Atia Sobhy SEKEM Fairtrade

Economy of Love: Interview on the Meaning of Fairtrade in Egypt and SEKEM

Nowadays, in most European supermarkets Fairtrade-products can be found in the shelves. But what exactly does Fairtrade mean? Which benefits do the farmers actually have? And how does Fairtrade in SEKEM look like? Atia Sobhy, Director of the Egyptian Farmers Development Association (FDA) and responsible for the cooperation with the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International e.V. (FLO) gives answers in an interview with the SEKEM News. Sobhy is also director of the Egyptian Bio-Dynamic Association (EBDA), which is among others responsible for consulting and training Biodynamic farmers in Egypt.

SEKEM News: By now, Fairtrade is a common term. But what exactly are the main differences between conventional and fair traded products?

Atia Sobhy: Fairtrade means that the farmers get a more stable price for their goods than it is paid for conventionally traded products. In addition, a Fairtrade-premium is paid for each product. This premium is set by the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International e.V. (FLO). SEKEM pays all farmers, who produce Organic or Biodynamic goods, 20 percent more compared to the common market price. This price is set before they start growing. If the price rises between planting and harvest, we adjust it upwards. If the price decreases the farmer still gets the amount that he previously agreed on. In case of exporting, the additional premium for Fairtrade-products is first transferred to the account of the FDA and then invested into social projects that aim to improve the living standards of the farmers and their families.

“Most of SEKEMs raw material fulfill the requirements for a Fairtrade-certification.”

SN: How is the proportion between fair compared to conventional traded products from Egypt?

A.S.:First of all, there is a list of products that can be produced under Fairtrade-conditions, such as cotton, oranges, bananas, coffee and cocoa. Only about one percent of the exported goods from Egypt are fair traded. The share of Fairtrade-certified products that have been distributed by SEKEM in 2015 reached 1.4 percent. Actually, most of SEKEMs raw materials fulfill the requirements for a Fairtrade-certification, but whether the product will be marked as Fairtrade or not remains the decision of the each distributors from Europe or America, who have to pay for the permission to print the label on the product.

Reliable Prices, Better Health and Training

SN: SEKEM is cooperating with more than 500 contracted farmers in whole Egypt, who are all applying Organic and Biodynamic methods. Which benefits do Egyptian farmers exactly have when they are working under Fairtrade conditions in Egypt?

A.S.: The stable prices enable farmers to plan much better. They have the security not to end up with empty hands or even debts. However, this is something that SEKEM is offering all its farmers, no matter whether they are producing Fairtrade goods or not. Additionally, a Fairtrade premium is paid on each product. With this premium projects get implemented, such as the construction of kindergartens or sanitary installations, but it also provides water filters or safety training. This helps to reduce health damages among the population.

SEKEM Contracted Farmers Workshop
Training for SEKEMs contracted farmers.

SN: If Fairtrade offers all these benefits, why do not all farmers sell their products to Fairtrade-companies?

A.S.: The pre-conditions for starting to cooperate with Fairtrade-companies are complicated, especially for farmers with small farms and little land. First, they have to team up and establish an association that can be officially registered. Besides, they have to open a bank account, which is another challenge for many of the illiterates among the farmers. Only then, they can register at FLO. Aside from that, there is not enough demand on the markets. Many international traders are not willing to pay higher prices for Fairtrade-products. There are so many obstacles on the way to Fairtrade-certified-production. But here again, the FDA try to support the farmers for example by offering literacy courses.

“There are so many obstacles on the way to Fairtrade-certified-production.”

SN: Fairtrade supports people and society. Are there also positive effects on the environment that are connected to Fairtrade?

A.S.: Definitely. There are certain standards that have to be applied when producing under Fairtrade-conditions. For example, it is forbidden to make use of chemicals or pesticides, which would harm the environment. The farmers learn to cultivate their land with biological and environmentally friendly methods to ensure sustainable agriculture. The Fairtrade-premiums are also used to support the agriculture by investing in research on environmentally friendly farming practices, purchasing machineries or training farmers, which helps them to cultivate there fields more efficiently. Our major objective is to promote awareness about sustainable agriculture and the foster the positive outcome of this among the farmers.

