On the road with Harriet Lamb, Queen of Fairtrade
Published in The Independent Magazine on 28 February 2009, a profile of Harriet Lamb, then chief executive of Fairtrade Foundation.
By Martin Hickman
In a village hall down a dirt track in the middle of Rwanda, Harriet Lamb is clasping her hands together and laughing. While the chairman of a coffee co-operative has plodded his way through a Powerpoint presentation on his community’s involvement with Fairtrade, a stilted atmosphere has descended inside the bare, white-washed building. And Lamb, the irrepressible 47-year-old executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, is trying to do what she always does when confronted with stony faces, or embarrassed silences: she is joking, smiling, jollying things along until progress is once more being made.
For the moment, however, an awkward silence reigns. The officials of the local co-operative are sitting at one end of the hall, between two groups, who sit facing one another: along one side is the Fairtrade delegation of well-fed white Westerners, who have filed in without introduction, along the other are the farmers who grow the coffee in the surrounding plantations; their faces impassive.
All of sudden Lamb springs to her feet and directly addresses the farmers, explaining what we are doing here, 4,100 miles from home; what Fairtrade is all about – and how they are part of a development network of 650 groups that now spans some 58 countries.
She energetically mimes British supermarket shoppers, whizzing round in a hurry, loading up their trolleys at breakneck speed. “Imagine this is a shop,” she says. “And I’m going shopping. Shopping, shopping [she wails ‘WAH, WAH, WAH’; a mother and her baby] and I’m quickly taking tea, coffee, sugar from the shelves. Quick, quick, quick. Then I’m looking for cheap tea, cheap coffee. If I’m only buying cheap coffee then the price for you is low.”
Suddenly she raises a hand, and her voice, and addresses – in absentia – the great British shopper.
“STOP!” she exclaims. “STOP! Don’t buy cheap coffee! If you buy cheap coffee then it is bad for the workers. Look for Fairtrade: ‘Ah, Fairtrade. From Rwanda.”
Lamb speaks with humility and warmth, all the while smiling, laughing, making eye contact. She ends her impromptu speech with the words: “There is a saying: ‘When it rains, many, many little raindrops make the big rivers.’ Little by little, people buy Fairtrade and it makes this change.’
The farmers, who had seemed so wary, burst into applause. The awkwardness has vanished and everyone smiles.
“She’s a star,” whispers Mark Price, the managing director of Waitrose – one of the well-fed white Westerners present – who is touring tea and coffee farms to see whether his £4bn supermarket chain can do more for Fairtrade. Indeed, on our four-day tour of Rwanda, Lamb pulls off this trick many times – whenever there is an uncomfortable silence, a misplaced comment, or merely an opportunity for levity, Lamb is there, good-humouredly moving things along.
Running a movement that aims to eradicate poverty for millions of people around the world is a serious matter, reliant on determination, dynamism, intelligence and hard work. But laughter helps too.
Everyone gets the Harriet treatment: African government ministers, international development workers, banana farmers in the Windward islands, cocoa growers in Ghana, coffee farmers in Costa Rica, tea plantation workers in Rwanda – and, indirectly at least, shoppers in Britain.
And it is certainly working. A decade ago, only a few well-meaning people had heard of Fairtrade. In the UK, there were only a few lines of tea, coffee and chocolate – and no Fairtrade “mark”. Now, however, shoppers can’t get enough of the swirly black and blue logo, dubbed “the boy with the bucket.” Presented with a simple choice – whether or not to buy Fairtrade – the British public increasingly does so.
In 2007, sales in Britain rocketed by 70 per cent. Even in harder times last year, when sales of organic produce fell, Fairtrad sales surged by 43 per cent to more than £700m. In some stores, for some products, you can sometimes now only buy Fairtrade: own-label chocolate at the Co-op, bananas at Sainsbury’s or Waitrose, tea and coffee at Marks & Spencer.
Under the trade-not-aid movement, shoppers pay a little more for their products, so that producers in the developing world receive a higher price. As a result, seven million farmers and their families who grow crops consumed daily in Britain can now send their children to secondary school, get treated in hospital, and aspire to things that sound resolutely ordinary, like putting glass in the windows of their homes.
It’s a brilliantly simple concept – but though she would hesitate to say it herself, much of the motivational and organisational credit for its success is down to the diminutive figure who has won over the reticent village-hall audience in Rwanda.
THE DAUGHTER OF A businessman, Harriet Lamb was born in India and educated at a private boarding school in Wiltshire. She read political science at Cambridge University and later took an MPhil at the Sussex Institute of Development Studies.
