Seated at her monitor, Abigail, an alert, highly motivated 12-year-old Ghanaian, tells me why she’s concentrating on her computer skills: “It helps you get an education.” She is just one of the kids in the Asuogyaman area who soak up free IT training funded by the “social premium”, the extra funds received by Fairtrade fruit producers to fund community projects.
In 20 years, the revenue that flows from Volta River Estates (VRE), which became the world’s first Fairtrade banana plantation in 1996, has transformed the surrounding area. Previously, schooling at the local South Senchi Junior High took place under a mango tree. Now pupils study at desks in a building. Thanks to Fairtrade, VRE has financed an operating theatre in the local hospital, potable water storage tanks in three villages, secondary school scholarships, and educational grants for workers’ families. As the company’s director of agriculture Anthony Kofi Blay puts it: “This is now a different place. Fairtrade has changed it”.
Of course, the benefits that Fairtrade brings to fruit producers worldwide (crucially, the guaranteed minimum price and social premium), are well documented. But in Ghana, it really feels as if Fairtrade has gone up a gear - well beyond any tokenistic, feelgood box-ticking of standards - embedding more ambitious labour rights and environmental goals in daily practice.
To understand what’s been happening in Ghana’s blossoming Fairtrade fruit sector, you must appreciate the country’s uniqueness. It was the first African country to gain independence. Its first leader, Kwame Nkrumah, was helped to power by trade unions, and they have been partners in a collaborative dialogue with government and fruit companies ever since. Ghana has signed up to the International Labour Office’s conventions, and ratified all eight of them, committing to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and these conventions are enforced and respected on the ground. On Ghanaian banana and pineapple plantations, 100% of non-management workers are unionised, yet ironically strikes are rare in Ghana, and confined to workplaces that lack a union. Contrast this harmonious situation with Peru, where there are anti-union laws and frequent violations of labour rights, or Guatemala, where being an active plantation trade unionist puts you at risk of rape or death.
Further rights are enshrined in Ghana’s 2003 Labour Act. Ghanaians are entitled to a minimum wage, are paid for public holidays, night work and sick leave, even when hired on a temporary basis. The working day on fruit plantations is eight hours with an hour’s break, or two hours for breastfeeding mothers. Child labour is non-existent because, as Edward Kareweh, general secretary of the Ghana Agricultural Workers Union, says, “children are supposed to be in school”.
Ghana, which currently supplies Sainsbury’s, M&S, and the Co-op in the UK, is living proof that commercial Fairtrade banana and pineapple growing on plantations can be both ethical and sustainable. This is why Make Fruit Fair - an EC-funded alliance of international NGOs, unions, and small farmer organisations that aim to improve conditions for people who grow, pick and pack our tropical fruit - hails Ghana as a model for best practice in the global fruit industry.
The increasingly exacting requirements set by Fairtrade, which are working so successfully in Ghana, are putting clear water between Fairtrade and other less all-embracing certification schemes: Rainforest Alliance, GlobalGap, EurepGAP, M&S’s Field 2 Fork, and Tesco Nurture. At a glance, the Rainforest Alliance comes closest to rivalling Fairtrade - if, that is, you ignore the inherent logical contradiction that plantation-style fruit production generally means cutting down primary forest. The other difference is that Rainforest Alliance doesn’t guarantee a minimum price or pay out any social premium. And the current enthusiasm of Aldi and Lidl for Rainforest Alliance certification has invited suspicion that the scheme’s appeal to them lies in the relative laxity of its certification criteria and its attractive affordability.
In the banana fields at Golden Exotics (GE), the leading exporter of Ghanaian fruit, Jacqui Mackay of Banana Link, a partner organisation in Make Fruit Fair, explains the potential gulf between words on paper and the reality for workers.
“Certification is only a framework. It relies on audits, snapshots taken over a day or two. If you speak to workers in other countries they tell you they know when auditors are coming because they suddenly get safety equipment. Without unions on the ground enabling workers to actually get what they’re entitled to, auditing can almost become a game.” So Banana Link has been co-ordinating a programme, funded by Comic Relief, to increase awareness among Ghanaian workers of their rights and to hone their negotiation skills to secure these. “You can’t just issue protective clothing for working with chemicals, for example, without education. People won’t use it unless they understand what the health risks are,” says Mackay.