Atia Sobhy on the field
Atia Sobhy with SEKEM farmers on the field.

SN: To what extent are local conditions considered when it comes to Fairtrade? In Egypt for example, a careful use of water?

A.S.: There are specific conditions that have to be applied when cultivating food in Egypt. Let’s take for example rice, which needs a lot of water. It is only allowed to grow rice near the river Nile or in the Nile Delta but not in Upper Egypt as the land over there is very arid. Still, this is not connected to Fairtrade only, but needs to be fulfilled by all farmers in Egypt.

SN: Which meaning does Fairtrade have in regards to the societal development of a country?

A.S.: We are trying to improve the living standard of the farmers and their families. Hence, equal wages are paid for women and men, there is no child labor and religious freedom. Egypt has still a high illiteracy rate. Accordingly, it is almost impossible for some people to calculate the cost of their production. With the social premiums of the Fairtrade goods we offer illiteracy courses or establish kindergartens so that the parents are able to work, without forsaking their children.

Economy of Love

SN: How does the situation in SEKEM looks like? Do all companies of the SEKEM Holding fulfill the Fairtrade-criteria or only several products?

A.S.: Not all products of the SEKEM Holding are distributed as Fairtrade-products. However, we could certify almost all products with a Fairtrade-seal, but this is up to the traders, who import our goods as they decide whether or not they want to pay for the certification-label. Currently, especially herbs, spices, potatoes and peanuts are exported with a Fairtrade-seal.

SN: SEKEM calls fair trade “Economy of Love”. What is different to the common understanding of Fairtrade?

A.S.: With the term “Economy of Love” SEKEM expresses that it is not only interested in gaining the highest possible profit when cooperating with the farmers, but more about a social and respectful dealing with each other’s. Hence, farmers, consumers and SEKEM build a “community of fate” – if things are going bad for one, then they are going bad for everyone – and vice versa. Through this solidarity, SEKEM wants to create an associative economy that all parties in the value chain can benefit from. In general, SEKEMs “Economy of Love” equals to fair prices and that the farmers accordingly do not depend on market speculation or the companies’ greed for profit.

SEKEM Contracted Farmer on his field
Ahmed, one of SEKEMs contracted farmers in Fayoum.

SN: How often does a Fairtrade-certification needs to be renewed?

A.S.: The certification has to be renewed every year. For this, an employee of FLO visits the farms and monitors if the standards of Faitrade are fulfilled. He also verifies what happened with the premiums by checking whether or not the farmers really benefit from it and into which projects the benefits were invested.

“It doesn’t make sense as long as consumers continue to buy the cheaper conventional food and Fairtrade-products remain in the shelves.”

SN: Public argues every once in a while that the price difference between Fairtrade and conventional products are not always fully passed on to farmers. Why is this and how is this in regards to Fairtrade-products from Egypt?

A.S.: You can be sure, that farmers benefit from every single coin that we receive through the social premiums, for instance through social projects. There are 53 farms in the FDA that produce for SEKEM. If there are only certain products exported as Fairtrade-goods, which are not produced by all FDA-members, still all farmers benefit from the premiums. The premiums are distributed according to a pre-established plan, in which the needs of all FDA-farmers are considered. If we established ten sanitary facilities on farms in one year, ten more farms are equipped next year with toilets and showers, no matter whether they were certified Fairtrade or not.

SN: Could the trade still be developed more fair and if yes, where to start best?

A.S.: We always give our very best to support the farmers. But their conditions often still not match the living standards in the Western world. Of course, governments could help by determining that, for example, 10 percent of the imported goods have to be fair traded. But this doesn’t make sense, as long as consumers continue to buy the cheaper, conventional food and Fairtrade-products remain in the shelves. I think, many people in the Western world can´t even imagine in which poor circumstances the farmers and their families live here in Egypt or in similar countries. There need to be a global awareness about the fact that with the additional money, earned through Fairtrade-products people benefit and good things are implemented.

Interview: Nils Daun


More about SEKEM and Fairtrade
SEKEM contracted farmers about responsibility, opportunities and challenges of agriculture
The Egyptian Bio-Dynamic Association