Having worked in the food industry for many years, in companies big and small, I approached my first day at Liberation in central London with some trepidation. It had seemed an ideal fit for me – a Community Interest Company that’s also a social enterprise. But what did Fairtrade really mean, were consumers interested in buying Fairtrade, and was it possible to make a difference with a business focusing primarily on Fairtrade nuts?
Liberation exists in order to bring food products from farm to consumer in a fully traceable, sustainable way. We buy our nuts from cooperatives in Nicaragua, Burkina Faso, Bolivia and India – always under Fairtrade terms which guarantees a fair price to farmers, ensures safe working conditions and protects the environment from harmful chemicals. We are different because the farmers and their cooperatives partly own Liberation and have a representative on the board. This ensures that we never stray from our purpose of supporting smallholder farmers and it means that key decisions are always voted on by farmer representatives.
I had the opportunity to visit cashew nut farmers in Kerala, India, in May and was impressed by the ingenuity shown by farmers who grow many different crops in small quantities over the hillsides of the Western Ghat mountains. The cashew trees are dotted about the hillsides among other trees like cocoa and jackfruit– the opposite of a plantation with uniform lines of trees. This approach gives farmers a secondary income by selling extra produce in the market. But, importantly, the diversity of crops helps to replenish soils with vital nutrients and protect against erosion.
Cashew nuts are picked individually by hand every day through the season and taken to a shipment point where they are weighed and logged. From there, they are taken to a processing unit where they are steamed, shelled, sorted and packed. Given the regular negative press about working conditions in the cashew nut supply chain where workers can suffer from acid burns on their hands, I was pleased to see the care and attention given to workers and the finished products in a Fairtrade certified factory. You get what you pay for: Fairtrade certification guarantees not only a better income but also safe working conditions.
In July we were pleased to welcome Dr. Betty Chinyamunyamu, the CEO of the National Smallholders Farmers’ Association of Malawi (NASFAM). We have worked with NASFAM since we formed 13 years ago, but for several years we have not been able to trade with them. Our focus for next year is to develop an efficient supply chain in Malawi. Fairtrade certified farmers will supply a local peanut processing unit before onward bulk shipment to Europe. Despite recent growth, Malawi remains one of the world’s poorest countries with more of than half its population living below the poverty line. Its economy depends on agriculture and accounts for 80% of employment – so establishing a stable supply chain between peanut farmers there and customers here is a priority for us.
We source excellent quality products at fair prices from our suppliers, but we then need to convince customers (retailers, wholesalers, food service outlets) that it is worth paying more for a Fairtrade product. Consumers are to pay more for food with Fairtrade certification, if only we could get more of our products in front of them! Buyers at trade level measure sales and margin, and in rapidly moving supermarkets it’s challenging connecting commercial and sustainability objectives. I’d love to find a home for Liberation’s Fairtrade nuts in every single national supermarket to give consumers the chance to choose an ethical option.
Working in a smaller Fairtrade category is a challenge. The main certification body, The Fairtrade Foundation, does a great job campaigning for the big categories such as cocoa, coffee and bananas, but there’s a need to share the benefits of Fairtrade for other products, like nuts. I believe that The Fairtrade Foundation could help us, and others in smaller categories, by helping to highlight to commercial teams the significant problems farmers are facing in relation to the changing climate, unstable incomes and safety of workers across many food supply chains. And, as the climate emergency escalates, young people are becoming more engaged with where their food comes from. Diets are changing – people are eating less meat and opting for plant-based alternatives – the sale of nuts are soaring. I call on the Foundation and supporters of the Fairtrade movement to inspire this younger generation.
This autumn I was proud that Liberation won the Global Impact category of the Blue Patch Sustainable Business Awards. I had already been inspired by our unusual business model and had seen the clear positive impact for smallholder farmers, but it was a boost for myself and the team to be recognised by an independent panel of judges.
More recently, we launched a seasonal product for the Tesco finest Christmas range. The chocolate covered cashews and cranberries is both decadent and delicious. Producing this recipe allowed us to give more business to our producer partners in India and Burkina Faso. It also introduced us to new cooperatives in the Dominican Republic, Cameroon and Costa Rica. We’ve had positive reviews from the likes of The Grocer, FMCG Magazine and Pebble Magazine.
After a year at Liberation, I can see there is a need for social enterprise businesses in our economy. I love that we’re part of a community of brands that are dedicated to solving social and environmental problems. To me, Liberation is a wonderful business as it addresses social problems by supporting farmers with a stable and secure income. However, it also addresses environmental problems: we invest in projects to protect the land, to train farmers on the benefits of organic farming and biodiversity and we pay Fairtrade premiums that are used for projects like monitoring and conserving the ancient Amazon rainforest in Bolivia.
To me, it’s clear that we must ensure that there is always a place for sustainably sourced products on the supermarket shelves and that consumers have a of Fairtrade. There are still challenges ahead but we also have opportunities to grow our business – and I’m optimistic for what 2020 will bring.