By Monika Firl
In today’s cyber-sonic lifestyle, where one person’s contributions can get lost in a sea of products and information, co-operative business structures offer “people-centred” solutions.
Co-operatives are owned and run by, and for, their members. They are businesses driven by values and are motivated by more than just profits. While membership structures can include customers, employees, and other supporting organizations, different models share the primary principle that each member has an equal say in decision-making — and that all members earn a share in profits.
Prior to my work with CoopCoffees, while living in Central America and Mexico and working with small-scale farmer organizations, I learned about the countless obstacles these small-farmers face and the importance of their being united in well-organized and economically viable co-operatives.
In the case of coffee
An estimated 70 percent of the world’s total coffee production is cultivated by 10 million small-scale farmers, cultivating less than 10 hectares of land in 80 coffee-producing countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The vast majority of them lack access to clean water, basic education, decent housing, and all too often, adequate food on the table. To add to the mix, most coffee-producing countries have economic policies that favour large-scale production and traders. This leaves small-scale farmers struggling for market share on a very uneven playing field, left to compete in the market without access to adequate credit, inputs, or technology.
Meanwhile, small-scale farmers form the backbone of the coffee industry. Yet the industry does little to support these farmers and their organizations. Even for us who support Fair Trade, it’s all too easy to talk about “changing the world one cup at a time,” but we must remind ourselves that purchasing coffee at fair prices is only the first step on a very long road. The transformative work has only just begun in farmer communities, and the possibility for that work to continue depends on our collective capacity to support locally based co-operatives — both in producer countries and at home.
In Canada, four of every 10 Canadians belong to at least one co-operative. Meanwhile, according to the International Co-operative Alliance, worldwide memberships in 98 registered countries represent close to one billion members working together to create sustainable solutions!
Notes on the author
Monika Firl is Cooperative Coffee’s Producer Relations and Communications Manager. She has worked with a variety of development projects while living in Central America and Mexico from 1991 to 2000.
Notes on Coop Coffees
CoopCoffees is a Fair Trade and organic, green-coffee importing co-operative owned by 23 independent, Fair Trade, and organic coffee roasters in Canada and the USA. One of its golden rules has been to source coffee exclusively from cooperatively organized farmers. The co-operative has created strong and reliable business relationships and many delightful friendships since its founding some 12 years ago.
Notes on Co-operatives
As valuable organizational structures in Fair Trade, co-operatives share these seven basic internationally agreed upon principles:
- voluntary and open membership
- democratic control of decision-making by members
- equitable financial contribution to cooperative capital funds
- autonomy and fiscal independence
- offering on-going education, training, and information to members
- co-operation among co-operatives to strengthen the international movement
- concern for community