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By Thahasello Mphatsoe

Multimedia Journalist

Video: Addressing the unethical issues in the coffee industry with Fair Trade

Many people think Fair Trade is a charity - on the contrary, it is simply about paying people what their product is worth

Coffee is the second-most traded commodity in the world after oil. Although enjoyed worldwide, the industry is known to be highly unethical. This is because the cost of producing a single coffee bean is higher than the price it sells.

Jonathan Robinson, the founder of Bean There, a Direct Fair Trade Coffee Company in Johannesburg, says his journey in the coffee business started in Ethiopia. At the time, he had no idea that the country would offer him one of his greatest coffee experiences.

Today Bean There imports the top 2% of high-quality coffee from small-scale farms across Africa, including Ethiopia, Tanzania, Burundi, DRC and Rwanda.

Robinson says: “When running a business, you are trying to make the most profit. Often, you do that at the expense of the planet and people”.

This has been evident even in the coffee industry.

Is all Fair Trade Coffee Ethical

According to an article by Silver Chef, what makes the coffee trade unethical is that most of the trade is controlled by MNCs (Multinational Corporations) who need to be in touch with the realities of the farmers.

While coffee businesses can make a good profit from good coffee, the farmers are usually making a loss. These conditions lead to developing countries suffering the most. According to a report done in 2017 by SCIP (The Strategic Climate Institutions Programme), over 15 million people in Ethiopia are reliant on the coffee industry for income.

The system takes advantage of families desperate for even the smallest income to make ends meet.

The Fair Trade certification came into the picture to try to help address these issues that affect more than just the coffee industry.

Robinson says: “Fair Trade was put in place to ensure that even if the market fluctuates, if you committed to FairTrade, you have to pay above a minimum price set by an international body.”

One of the issues with Fair Trade is that the certification side of it is quite expensive, which can dissuade people from getting involved.

“It’s a bit of a double-edged sword because what makes Fair Trade strong is that it is certified,” elaborates Robinson.

“An issue with most of these green labels is we don’t know who’s checking. If someone says their product is vegan or their coffee is Fair Trade, how do we know that the person is not just talking or referring to a small part of their business that conforms to that label?

“The problem in the world at the moment is there is so much greenwashing.”

Also read: Greenwashing: What to look out for when buying environmentally friendly beauty products

History of Ethiopian Coffee culture

Ethiopia is the biggest exporter of coffee on the African continent. They also consume 50% of their coffee, meaning they drink half of their production.

Some believe this beverage was enjoyed in Ethiopia long before coffee was grown and enjoyed in other parts of the world, such as Brazil and Italy.

Robinson describes the well-known Ethiopian coffee ceremony, saying: “In every little village in Ethiopia, there’re just hundreds of little coffee shops where people sit on little stools roasting, some grinding and others pouring while sitting with their friends chatting over cups of coffee.” 

“Many people think Fair Trade is a charity – on the contrary, Fair Trade is simply about paying people what their product is worth,” says Robinson.

If you commit to the system, you also then agree to pay a Fair Trade premium, which is said to be used primarily for farmers’ extra payments and for the development of quality within a cooperative system.

Bean There in the business of Fair Trade Coffee

Walking into Bean There at 44 Stanley, the walls are filled with photographs of farmers Jonathan and the Bean There team worked with.

“The walls and the pictures hopefully help to remind you of where the coffee came from and who we have to thank for it,” says Robinson.

A cup of coffee at Bean There comes with a story. This single-blend coffee shop has a story that continues beyond enjoying a cup of coffee from a specific part of Africa. It is also about how it is roasted.

In Ethiopia, this is a slow process of roasting the coffee, grinding the coffee, brewing the coffee and finally serving the coffee, which takes a long time.

“This is really what the whole connection of coffee is about,” says Jonathan.

Brilliant Ndlovu roasts Bean There coffee. He has been roasting coffee for Bean There for 11 years, and before that, he was a barista at 44 Stanley.

“We trust our coffee, which is why we roast it medium. We don’t want to hide any flavours by roasting it dark.”

Jonathan says the process continues.

“It is then up to the barista to repeatedly serve good coffee with love while communicating the story of Fair Trade and Bean There,” says Robinson.

FairTrade, like many certifications to come up over the years, comes with issues. In some aspects, it only begins to address a small share of the issues farmers face.

“Fair Trade is about being right and fair – For us, it’s not just about how we pay our farmers. It’s about how we pay our staff, treat our suppliers, and price our coffee to our customers. How do we mark up our products? If you look at our business, there should be fairness across it.”

Watch: Founder of Bean There Coffee, speaks on his journey in the coffee business.

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