Equal Exchange: Empowering Small Growers

Shop-Fair-2016-Equal-Exchange-fb-2While building a strong local food system and improving the local economy are cornerstones of Monadnock Food Co-op’s mission, Equal Exchange (EE) takes a different, but nonetheless awe-inspiring, approach to supporting and empowering small growers — primarily in the tropical regions of our home planet (predominantly from the Equator north to the Tropic of Cancer and south to the Tropic of Capricorn).

Our Sustainability Coordinator, Megan, and I recently had the great fortune to attend a training at Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, MA to learn more about this amazing business. We were both excited to get up close and personal with this company since their mission is so impressive. In case you’ve never really looked into it, I’ll share their mission here:

Equal Exchange’s mission is to build long-term trade partnerships that are economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers and to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker co-operatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.

I admit, this sounds darn near impossible to execute, but what we learned definitely made us pause and pay closer attention! While we did get to participate in chocolate tastings and coffee cupping, the best part of this 2-day training was digging into the inner workings of EE.

12734110_10153903301556308_6676723072157648599_nAt its very heart, EE (established in 1986) is a social justice company. The entire reason for its existence is to ensure economic justice for historically exploited growers — really, the products are just the vehicle by which they are able to do this work. (One note here: while EE works to bring economic justice to these growers, there are still large segments of these growers outside of EE’s networks who are currently exploited by the large corporations that rely on cheap labor, plantation systems, and high profit margins — even some that are certified fair trade).

Perhaps you know this company best for its coffee, which we carry in our bulk department and serve in our café. I’d love to share some of what we learned in hopes that it will give you pause the next time you’re choosing a coffee to bring home (and, really, all of their supply chains are built in a similar manner to coffee — so keep this in mind when you have the choice to choose EE throughout the store).

Farmer Co-ops

First, EE is a force for uniting and empowering small growers to create farmer co-operatives — which allows those growers to better leverage their presence in the market and engage democratically in bringing their product to market. Their particular areas of focus include post-conflict communities, which help re-establish an economic base for the region, areas with national land struggle movements, indigenous communities and areas near UNESCO buffer zones to protect fragile biospheres from over-harvesting. Additionally, ensuring a high quality product and fair pricing for the growers are key to making it all work.  Of particular interest is that EE works directly with these farmer co-operatives, cultivating these relationships without a broker in order to ensure that farmers get the best pricing without any other “middlemen” taking a cut — something rare in this business.

Currently, EE sources coffee from over 26 farmer co-operatives in 12 countries speaking 15+ different languages, including Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Colombia, Peru, Bolivia, Ethiopia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Uganda, and Indonesia — and it all began with  intentionally breaking the Nicaraguan embargo by importing coffee in the 1980s for social justice reasons.

Financing

In case this isn’t enough to set them apart in the marketplace, EE also practices preharvest financing with their farmer co-operatives. This means that at contract signing, they work with third party financial organizations such as Root Capital to pay up to 60% of the agreed upon contract price UP FRONT in order to allow farmers the capital they need to  grow and harvest the crop — meaning millions of dollars on the line! This is a critical component in what sets EE apart from other organizations, as it binds EE with the farmer co-operatives and the risks associated with each harvest. This truly blew my mind — and made me think even more about how I want to allocate my own dollars when I shop.

Climate Change

While inspiring to see how successfully EE has set up alternate supply chains for coffee production, there are new challenges all the time. One such challenge is coffee leaf rust, a real threat to the world’s coffee production. Ensuring biodiversity is, perhaps, one way to help thwart this devastating crop destroyer — another aspect of work that EE focuses on with the co-ops. Additionally, unpredictable climate patterns are beginning to impact the growing zones for this crop — making it a less reliable source of income for farmers now and into the future. EE is working with farmer co-operatives to plan for diversification in order to remain strong as the climate shifts.

I have not been able to completely capture all that we learned in those 2 days, but I sincerely hope that these nuggets are enough to inspire you to support EE with your purchases. I was truly humbled by the work that this company is doing tirelessly around the world every day — and I know that I will do my small part by using the vehicle they have created — buying their products — to allow them to continue leveraging social change and improve conditions for growers around the world.

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