14 March 2002
Ethical trading has become big business in recent years. Helen Riley looks at the work of one company aiming to bring an entire fruit bowl to UK consumers
For Elizabeth Abujri, checking the condition of the bananas at the Volta River Estates plantation in Ghana is a regular part of her job as a farmer. As part of her work, Abujri ensures the fruit is protected by plastic bags tied with different coloured ribbons, depending on their growth rate.
Large banana clusters are transferred by electronic cableway to a packing station on the estate, where the flowers are removed and the fruit checked for marks. Blemishes mean the bananas are deemed unfit for export and will instead be sold locally at the market in Accra.
The remaining perfect bananas are cut into clusters, washed, measured and packed. They are then put in cold storage and taken by trucks to the nearest port for shipment on container ships, which might have already picked up a wide assortment of goods from African ports bound for European markets. Eventually they will find their way into fruit bowls around the UK.
A few years ago, most consumers wouldn't have given Abujri and her fellow workers a thought. Food appeared as if by magic on the shelves of the local shop or supermarket, and there was general ignorance of the complicated supply chains that brought it to their plates - or the people behind them.
But food scares and the emergence of Fairtrade, which aims to ensure a better deal for producers in developing and disadvantaged countries, led to the rise of a new breed of consumers keen to know where their food comes from and that those who produce it receive fair wages and conditions.
Abujri falls into that camp. Her plantation supplies all its bananas to AgroFair, a Fairtrade company that ensures producers take care of their workers as well as their crop.Employee benefits
For Volta River's 700 or so employees, working for AgroFair means they have access to free healthcare, sick pay and maternity pay, clean water and schooling for their children, and other benefits western nations take for granted. Unique among fruit companies, AgroFair is co-owned by the growers, which means profits are returned to them.
"Ghana is a poor country. By buying our bananas, people in the UK help us to improve our living conditions, educate our children and give us hope for the future," Abujri says.
The Volta River plantation is just one of the farms around the world used by AgroFair UK, which is dedicated to offering consumers a "Fairtrade fruit bowl".
Bananas were first in the bowl, with sales increasing to more than 2,000 boxes per week last year. They have now been joined by the first Fairtrade mangoes to be sold in Britain - from Ecuador, Burkina Faso (formerly the Upper Volta) and Mexico - with pineapples and citrus fruits to follow later this year and next. AgroFair staff are currently busy sourcing fruit from around the world to ensure a year-round supply.
As Jan Castle, sales and marketing manager for AgroFair UK, explains: "Our philosophy is simple. We operate ethical policies while competing successfully in the global market as well."
As well as being in charge of AgroFair's UK operation, Castle also counts herself as a typical consumer who has woken up to the ethical concerns of food buying. Her background is in the food business, having worked for 10 years for Tchibo, the Germany coffee giant.
However, she decided to move to organisations under the Fairtrade umbrella, when she started to consider the people who produced the coffee.
She said: "I sat in meetings in which getting the coffee from the 'bean to the cup' was discussed. Customers were asking if our coffee was fairly traded and I began to wonder about the people who produced the bean.
"There's sometimes a perception about Fairtrade products that they aren't as good as commercial brands. We need to challenge this all the way along the supply chain, starting by working closely with our producers."
At AgroFair, Castle has had the chance to meet many of those people and has gained a knowledge of the whole supply chain, visiting the plantations, ports and ripening plants, while thrashing out deals with supermarkets.
AgroFair was established in Holland in 1997, with head offices close to the biggest fruit and vegetable auction grounds in the Benelux countries with the aim of providing long-term security for fruit producers and workers. Business grew swiftly, and the company now sells 50,000 boxes of bananas every week across Europe.
As demand for the AgroFair bananas - marketed under the Oké label - grew, the company entered into a joint venture with the alternative trade organisation, Twin Trading, setting up offices in the UK. This country is an important market for AgroFair: it has supplied Co-op stores with bananas since January 2000. In addition, Oké bananas are currently being trialled in 31 Asda stores and can also be spotted in local grocery stores.
AgroFair also entered into an important partnership with major fruit importer and distributor Fyffes. AgroFair manages the shipments of green bananas from Ghana until they arrive at the docks, where Fyffes takes over the process for the company.
Bananas are graded from one to seven depending on their ripeness, with one being green and seven being ripe. Companies such as the Co-op will place a specific order for so many kilos of number three bananas and a certain amount of number four bananas. Oké bananas are then ripened to order in huge warehouse complexes in Basingstoke and distributed around the UK, along with other fruits bought by Fyffes.
Any surplus fruit not bought by the Co-op or Asda goes onto the wholesale market for sale, which explains why ethical bananas can pop up in your local corner shop from time to time.
The partnership benefits both sides. AgroFair UK isn't faced with the prospect of having to invest in ripening sheds and a fleet of trucks for distribution, while Fyffes is able to offer ethical bananas to those customers who want them.
Castle says: "Working with products that have a shelf life adds a sense of excitement and urgency to getting the goods moving. A missed shipping date or a delay en route for a container vessel can mean the difference between perfect fruit and a ruined load arriving at the docks, resulting in a loss of income and market for producers."Helen Riley is a freelance journalist specialising in business issues
InformationWhat is Fairtrade?
Fairtrade is a system monitored and operated by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation, which sets working and social standards that must be complied with before companies are awarded a Fairtrade mark. It aims to change the way we trade, creating fairer working conditions, greater opportunities in the marketplace and social development for producer partners.
As well as AgroFair, brands such as Cafédirect and The Day Chocolate Company, manufacturer of Divine and Dubble chocolate bars, operate as Fairtrade companies. The businesses themselves fund the organisation through a licence fee system.
Awareness of Fairtrade has grown dramatically over the past few years, with sales of Fairtrade products increasing since 1994 by a year-on-year average of 53 per cent.
Figures due out shortly are expected to show that around £50 million worth of Fairtrade goods were bought in British stores during 2001. Only six years ago, the market was worth just £3 million.