Coffee is one of the most traded products in the world. That is why we are putting Oxfam Belgium in the spotlight on this International Coffee Day. Not only because of their commitment to fair trade, but also because of their involvement as an Overseas Social Security (OSZ) client. How does Oxfam engage with coffee-growing communities around the world? And what challenges lie behind the cup of coffee you drink every day? We spoke to press officer Belinda Torres Leclercq and product manager Bert Vander Vennet about Oxfam Fair Trade's coffee policy.
Since 1971, Oxfam has developed into the largest fair trade coffee player in Belgium. With decades of experience and expertise in the coffee sector, you can still taste the commitment to fair trade and sustainability in every sip of their coffee. How do we know this? During the inspiring interview, we occasionally sipped this black gold – courtesy of coffee farmers from Congo, Peru and Honduras.
For every moment of the day
Coffee is a big part of our daily lives – from the moment we wake up, on important occasions and during breaks between work meetings. Recent figures show that more than two billion cups of coffee are consumed worldwide. This means that 25% of the total world population drinks one cup of coffee every day. This results in an annual turnover of 200 billion euro. 'The coffee sector is a relatively profitable industry, but the money isn’t always distributed fairly,' according to Bert Vander Vennet. He has been the 'coffee man' at Oxfam Belgium for two years. He purchases coffee from various cooperatives in Latin America and Africa.
One small step for Oxfam, one big step for coffee farmers
'A handful of Western giants control about 40% of the market. Coffee farmers play an important role in this story, but don’t always get the attention they deserve. They often have to make ends meet on extremely low incomes.' And it’s with this knowledge that Oxfam sets to work. 'In general, certain factors influence coffee choice: taste, quality and price. At Oxfam Fair Trade, we go one step further. Our choice also depends on how the cooperative is organised and to what extent it supports the farmers.'
So, Oxfam always buys directly from a cooperative in which small-scale coffee farmers are represented. 'We purchase 100% fair trade certified coffees at or under the same conditions. And thanks to long-term trade relations, we can also obtain very good quality.' This is how Oxfam Fair Trade differentiates itself from traditional coffee roasters.
Coffee beans are traded as a commodity on the stock exchange and are often subject to price fluctuations. 'When prices rise, farmers benefit, but when they fall, these farmers are reduced to poverty. And unfortunately prices are usually low. That’s why the minimum price guaranteed by fair trade is very important. On top of that price, a fair trade premium is also paid. This premium is then used by the cooperative, in consultation with their members, for social projects or for technical support to increase productivity. There’s also a quality premium and an organic premium for coffee grown organically.'
But it isn't just about paying a fair price. 'We also offer financial support to projects that are agro-ecological or, in other words, create a natural habitat for coffee. They do this by using shade trees and organic mulch (a layer of leaves and branches covering the soil). The trees contribute to biodiversity and the mulch retains water in the soil. In this way, farmers are more resilient to the changing climate.'
The price and production method can be controlled to some extent, but coffee farmers also face a range of challenges. 'These challenges include an unstable political situation in some regions, for example, in the Kivu region in Congo, limited knowledge and resources to increase productivity, and socio-economic and socio-cultural issues, such as illiteracy and gender inequality.'
In addition to a fair price, Oxfam Fair Trade is also looking at how to attract projects that respond to these challenges. Belinda, press officer of Oxfam Belgium, cites coffee cooperative Rebuild Women's Hope. This collaboration between small-scale coffee farmers is on the island of Idjwi in Lake Kivu in Congo. 'Women's Hope is very strongly committed to improving the position of women. They work specifically to support women in generating additional income. This has led to greater involvement of women within the cooperative and has positive effects on the community. A women's clinic for maternal and paediatric care has now been set up.'
Pioneer in fair trade coffee
According to Fairtrade Belgium's official figures, Oxfam remains the main player in the fair trade coffee sector in Belgium this year, too. They were the pioneers in importing fair trade coffee and since then have gained an important position in the Belgian coffee market. And this trend seems to be ongoing. 'We notice that other players are also starting to adopt the concept of fair trade, but our ambition is to continue to strive for the fairest option, both socially and environmentally.'
And so we at the OSZ were left inspired: coffee isn’t just Oxfam's passion, it is also a powerful driver of sustainable change.
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