Fairtrade, a global support organisation, is all about tackling the injustices of conventional trade, which traditionally discriminates against the most vulnerable.
In Namibia, a group of charcoal harvesters have joined the initiative and have left a good story to tell in their trails, as farmworkers continue to reap benefits through such collaboration.
The country’s charcoal industry has often been in the news for the alleged unfair treatment of charcoal employees, especially the harvesters who toil under extreme conditions. This situation has mainly changed for the better over the years, partly thanks to initiatives by the charcoal producers to prioritise the safety and health of the harvesters.
Ian Galloway, the Managing Director of Jumbo Charcoal, one of the companies in the charcoal industry that has subscribed to Fairtrade’s ideals, said the organisation aims to make sure that the primary producer is benefiting from the product that they make.
Jumbo Charcoal, with operations just outside Okahandja, is one of Namibia’s largest exporters of barbecue charcoal for many years. They export to the Mediterranean, Central Europe and the United Kingdom.
Cecile and Heiko Doll produce charcoal for Jumbo Charcoal. They have been Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified since they began their operations and have been Fairtrade certified since 2011.
Cecile and Heiko, together with their teams of harvesters, are considered nomadic charcoal producers, meaning they do not own the land they produce on. They either lease land or are hired by the farm owner to produce charcoal on their land.
Cecile Doll has been Fairtrade certified since 2011.
Benefits during Covid
As Galloway explains, “it is a prerequisite for Fairtrade that our farmers are FSC certified.” FSC is an independent, non-governmental organisation, established to promote the responsible management of the world’s forests.
According to Doll, “In 2011, Fairtrade approached us, since we were one of the oldest charcoal producers in Namibia. They came to the farm and they have a checklist you must comply with concerning policies and labour practices. There are certain conditions and rules that you must adhere to.”
Doll went on to explain that, “Fairtrade really helped us this year, especially with Covid-19 and the lockdowns, which came quite suddenly. We were on the farm and couldn’t load our charcoal because the factory was closed.
“The region was locked down and we had to get special permits to get rations to the workers, who couldn’t go home because of the lockdown and couldn’t sell their charcoal,” she said.
Galloway said Fairtrade assisted in providing charcoal harvesters with something in the pocket, as the outbreak of Covid-19 meant that many of them could not produce.
“During the lockdown, the farmers had many workers on the farms, and they weren’t really producing, so the committee gave money to keep the rations going. That was a really good project, it also helped make sure the workers didn’t have to build up too much debt.”
One of the workers only identified as Paulina - the woman in charge of the garden at Jumbo Charcoal, proudly shows us around her productive vegetable site, and added that “the workers will be eating fresh spinach today.”
The Workers’ Committee not only selects projects for themselves but have chosen to improve socio-economic conditions of those around them too. Galloway explains that a recent project included a roof and a waiting area was built at the local clinic for the workers.
This development was done with the elderly in this community in mind, who used to wait outside in the sun for their doctors’ appointments. Another recent project included fixing toilets at a local school in the town, whilst yet another included water points for the local community.
Doll too, has a list of benefits that they have been able to provide to their workers, thanks to their commitment to being a part of a global workers standards organisation.
“Our guys used to stay in tents. We used the premiums we got from Fairtrade for housing to improve their living conditions. We got 50 houses for the first project. It helped us a lot because now they have a permanent residence.
“They also have protection from insects and snakes or against the cold. These houses are also quite easy to move. We have a truck that we load them onto to move them to the next site,” she said.
Fairtrade standards have seemingly created an environment of empowerment for charcoal producers in Namibia, where farmers are able to effectively take care of their workers, especially in times of extraordinary circumstances.