Fruandes: Fair Trade Mangoes, Bogota, Colombia

Remember Hansel and Gretel and their gingerbread house? When I walked in the door at Fruandes (Frutos de los Andes), I thought I’d wandered into my own mango version. Mmmmm, mangoes. Homer Simpson eat your (doughnut) heart out.

“It’s common for people to convert their houses into businesses here”, says Hugo Ciro, one of the founders and CEO of Level Ground, the Canadian company that imports the products from Fruandes. And from the outside, you’d never know. But once the door was opened, it was an Aladdin’s cave of mango heaven.

It was a stroke of luck that my visit to Bogota coincided with Hugo’s. He lives near Victoria, BC, Canada and was in Colombia to visit some of the producers that Level Ground works with. My visit that day also coincided with a mad scramble by the staff to get the dried mangoes loaded and shipped out to Canada due to a late harvest this season. It was chaotic but a general air of good humour prevailed.

Hugo was born in Colombia but has lived in Canada for many years. This mango facility I visited was established in Bogota in order to help a group of local women. Displaced women who had come to Cazuca (with their children), a local refugee camp in the suburbs of Bogota, were employed to work in the factory. Through a connection with a local NGO, Level Ground provides minimum wages, access to healthcare, transport subsidies, school tuition, scholarships and materials for children. More recently they’ve set up a way to let them access credit, acting like a bank, for workers who wish to purchase their own housing. Applying to the government for a downpayment, Fruandes helps with a loan if that application is successful.

Level Ground work with producers in several countries. Since 2001 they helped producers through diversification into dried fruit (due to the “coffee  crisis”). As well as mango, they source coconut, banana, pineapple and physallis. Also panela (sugar cane). All the fruit is sourced from Colombia, though due to high demand for mango they are looking for alternative supplies in another country.

The white coats of the workers contrasted sharply with the orange-yellow hue of the mangoes they worked with. It was messy but in a good way! All the cutting and chopping is done by hand, the mango is then loaded on to drying racks and placed in the humidifiers to dry. On my visit, there were two shifts of workers due to the need to get the mangoes done as quickly as possible.

Level Ground, the importer of Fruandes fruit, does not have designated Fair Trade certification (through Fairtrade International [FLO], recognised by the FLO symbol). The company is also changing its membership from the World Fair Trade Organisation (WFTO) to the Fair Trade Federation (FTF). Being a member of one (or both) of these groups indicates the company is committed to working on Fair Trade principles. Typical members are companies who deal with crafts where certification standards are harder to establish due to the nature of these products. Hugo said that Level Ground supports the ideals of Fair Trade but they prefer to support it in their own way. Although it’s harder to recognise a “fairly traded” product this way, what I saw at Level Ground and Fruandes is a business working to Fair Trade principles. From their customers’ point of view, it is important to have organic certification. Also, Level Ground are very open about how they do their business and welcome transparency and people finding out more about their farmers and their produce.

Amid all the hullaballoo trying to load up the boxed mangoes on the container lorry, the staff were in good spirits. An improvised loading slide, sending boxes to the lorry from the second-floor window, worked a treat, but it was slow going. It was Hugo’s last day and he was due to fly back to Canada later that evening. I’d been in flagging spirits at this point in my trip and part of me wished I was going back with him.

One of the important aspects of Fruandes is how the fruit production process enables more money to stay with the Colombian workers and thus in the local economy. The growers benefit from Fair Trade and by processing, drying and packing the fruit in Bogota, it benefits local people here too.

Before I left I was invited to the daily staff mango party. Or at least it felt like that. Freshly-cut mango was handed around on a tray to several of the staff who were taking a quick break. It was hard to resist, so I didn’t. I can eat a lot of mango… My skin didn’t turn mango colour, but as I stepped out into the cool Bogota sunshine I had a satisfying glow, and not just from the delicious fruit.

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Fair Trade cacao, Panama: COCABO

“I’ve seen it all”, says Elma, in an accent that was both startling yet familiar. “In my 25 years here, I’ve seen the ups and downs. There are good years and bad years”, she says in Spanish, with a distinctly Caribbean lilt. I’d forgotten that I was right on the Caribbean coast. Elma, a tall, indomitable lady with a hearty laugh and friendly manner, was happy to give me an insight into the COCABO co-op.