GE is owned by Compagnie Fruitière. This major international player clearly sees Fairtrade as a cornerstone of its operation. “We want to be the very best interpretation of Fairtrade possible” says MD Olivier Chassang. In 2012, only 13% of GE’s output was Fairtrade. Now it’s 60%, and workers enjoy a number of benefits on the back of it, from free mosquito nets and subsidised canteen meals to a small loans scheme and soon, a crèche for nursing mothers.
GE is also upscaling its Fairtrade organic banana effort. At present it sells all its organic bananas in France so there isn’t enough for the UK, but it is expanding its organic plantation. This organic push entails regenerating degraded grasslands (previously used for cattle and charcoal burning) using GE’s own compost as a soil conditioner.
And while Ghana’s hot, dry climate doesn’t provide the ideal conditions for fruit growing, lower rainfall means Ghanaian bananas and pineapples are smaller and sweeter than their starchier Latin American counterparts. Ghana’s shortage of rain also lessens the challenge from pests and insects. According to GE’s operations manager, Benedict Rich, Ghana’s conventionally grown bananas get just five to 10 aerial sprayings against black sigatoka disease (the bête noire of growers) compared with the typical 50-60 in Latin America. In Ghana, the blue plastic bags used to protect bananas on the tree don’t need to be impregnated with pesticide, as they do in many other countries.
Up in the misty hills near Otaten village, Fairtrade pineapple producer Gold Coast Fruits (GCF) can count the benefits of lower input cultivation. When it started in 2005, GCF followed the Costa Rican practice of applying six pesticide applications in a growing cycle. “But we soon realised we didn’t need it” says monitoring and certification manager Sampson Ameyaw. “Now we use only two because we have a team of scouts who look out for any disease or infestation so we can spot-treat the plants only when necessary saving us a lot of money.”
A bright future
Ghana grows the same pineapple variety - MD2 (Del Monte Gold) - that dominates export crops elsewhere, but like the country’s toothsome bananas, its pineapples are more bijou, less fibrous, and free from the mouth-pricking acidity the variety can develop in other climates. The future is bright for GCF. Investors are funding a dam that will enable a drip irrigation system and this will allow the company to grow “eight to 10 times what we are now in five years”. But the sickener here is that GCF, like other Ghanaian growers, is currently selling only 20% of its Fairtrade fruits for the Fairtrade price because retailers caught up in the aggressive UK banana price war won’t pay for them. All retailers claim their fruits are “sustainably produced”, yet Tesco, Asda, Morrisons, Aldi and Lidl source the bulk of their supply from non-Fairtrade sources. Pressure to keep retail prices for loose bananas as low as possible creates an unhelpful climate.
An insistence by some UK retailers that Fairtrade and/or organic fruits must be packed in plastic bags and stickered is a further irritation for Ghanaian banana exporters. “It’s labour-intensive, slows down the packhouse, and adds costs,” one company manager explains. “French supermarkets are not so fussy. They sell Fairtrade bananas loose.” Fortunately, retailers are at least easing up on their size requirements. Bananas that would once have been rejected as too short have now found a niche in the UK “schoolbag” market.
As to British consumers, values are influencing behaviour in other ways too. A recent campaign by Mexican fruit workers against US distributor Driscoll’s, which involved allegations of “neo-slavery” and unsafe working conditions, saw Lidl targeted by a consumer boycott in the UK. It shows retailers can be harmed by damaging news from distant fruit fields - unless they have a convincingly better story to tell.
Readiness to pay more for Fairtrade fruits depends on shoppers hearing a credible, evidenced assurance that the scheme isn’t just another badge on a box. And though Ghana is a poor country, its emerging status as the truest, most whole-hearted expression of Fairtrade principles in operation worldwide obviously makes it a winner with ethical consumers. Food miles are not irrelevant either. Ghana is on the same longitude as the UK, and along with Cameroon, our closest banana and pineapple supplier.
On the taste front, Ghanaian fruits come closest in eating terms to the traditional Caribbean fruits that Britain has historically favoured. Germans expect bananas to be long and straight, but Brits have a different appetite. And Ghanaian fruit growers, with their palatable story of equitable, environmentally progressive production to tell, are well-placed to satisfy it.