Tuesday 18 February 2014

The power of trading fairly......

I own a pair of TOMS.  For those who aren’t aware of this company, they have a mission to change the way we buy shoes.  If you buy a pair, they will give a pair...of shoes to someone in a developing country! So I can buy a pair of amazingly designed shoes knowing that someone who doesn’t have shoes will receive a pair too.  I love this concept.  I want to be a world changer, however big or small that might be.  In buying TOMS shoes that I like, I can do that.  If only being ethical and buying fair-trade was always so effective and fun.

As an ICS volunteer with Tearfund I am working in schools for homeless children and a variety of other projects that link to their future here in Rwanda.  This experience has affected how I look at life and how lucky I am to live in the UK (clichéd thinking I know!).  When I go back to my comfy home in the UK, I know I will remember the lessons I have learnt whilst working with these children and young people who face a daily struggle in life.  One morning during break time, playing with the children, a familiar label caught my eye.  The exact one that I happen to own.  The exact one that was on my pair of shoes that I proudly wearing that day.  This kid was wearing TOMS!  Different to mine but still TOMS.  The realization of that small and somewhat vain purchase back in the U.K. has resulted in this boy being given a pair of shoes.  Essentially this has a knock on effect for this boy, and others like him, leading to better prospects them.  As TOMS themselves state on their website (www.toms.co.uk) “These shoes protect children’s feet from cuts, infections, disease and when the children are healthy they can attend school fight minor illness and reach their full potential. Shoes are also required for school attendance in many countries. Providing school uniforms, to children that cannot afford them can increase school attendance by 62%. Education is the key to mobility and vital to breaking the poverty cycle.

Whilst being here in Rwanda I've had a humbling time working with cooperatives that produce products to sell locally.  A.E.E., our local partner, work using the Self-Help Approach.  Groups of men and women in the local communities join together, either working at making their way of living more sustainable e.g. producing crops they can sell, or increasing their knowledge of Saving and Loans systems.  We have been mainly working with groups of vulnerable women who are HIV positive in their self-generating income projects.  Some grow maize, bananas and other fruit and veg, others make clothes, jewellery and craft items from materials at hand e.g. banana fibres to make bracelets.  We have had the pleasure of meeting with some of these groups helping them make bracelets and with their farming.  This brings me to my next point…

Market shopping vs. Nakumatt.  

Jon, Kat, Tirion, Sadie and Angie all wearing their market purchases 
Buying these products from these cooperatives and from the markets, I know where the products have come from and I know the people who have made them, the ones who will also receive my money directly.  When my team and I go to the market and choose our favourite material and order new outfits, I know that know the individuals and we have built relationships with them.  Whereas Nakumatt, a Kenyan supermarket chain, who sell Kellogg’s and Nutella, knows that for the expat community it’s always nice to have a bit of home with you, it’s really just the same as me buying from a UK supermarket like Tesco, but just in a different location.  We face the same concern of not giving every provider the amount they deserve.  I can’t bring myself to buy bananas from this Nakumatt when I shake hands with a woman who slaves in the heat to pick bananas and will sell them to me and I know the money will go towards providing health insurance for her family.

But Rwanda faces the same issues as the UK with fair-trade and ethical buying; they may sell and buy locally and fairly but do the Rwandese buy fair-trade themselves?  Rwanda is a developing country and produces commodities like tea and coffee for the West, yet the only instant coffee they sell is nescafe, a product made by a company that has long been associated with being anything but fair-trade or ethical, to the degree that they don’t deserve a capital “N” in my blog!  In the U.K. we lobby and petition for change and it’s challenging when we see that those individuals who need that profit not supporting the system protecting them.  But I also meet the men and women who rely on, and receive, a fair price for their crops and I can see the power all that lobbying and campaigning can have.  The people we work with can see this too.  So, whatever your buying looks like, whether it’s buying nice shoes that will also provide shoes for children, or buying fairtrade bananas that provide health insurance for a family with malnutrition, stick with it!  The power you have is significant.  You might only be one person but you are always going to be one in an army of millions doing the same and together we are making a difference, one step at a time.


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