Can Fairtrade lift farmers in Uganda and Ethiopia out of poverty?

According to a much discussed report by Professor Cramer from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) the answer to this question is not necessarily and according the school’s website these are the key findings from Professor Cranmer’s research

  • Most rural people in Ethiopia and Uganda enjoy a much higher standard of living than seasonal and casual agricultural wage workers.  In rural areas, manual agricultural wage workers are the very poorest.
  • Where Fairtrade flowers were grown, and where there were farmers’ groups selling coffee and tea into Fairtrade certified markets, wages were very low – especially women’s wages.  In fact, wages in other comparable areas and among comparable employers producing the same crops but where there was no Fairtrade certification were usually higher. This was not because the Fairtrade certified cooperatives were in more marginalised, deprived areas.
  • In some areas dominated by Fairtrade certified cooperatives workers in the samples did appear to have greater access to some fringe benefits (e.g., free meals in two sites, or on other sites more access to loans) than workers in areas without Fairtrade certification. Even here, though, other aspects of work conditions were often worse.
  • The findings on lower wages held true even after the effects of scale and other differences across workers and sites were taken into account in detailed statistical analysis, contrary to the claims made in the Fairtrade Foundation’s own statement about this research.
  • Fairtrade publicises its contribution to the funding of schools, health clinics, improved sanitation and other “social projects” in rural areas.  From hours of quantitative and qualitative interviews with respondents and others, including in some cases cooperative managers, the SOAS researchers found that the poorest often had no access to these ‘community’ facilities in the research sites, even when they were or had been wage workers on the processing stations or for producer members.

I read this report with interest  and frankly I didn’t learn anything I didn’t know already. At this point I need to take you back to a very long exchange I had on earlier version of this blog in 2009 that started with a simple question

How much do folk in the western world know about Fairtrade?

That exchange started on 24 February 2009 and ended on 6 July 2009. Within that period I visited six coffee farms in Uganda and was shocked to learn that  a coffee co-operative that had both Fairtrade and Cafe Direct as partners had some of the worst working conditions that came across.

Ankole Coffee Producer’s Co-operative Union Ltd factory in Mitooma where we observed the terrible storage conditions in 2009


In particular there was a dispute with respect to this storage facility where we discovered a few of the female workers resting.

At the end of that discussion it seemed to me that some folks in the west didn’t know much about Fairtrade and those that did seemed to thing that a label on a product guaranteed a fair wage and or good working conditions.

Having visited six farms in total we discovered that having a Fairtrade certificate often cost the farm owners a lot of money and as such some farmers simply opted out. In addition certified coffee often got mixed up with uncertified coffee  due to failure to meet demand/fill quotas.

Fast forward to International Women’s Day  2013, a conference I hosted in Kampala Uganda on the Supply Chains of Multi National Companies heard from women who are supplying flowers and Honey into such chains. The question as to whether Fairtrade certification is helpful in  ensuring market access was put to them these women. The answer was an emphatic NO and the reasons cited were first and foremost the cost of being certified.

You can read the conference report at

So here is what I think

Fairtrade is great in as far as highlighting  the farmers’ plight as well as their treatment on the world markets but it doesn’t go far enough in dealing with the real issues that would revolutionalise their lives such as Value Addition at Source, or protectionism of western governments, subsidies to farmers in the west, access to technology, land grabbing  etc.

Consequently Fairtrade takes on a role of a  marketing ploy where the real winners are those behind the movement and some of the rich farmers in particular those located in South America.

I would love to hear your views on this matter, so join the conversation by leaving a comment below


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