St Paul's Institute

Taking a Shared Interest in Fairtrade

by Sally Reith

Posted: 02 Mar 2011

What replaces poverty? This, the title of the recent Ecumenical World Development Conference, rather unsurprisingly, generated more questions than it did answers. Discussions abounded around what poverty is, how we measure it and who we are to tell them that they are poor or in poverty. Despite these challenges to understanding poverty, one message is clear, 'the poor' are not simply impassive actors on whom 'poverty' plays out but agents for change. The ability and drive of people to come together and transform their own lives and those around them is something we should respect.

This idea of helping people help themselves, empowerment, lies at the heart of the fair trade movement. As our support of fair trade may have become somewhat easier (some of you may be what John Bell of the Iona Community refers to as Survivors of Campaign Coffee, ardent supporters who purchased fair trade coffee because it was the right thing to do, despite it tasting like dishwater) the impact it has in enabling, empowering and transforming the lives of producers and their communities has grown significantly around the world.

There are now well over 200 fair trade coffee products listed on the website of the Fairtrade Foundation, the fair trade licensing authority in the UK, and some of these are even winning awards for quality and taste. It's not just fair trade coffee which has grown the whole movement has developed considerably with 2010 seeing sales of fair trade products in the UK almost hit the £800 million mark and fair trade generating over £17 million in Fairtrade premium for the producers (Fairtrade Foundation Annual Report 2009/2010).

In 2011 Fairtrade Fortnight runs from 28 Feb to 13 March and people across the UK are making plans to 'Show off their label' with bunting, breakfasts and 'Big Brews'. But how much do you know about the people behind the label, these agents for change. Pauline Ntombura is one of those driven to empower those seeking the opportunity of change for themselves and their communities.

Pauline's story is one of "unique, adventurous and fulfilling struggle'". The story began when Pauline moved to Cambridge to join her husband who was attending the University. As a thank you to those that had helped her husband settle into university life she took with her some soapstone carvings.

After dropping her children off at nursery each day, she would wander the narrow streets of Cambridge, looking in the small boutiques and craft shops. One shop in particular caught her eye and she wandered in with some of her Kenyan handicrafts.

The shop owner was overwhelmed by what he saw. The items of soapstone from Kisii were exactly the type of product he'd been looking for over the last few years. There and then he agreed to buy a stock of the handmade pieces and gave Pauline a cheque for £500 to start sourcing stone carvings in Kenya on his behalf. Pauline had no sales background, no experience of buying and no clue about producing soapstone. What she did have was a great love of the handmade products from her homeland and so she agreed to his offer on the spot.

Now living in Kenya again, Pauline is still selling to that same buyer as well as many others across the globe. Salom enterprises was officially established in February 1994 and now employs 72 staff and has diversified into the sale of sisal woven baskets and handcrafted jewellery, working with 12 groups of producers located in Kisii district, Eastern and the Coast provinces of Kenya as well as in various slums in Nairobi.

Salom has helped create steady employment for communities in rural and disadvantaged areas, providing a consistent source of income to almost 1500 families. They have also had a huge impact by contributing to several projects involving schools, water and health facilities. For instance, Nyabigena primary school in Kisii has benefitted from three extra classrooms thanks to Salom, and one of the producer groups based in Mathane in eastern Kenya now has their own well, which was made possible by Pauline and her team. Some of the women in the producer groups are living with HIV and, without the chance to earn a living offered by Salom, they would have minimal opportunities.

As Salom has grown so too has their capacity to transform the lives of those they work with. Through fair trade Pauline, and those she works with, are supporting themselves and each other to transform their situation:

"I did not know about fair trade then but due to my Christian background, I had the desire of wanting to make a difference in the communities among whom we lived and worked. Therefore, ethical business practices were fundamental to all that I did. To me this means fair wages, a safe place to work, respect, fair treatment and personal dignity as well as opportunity to grow as individuals."

With Salom's success and growth has come a need for finance to support this growth and, as a customer of Shared Interest, Salom now has access to a credit export facility which will help massively with new orders. Pauline told Shared Interest:

"Prior to getting this facility, we struggled a lot financially and meeting our orders was a real challenge. Now we are able to advance producers the cash for raw materials and are about to accept another order from our US customer, which would have been previously impossible."

To learn more about how you can support fair trade businesses like Salom by investing in Shared Interest visit Small investments from our UK members make a significant impact on the lives of those working their way out of poverty through Fairtrade.

About this author

Sally Reith is Engagement Officer for Shared Interest.

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The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.