Our staff members will be visiting four different continents outside of North America this month to see and discuss our work. Fortunately, the world occasionally, and sometimes unexpectedly, also comes to us.
After last month’s industry/producer forum in our Oakland office with representatives from many producer organizations, importers, and coffee roasters present, we thought things would quiet down a bit. But this week, we had an unexpected last minute visit and ‘brownbag’ with the Vice President of Uganda, Dr. Gilbert Bukenya. Dr. Bukenya mentioned his interest in helping the development of Fair Trade coffee, tea and cocoa in his country during a lecture at the University of the Pacific, which led him to a visit to TransFair!
Dr. Bukenya has self-described ‘humble’ beginnings, which is to say he knows what it is like to pick coffee berries. He made a point of commenting on the many small farmer portraits hanging in our offices…there is an interesting solidarity in Fair Trade and helping small farmers that transcends national borders.
But the Vice President is first and foremost Ugandan, and focused our discussion on how to jumpstart the Ugandan economy – which stands at only $1,100 per capita GDP and is driven virtually entirely by agriculture. Dr. Bukenya wasn’t even sure how to approach our questions specifically about farmers in Uganda, since almost everyone farms at least a little.
He is relentlessly pursuing opportunities to lift up his country, and therefore the living conditions for its citizens. Uganda has traditionally been an exporter of raw materials, lacking the technology to capture more value in chain for finished products such as instant coffee (vs. coffee beans) and t-shirts (vs. raw cotton). He dares to ask why this is so, and encourages more production and investment in manufacturing inside of Uganda. We see this philosophy more and more in Fair Trade settings, from coffee roasting in Colombia and Brazil to rice being packaged and boxed in Thailand. Cooperatives don’t just bring critical mass in sales and supply, pooled investment leads to the ability to invest capital and capture the benefits of greater ‘value added’ production.
The Vice President also talked about regional markets in East Africa, and believes that by working together the economies in his region will all benefit. COMESA  in particular is a chance to foster cooperation and develop inter-African markets, and have the African economies help themselves.
Like almost all of the leaders I have met who are focusing on lifting populations out of poverty, he expects his constituents to do the work, and is enthusiastic about demonstrating that they are up for the challenge. All of us in the Fair Trade movement are simply part of his team.