Q&A with Kai Stark: How Fair Trade works in Sri Lanka

Fair wages, safe working conditions, access to education and healthcare, GMO-free crops — these are some of the important things you support when you buy products that are Fair Trade Certified. But beyond the seal and the premium price, how does Fair Trade actually work to make a difference in communities worldwide?

It’s all about building strong local organization among individual farmers.

For the past six years, Frontier purchasing manager Kai Stark has been involved in sourcing more than a dozen Fair Trade Certified (through Fair Trade USA) spices from growers in Sri Lanka through the farmer groups Small Organic Farmers Association (SOFA) and Marginalized Organic Producers Association (MOPA).

Fair Trade Sri Lanka

Kai (left) visiting an organic farm in Sri Lanka.

We recently talked with Kai about how these groups — and by extension, Fair Trade — make a difference for farmers in Sri Lanka.

You’ve visited this group of farmers, located in the central hills of Sri Lanka, multiple times over the past several years. What makes them unique?
The farmers that we work with are small landholders who farm one or two acres. Rather than growing spices in large-scale monocultures — plantations — these farmers are devoted to intercropping. This means that you’ll see many crops growing in just one or two acres, with the different crops supporting each other. You’ll see clove trees with pepper vines growing up their trunks, for example.

What is the connection between the organic farming associations and Fair Trade?
For certification, Fair Trade USA requires farmers to be organized into a self-governing body, so that workers have a voice and make decisions as a group. These organizations also come into play in terms of how the product is sold. Fair Trade sets a minimum purchase price, but the market price can go above that. Before, the farmer would go to a local village to sell his product, where he might be cheated by the middle man. Now farmers sell through their farmer organization and know the market rates. This gives them more bargaining power — which means they receive fairer pay for their crop. It also cuts out the middle man, so more money ends up directly with the farmers and they are less likely to be cheated out of fair payment by the middle men.

Beyond being a requirement for Fair Trade certification, how do SOFA and MOPA benefit the growers?
Knowledge can be disseminated within the group more easily. The farmers are organized into small blocks with local meetings and leadership. This network provides training, best practices for composting, etc., which in turn, help improve quality of the crop.

How are SOFA and MOPA involved in the social improvement projects that are a pillar of Fair Trade?
A portion of the premium paid for Fair Trade Certified products goes toward improving the community where the product was grown. These projects are coordinated through the local farmer associations, in this case SOFA and MOPA. The benefit of this is that these groups are in the best position to know what the needs are in their communities — whether it be a school, a well or something else.

See Frontier’s full selection of Fair Trade Certified products. To learn more about Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade Month, visit befair.org.

Kai StarkAbout the Author: A 12-year veteran in the organic industry, Kai Stark has been with Frontier since 2001.  When not overseas visiting farmers and suppliers, he spends his time in Fairfax, Iowa, with his family. He enjoys working on DIY projects and spending time outdoors with his wife of 10 years and boys, ages 5 and 7.

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