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AFRICA: Fair Trade Farmers’ Exports Hit by Volcanic Ash

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Apr 28 2010 (IPS) - African farmers are assessing the financial impact of the Icelandic volcanic ash clouds that led to a lockdown of Europe’s airspace, forcing fair trade flower growers from Africa to throw away 20 million roses that were meant for the European market.

Some of the labels used by Fairtrade Label South Africa Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

Some of the labels used by Fairtrade Label South Africa Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

On Apr 15 massive ash clouds spewed out by the erupting Eyjafjoell volcano situated under a glacier in southern Iceland reached mainland Europe. Volcanic ash reduces visibility while the glass particles it contains are detrimental to airplanes’ jet engines, leading one European country after another to close its airports.

"Kenyan fair trade rose growers alone lost approximately one million flowers a day," according to Benjamin Gatland, regional coordinator of the Southern African Fairtrade Network (SAFN).

SAFN is a network of fair trade certified farms in southern Africa which assists producers in obtaining with market information and information with regards to fair trade standards.

The fair trade movement aims to enhance trading conditions for small-scale businesses and to improve labour conditions through ethical and sustainable trade.

"Although the damage of the events has to be assessed, it is clear that the financial implications for Kenya are considerable. Some fair trade farms have lost entire harvests of flowers," Gatland told IPS at a fair trade network meeting. Overall, the Kenyan horticulture industry reportedly lost about 15 million dollars.

Fruit and vegetable farmers in Kenya were hit too. "Luckily most of the produce could be sold locally. With flowers it is a different story. They have to be transported when they are in bloom, otherwise they are worthless to the buyers," Gatland said.

Although food growers were able to sell part of their produce on the local market, they nevertheless lost out, Gatland underlined: "Selling fruit and vegetables at local prices is obviously not as lucrative as selling them in Europe, especially if you expected to get export prices."

Kenyan fair trade flower growers were not the only Africans who suffered from the five-day airspace lockdown. Their counterparts in neighbouring Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, were hit too.

"We have visited many small and large flower farms in Ethiopia during the last couple of days and this has been a serious crisis to them," said Erling Ølstad, the director of Norway’s largest retail chain of fair trade flowers, called Mester Grønn. "The farms have thrown away masses of flowers."

Now that the volcanic ash seems to be settling and Europe is reopening its skies to air traffic it is back to business as usual for SAFN.

"Our mission for the coming years is to grow the number of African fair trade suppliers," Gatland said. "At the moment the continent is home to 250 certified producers, both commercial producers and small scale co-operations. We are working hard to get more people involved."

The most important African fair trade products are coffee, tea, flowers, spices, fruit, and wine. The bulk is meant for export.

"Coffee is sourced from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Rwanda, Uganda and Malawi. While Kenya is also an important fair trade coffee country, its main product is of the floral kind. The same goes for Zimbabwe," Gatland added.

"The bulk of our fair trade wine is sourced from South Africa. At the moment there are 20 fair trade certified wine estates in South Africa’s Western Cape province, the hub of the country’s wine industry," he said.

Other African fair trade products include pineapples and sugar from Swaziland, tea and honey from Malawi, and shea butter and cocoa from a few West African countries.

The mission of the Fairtrade Label South Africa (FLSA) is to promote South African fair trade products locally.

"Quite a few South Africans have no knowledge about the phenomenon of fair trade. We want to change this, simply because there seems to be a market for these kinds of products," explains Boudewijn Goossens, executive director of FLSA.

"Last year, the wholesale value of South African fair trade products sold locally was about 335,000 dollars. In retails terms we are talking about a figure of around 535,000 dollars. This is huge, because in the years prior to 2009 this figure was pretty much zero," Goossens exclaimed.

"To stimulate consumption and production of fair trade products in South Africa, we are starting a new campaign in May 2010 to make consumers, producers and retailers aware of the fair trade label."

One South African fair trade producer is Waxit, a company that makes handcrafted beeswax candles. The candle factory is located in St Helena Bay on South Africa’s West Coast, approximately 1.5 hours north of Cape Town.

"We started two years ago, and currently we have 300 crafters under our wings," explained managing director Riaan Bosch. "Our production at the moment is around nine to 11 tons of candles a month, of which 90 percent is exported to Europe."

A higher salary is one of the benefits Waxit’s employees get: "We pay up 90 to over 200 percent more than the average hourly wage earned in the area."

Waxit employees receive a percentage of the annual profit and are employed throughout the year while most factories employ staff on a seasonal basis.

Bosch added that, "we work according to a gender equity policy. About 70 percent of our work force comprises women. Our minimum age of employment is seventeen, as we simply do not do child labour."

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