After her degree, she returned to India, spending 18 months helping farm workers in the lowest caste system, the “untouchables”, to band together in a co-operative selling grapes – a precursor to her later work.
It was bananas, however, that convinced her of the importance of Fairtrade. Lamb became determined something must be done to help farmers when, in 1997, as head of campaigns for the British pressure group World Development Movement, she visited Costa Rica in Central America.
Banana plantations there had begun using a pesticide called DBCP, despite it already having been banned in the US, where it was blamed for making Californian workers sterile. In November 1993, a woman called Marias, whose husband had worked on the plantations, had a baby. The boy had severe abnormalities – eyes and nose joined together, head four times bigger than his body; just one of 3,500 Costa Rican children with such deformities. Thousands more workers said they had developed heart, breathing and testicular problems.
“I have never, ever forgotten Maria,” Lamb wrote last year in her book Fighting the Banana Wars and Other Fairtrade Battles.
In 1997, she landed the jokey-sounding job of Banana Co-ordinator at the Fairtrade labelling Organisation (FLO) in Bonn, the body that sets global Fairtrade standards, helping to arrange the first shipment of Fairtrade bananas to Britain.
With her colleague Ian Bretmen, she persuaded the Co-op, and then Sainsbury’s, to take a consignment of Fairtrade bananas in 2000.
A year later, Lamb returned to the UK to become executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation, the British marketing arm of the movement, which as well as guaranteeing higher prices for farmers calls for the banning of the “dirty dozen” – 12 particularly harmful pesticides, including DBCP.
When Lamb arrived back in London, the only British Fairtrade sales were of small quantities of coffee, tea and chocolate marketed by the likes of Cafedirect, Divine and Traidcraft. Under her dogged, ebullient leadership, however, Britain has more recently been leading the way, surging up to – and probably now past – the per-capita level of US Fairtrade sales.
With a team of 79 at its headquarters by London’s Tower of London, the Fairtrade Foundation has now certified more than 3,000 products, including coffee, tea, chocolate, sugar, bananas, grapes, pineapples, mangoes, avocadoes, lemons, coconuts, honey, jams, rice, herbs and spices, wine, flowers, clothing and even footballs. Plans are even afoot to introduce Fairtrade gold from Peru.
Bretman, now vice-chairman of FLO in Bonn, says: ‘It’s fair to say that within the years that Harriet has been at Fairtrade, Britain has moved from being an also-ran in the global Fairtrade movement to pretty much the front-runner. It’s the fastest-growing, it’s got the widest product range and it’s got the highest awareness. Harriet would be the first person to say it’s not a one-person band, but she’s galvanised a whole movement without a doubt.”
Lamb’s efforts have not gone unrecognised. In 2006 she was awarded the CBE, and last year was named Outstanding Woman in Business by Credit Suisse as well as being dubbed “Eco Queen” by Cosmopolitan magazine.
There is no room for complacency, though, as Lamb herself recognises.”‘It’s very hard for anyone in Britain who goes shopping to really imagine what life is like for people growing the tea or coffee or cocoa, or the fruits that we all enjoy every day,” she says.
“When you do get the opportunity to meet the farmers it’s always inspiring, but it’s also a slap across the face to be reminded of the level of the poverty of the people who grow the crops. It makes you think: why are they so cheap? When you look at tea, it probably costs more to put the milk in than the tea itself.”
WALK INTO ANY STARBUCKS or Caffe Nero and you could be forgiven for thinking the secret of a good cup of coffee is the barista, the apron-wearing maestro who fills and tamps the espresso. In the same way, pulling a pack of beans, or even a jar of Nescafe, from the supermarket shelf still requires a customer to “make” the drink.
But the reality is that far more care goes into making your cup of coffee than just boiling the kettle, or even the picking and roasting of beans. Back in Rwanda, farmers depend wholly on their coffee crop to pay for schooling, medicines and other expenses. On their one-hectare plots, they nurture the coffee trees, mulching, fertilisers, picking the coffee cherries. Each cherry is checked for insect-damage and ripeness, and pulped to remove its fleshy outer core. The valuable dry beans inside are bagged and exported for roasting.
Walking alongside Waitrose’s Mark Price on the Martian-red soil of the country’s Marabar region, Lamb spies a bungalow guarded by a Kalashnikov-carrying sentry, a new branch of the National Bank has opened up on the edge of a village. Before Fairtrade, there wouldn’t have been any point; there was no money.
In the 1990s, Rwanda’s farmers sold their produce for 30 per cent below the low “world price” of coffee. They became so frustrated they started to dig up coffee plants and replace them with cassava and sweet potatoes, which they could at least use to feed their families.
