By Jessica Jones-Hughes
Jessica Jones-Hughes is part of Oke USA Fruit Company, a fair trade fruit company importing bananas to the North American market. Oke USA is a part of Equal Exchange, a Fairtrade worker-owned, cooperative headquartered in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Equal Exchange distributes organic, gourmet coffee, tea, sugar, cocoa, and chocolate bars produced by farmer cooperatives in Latin America, Africa and Asia.
Equal Exchange has created big change since 1986. The co-founders looked around and saw a food system dominated by multinationals, plantations, monocultures, and unfair treatment of the very producers and workers who worked to grow our food. Despite this downstream reality, they chose to turn and walk upstream. They envisioned a food system that empowers farmers and consumers, supports small farmer co-ops, and uses sustainable farming methods. They started with fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua and didn’t look back.
Today, Equal Exchange continues to find new and powerful ways to build a better food system. Equal Exchange now partners with cooperatives of farmers who provide high-quality organic coffees, teas, chocolates, bananas and snacks from all over the world. One hundred percent of Equal Exchange products are fairly traded, benefiting 39 small farmer cooperatives in 19 countries. In keeping with its Fair Trade mission, Equal Exchange is a worker cooperative, owned and democratically controlled by its employees.
In 2005, Equal Exchange started working with bananas. If you think coffee has played a nefarious role in many of the countries where it’s grown, try taking a college course on Latin American history without reading about the harsh realities of the “Banana Republics.” Oke USA Fruit Company emerged with the goal of providing choice to consumers, allowing them to purchase sustainably grown, fairly traded bananas.
Oke USA is now 90 percent owned by Equal Exchange and 10 percent owned by Red Tomato (a non-profit regional distributor) and you can find the bananas branded with the Equal Exchange logo. Oke has the same mission as Equal Exchange, to change trade through long term relationships with small farmer cooperatives.
Bananas, however, present an entirely different challenge for farmers and consumers alike. They’re highly perishable commodity, with four weeks of travel time from farm to shelf, and consumers and stores typically want a cheap, perfectly ripened, and unscarred banana. That, alongside an extremely low margin for importers, makes bananas a very high risk commodity to import. The bananas arrive weekly from Oke’s three banana partners, with each cooperative made up of between 500-1000 small scale Peruvian and Ecuadorian farmers. And they’re sold in stores such as, Whole Foods and Stop and Shop, allowing consumers to feel good about the bananas they’re eating and giving a fair price to the farmers who grow them.
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