America. “In your place, do farmers have these meetings?” I tried to explain that I don’t come from a farming community and therefore don’t have a firsthand perspective on the relationships farmers have with each other—and also, that most people in America do not farm.

In “my place,” farming is a declining profession, and is being increasingly concentrated into a decreasing number of companies. Corporations run farms that are more like outdoor factories, mass-producing crops using chemicals and large machines, rather than hiring employees. I described to them why I thought it unlikely that farmers have close-knit communities in the U.S. anymore, and gave the example Percy Schmeiser [see interview in Satya, November, 2002] has made famous: that Monsanto sends letters to farmers asking if their neighbor is using Monsanto seeds, and for any farmer who provides such information, the company will reward them with a leather jacket.

Strong farming communities do exist in the U.S., and they are probably forming stronger networks than ever in efforts to battle the dominating corporations. There are certain cities in which greenmarkets are truly thriving, allowing for consumers to connect with local farmers and provide opportunities for farmers to work together better. But this is the small exception to the larger majority. So my answer to them was, “No, most farmers in America do not operate with the same support network.” They nodded, understanding why I wanted to witness and partake in their meeting.

These farmers left their farms for an entire day—which is a big deal in this business and lifestyle—to march the streets, demonstrating for fair trade. What a thing to see, farmers speaking out for themselves! Education is often a barrier against taking such initiatives, as is misinformation. How can a farmer be driven to speak up or even be concerned about global trade rules if she doesn’t understand how the rules are affecting the prices she gets for her goods? What farmers do know is they are not getting enough money for their families to live comfortably. They also know there are not many options for an alternative career either; agriculture is by far the largest sector of the economy in Kenya, with tourism as the only other major sector. There isn’t an abundance of promising options by which to generate income, and the government neglects to help people cope with this situation. The government also failed to provide assistance when it implemented the World Bank and IMF’s structural adjustment policies and decreased spending on agriculture in the 1990s, thus abandoning Kenyan farmers. And while much of the harvest is for domestic consumption—which fortunately means that many (though not all) of Kenya’s poorest people are not starving—a large portion is comprised of cash crops produced for export. Kenya is the world’s third largest exporter of tea, and also produces a good deal of high quality coffee and sugarcane—which are affected highly by price fluctuations in the global marketplace.

To get the Big Noise campaign going, SACDEP and other organizations explained the basics of global trade rules to their member farmers, giving them an understanding for why they receive such low prices for their goods; and that it doesn’t need to—and shouldn’t—be this way. This helped motivate them into the streets, to raise awareness and get people active, rather than accept that life as a farmer is hard and underprivileged. Now when global trade talks come around, these farmers are not just left in the field working another “normal” day while the men in suits behind closed doors decide their fate.

In our developed world, where food comes from the supermarket in neat, disposable packaging and not in the casings nature provided, it is unfortunately easy to distance ourselves from the reality. Easy to evade recognition that it is individuals, through long hours of arduous labor, who put food on our tables. To see consumers concerned about the welfare of the farmer across the world, I find cause for at least a bit of hope. To see farmers acting on the same concerns and on behalf of their own welfare, is cause for even more hope. Because fair trade isn’t a matter of aid, or about western consumers viewing their fair trade purchases as a donation to some poor dark continent or to helpless people. Fair trade is simply a global business model of the lesson we all learned when we were young: treat others as you would like to be treated. We should be paying others as we’d like to be paid ourselves.

For more information about SACDEP, visit www.sacdepkenya.org, and www.maketradefair.org for updates or information on Oxfam’s Big Noise campaign.

 


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