Then a British company, Union hand-Roasted, got to hear of the region’s rare Arabica bourbon coffee trees and helped its farmers pass Fairtrade checks. Now, 60 per cent of Marabar’s coffee is Fairtrade, which guarantees a price above that on the world market and a “social premium”, which a democratically-elected body decides how to spend in its community.
The Abahuzamugambi co-operative has invested the proceeds into health advice and education and improving the quality of its coffee, which has further raised its income.
The new bank will allow the farmers to save and for loans to be made to new businesses in the area – a virtuous circle of development.
“This was a village that in 1996 was in the newspapers as the poorest village in the country, where people were dying of hunger,” Lamb recalls. “It is now one of the richest villages in Rwanda. Not through a miracle but because of the hard work of the co-operative. In this case, they got access to international companies and buyers who were ready to buy their coffee and that meant they’ve been able to move a step up the ladder, improving the quality all the time. This is absolutely not about charity – their coffee’s selling because it‘s great coffee and they’re getting a great price for it as a result. But they are then investing some of that back into the community.”
“Quite often,” she explains, “you hear about the farmers and the difference it makes to their individual lives or their communities, but it’s that wider economic change… how banks come to the village, and the banks offer facilities to other people, and they start to invest and save, and then you get traders coming. It’s that wider economic stimulus that is very inspiring.”
The good that Fairtrade does is measurable, because the workers’ representatives keep records of how they have spent the premium. Since it received Fairtrade certification in 2006, for instance, the Sorwathe tea plantation in Rwanda – which supplies Cafedirect and Ringtons – has received 67 million Rwandan francs (£87,000) in premium. According to its management, the money has been spent thus:
1) Laying new water pipes to 20,000 villagers, ensuring they do not have to queue for hours or collect water from polluted roadside drains and pits;
2) Repairing a primary school and paying its teachers’ salaries;
3) Giving the children free uniforms and milk (by supplying two cows and field) and increasing school attendance from 15 to 135;
4) Loaning workers money to buy household items such as mattresses and radios;
5) Paying for English lessons for 160 staff (English has become an official language in Rwanda at the expense of French),
6) Arranging low-interest credit so 260 workers can farm pigs, chickens and cows;
7) Loaning money for the purchase of 76 bicycles for workers living far away to ease their journey to work;
8) Buying a mini-bus to improve transport in a village 20 miles from a main road.
All this helps Rwanda, a small, hilly, densely-populated country in central Africa, where almost every scrap of land is cultivated. Rwanda wants to diversify its exports away from tea and coffee into fruits and vegetables and hopes its mountain gorilla will encourage tourism. For now, though, the emphasis is on increasing the price of tea and particularly coffee, which makes up two-thirds of its exports.
Rwanda ultimately wants to roast its own coffee rather than sending it to Europe, but in the meantime Fairtrade is helping raise prices.
Antoine Ruvebana, permanent secretary at Rwanda’s Department of Trade and Industry, explains: “Our farmers have always had a market for their products but in the past they had to sell to middle-men and were getting a very low price, which was not a good reward for their activities and which would not improve their way of living.
“Actually, farmers started uprooting their coffee because it was no longer sustaining their lives. They were selling it at such a cheap price they could not even buy food for their children. After a while they started selling their coffee through Fairtrade. Their lives started improving because they had higher prices with money coming directly to them without passing through other people. That’s why they have now started opening up banks in their region. So I can see that Fairtrade, which is a new concept in the country , is improving the lives of the people.”
HOW FAR CAN FAIRTRADE go? While enormous progress has been made, a chasm still divides Western consumers from the farmers who spend their lives tilling the soil, picking, cropping, spraying and harvesting the plants eaten or drunk daily. Much depends on whether enough customers will pay more for them. The Fairtrade Foundation has set a target of winning half of all UK tea and coffee sales by 2012; currently about 25 to 30 per cent of tea and coffee is Fairtrade.
“I think we’re only just at the beginning,” says Lamb. “I think we can take Fairtrade much further so that it becomes a – very special – norm of our everyday life.
“Most of look for the cheapest products,” she says, explaining that the average shopper spends four seconds shopping for coffee.
“What we’re saying is: just stop and think for one minute, and maybe just pay a little bit extra, or try a new one with the Fairtrade mark on, then you can be part of creating change. That’s all we’re tying to do.”
The subject changes, Lamb laughs – and it’s time for both of us to head off in search of a cool lager in the heat. Dynamic, enthusiastic, inspiring, she is living proof that individuals can make a difference.