A one-hour sweaty, undulating bicycle ride from Changuinola, the dusty town I was staying in, led me to Almirante, where COCABO is located. Almirante’s prime motive for existence seems to be its port. Squashed  together are the tourists and the traders; the traders look like they won. Tourists do their best to pass through quickly on their way to the idyllic islands of Bocas del Toro.

Ignoring the constant shouts from tourist touts I asked for directions to the co-op. Port smells (fish and diesel) filled the air and people (potentially smelling of fish and diesel as well) filled the streets, and a few minutes later, skirting the town and its shabby surroundings, I located the COCABO sign. Situated across the road from a container storage site, it was in keeping with the rest of Almirante – neither a glamorous nor picturesque location.

COCABO is predominantly a cacao co-op, though also trades coffee (which is grown in the highlands and comes here already dried) and bananas. The COCABO site contains a small office and warehouse for storing and checking the cacao to be exported overseas.

The office itself was peopled with friendly and helpful workers, right down to the lady who graciously gave me a sugar-fuelled cup of coffee. It had been brewed with the sugar built-in. A great time-saving yet unnecessary exercise.

Elma is in charge here and her presence was striking. Not only is she large, a loud speaker, and funny, but being a female “in charge” is unusual in itself. I’d almost always been introduced to men who were managing affairs at the co-ops I’d visited. Elma was an exception, no question.

Jose Howell, quiet and deliberate, showed me around the warehouse. The bright, laden, 50 kg bags of cacao beans, with their dominant Fair Trade logo, gave me a smile. Oved Millar, enthusiastic and sturdy, demonstrated the cacao quality checker, a kind of enclosed guillotine that cuts the beans placed inside it, allowing him to check the quality more easily by viewing the inside of several beans at once.

This season’s production has been average, but cacao prices on the world market have fallen, so the producers will receive less. Fair Trade helps by giving producers a minimum price and also providing a “social premium” that is invested directly back into the community of the co-op members. Typically, the cacao is separated into 1st and 2nd grade quality, but this year the co-op has mixed them together in order to get a better price. Mixing the cacao together gives a more consistent, higher quality.This year there is not much price difference between grades, and some buyers will pay the same price for both.

Not all farms are certified organic or Fair Trade. Elma is frustrated about it, but realises that for some farmers it is too much work. Another problem that many farmers in the co-op face is being surrounded by conventional banana plantations. The amount of chemicals and pesticides used in their production and the way they are applied (usually by helicopter or airplane) means that some farmers in neighbouring farms are at a high risk of having their products ‘contaminated’.

Elma told me that the price of cacao (paid to the farmer) was around $1.04 / lb*. Any price lower than $1 / lb would make it unprofitable for the producer. Even with Fair Trade, most producers only eke out a living. She would like to see a higher minimum price in order to make a real difference in the farmers’ lives. And she is yet to be convinced by the sustained benefits of Fair Trade. Some buyers make additional donations to the co-op (e.g. a Swiss buyer gives them $10,000 each year) though most pay solely the Fair Trade price. Caustic and funny, her quarter-century with the co-op has given her a philosophical view, even as we shook our heads at the irony of Panamanians eating chocolate made from cacao that comes from other countries. There are good years and bad years, and the producers somehow carry on.

COCABO have nice bags for their cacao
Elma at the COCABO office. Funny, open and caustic, she had a lot to say
A cacao grower takes a siesta. It’s tiring work, after all

Elma invited me back the following day in order to visit the farm of a producer. I declined, and though I didn’t know it at the time, I had a plane to catch…

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Co-op Statistics: COCABO (Cooperativa de Servicios Multiples Cacao Bocatoreña)

Size: 1,400 producers. Hope to increase to 2,000 in future. Typical production area 3 hectares. Typical co-op production 1-1.2m lbs / year.

Age: 60 years – the oldest co-op I visited on my travels, and the oldest co-op in Panama.

Production: cacao (90% Fair Trade). Fair Trade certified since 2005. Organic bananas for Panama and Costa Rica markets.

*Fair Trade minimum price is $2 / kg (conventional) and $2.30 / kg (organic) with $0.20 / kg in addition, as the “social premium”