Author Archives: rwlindsay

About rwlindsay

I live in León, Nicaragua, between volcanos and crocodile filled mangrove forests. I'm on the board of SosteNica, a socially responsible investment organization from the U.S. and working freelance to support organic and fair trade agriculture for both local and export markets. I'm happy to be part of a vibrant movement creating innovative ways of encouraging the implementation of methods of farming that are environmentally sustainable as well as profitable for small farmers. I think our society needs to change our value system to encourage sustainability and self-satisfaction in life over constant economic growth. Dancing, gardening, supporting local business and community, working with design, art, and handcrafts, and cooking with lots of local vegetables are a few other things I enjoy.

Part of the Problem or the Cure?

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Graph courtesy of OXFAM

OXFAM recently published a report looking at the 10 biggest food and beverage companies climate practices called “Standing on the Sidelines”. The data collected from these ten companies reveal a threatening cycle of emissions and environmental damage – that while agricultural yields and prices are drastically affected by volatile climate crises, they are at the same time contributing to greenhouse gas emissions that create the volatile climate. This report shows that our food systems are ultimately flawed if they don’t take future production sustainability seriously and responsibly. Creating markets and incentives for sustainable food production is more important than ever to ensure that our food production is part of the problem rather than the solution. Ethical businesses that put sustainable values into practice like the cooperative-owned import company Ético, and the hundreds of companies that purchase from farmer cooperatives that practice reforestation, carbon sequestration, and soil conservation are actively working to reduce that blue slice above that represents industrial agricultural production emissions from the biggest ten food and beverage companies in the world. Studies such as the Rodale Institute’s paper on Regenerative Agriculture show there are concrete actions that farmers can take to reverse the negative impact of food production. What else can we do to build and support the supply chains that value regenerative farming practices to make them the leading examples in the food and beverage industries?

Holistic health for community development

This year Social Business Network and the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Coop are excited to announce two scholarships for high school graduates from Achuapa, Nicaragua to attend the National Institute for Higher Learning in Oriental Medicine (IESMO). The Japanese-funded University offers an accredited five-year program in acupuncture and shiatsu massage. For decades the farmers Cooperative has supported a small acupuncture clinic to provide alternative healthcare options to residents, and seven years ago offered the first scholarships to two young women from rural communities to study in the capital. One of them has returned to Achuapa as a licensed Doctor of Oriental Medicine, where she has worked with the cooperative to expand the clinic and stock an herbal pharmacy. This year she also taught an introductory course in herbal medicine to a group of women in the Recognition of the Unpaid Work of Women Initiative.

Along with the expansion of the clinic in Achuapa and the decision to offer another round of scholarships, awareness of holistic alternatives to mainstream medicine is gathering support in Nicaragua. As private reiki, massage, and acupuncture clinics spring up in every major city, the Ministry of Health trialled the inclusion of one natural medicine practitioner at public clinics in Managua. The new program has received strong positive feedback, with many residents choosing to use massage or acupuncture as a treatment on the public health system. The Ministry of Health recently announced a plan to open a position for a natural medicine practitioner at clinics in four other cities in Nicaragua, creating even more job opportunities for graduates of IESMO. The farmers coop in Achuapa realizes that this growing demand for alternative health care doesn’t only provide the opportunity for them to support young people on a career path in natural medicine, but also opens up a new local market for farmers to grow and process herbs for natural remedies.

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Diosmara Rayos, first year student in front of a plaque of Japanese partners at the Institute for Higher Learning in Oriental Medicine, Managua, Nicaragua.

The first recipient of this scholarship is Diosmara Rayos, 19. Diosmara is a bright young woman who has shown her dedication to studies for many years: without an available high-school near her rural community, she left home at 14 to attend the high-school in Achuapa, where she graduated at the top of her class and then studied English for two years at a community college in Esteli before hearing about the scholarship for Oriental Medicine. She comes from the small community of La Arinconada in Achuapa, a land cooperative formed during the Agricultural Reformation in the 1980’s. She became familiar with oriental medicine when her mother began treatment for a life-threatening illness at IESMO, where she was treated by Japanese doctors for over nine years. Diosmara says she was inspired by her mother’s experience to study acupuncture and massage. We are very proud of her decision and thrilled that at the end of her first semester she is among the top students in her class!

The Wide World of Women in Agriculture

Women’s empowerment, gender equality, climate change, sustainable agriculture, and the future of our food systems are topics that deserve the increasing academic and media attention they are increasingly receiving.  For academics, ethical business entrepreneurs and development professionals this means a constant growth of new resources to track impact and share political, economic, and educational strategies that bring together our common goals.  A new collaboration between “Feed the Future,” the US Government’s Global Hunger and Food Security Initiative, USAID, the International Food Policy Research Institute, and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative has announced a new index that will add to the resources publicly available.

The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) claims to track women’s engagement in agriculture in five areas, including relative empowerment to men in their households and communities:

  • Production
  • Resources
  • Income
  • Leadership
  • Time Use

The case studies for the base-line survey work for the index were conducted in Bangladesh, Guatemala and Uganda, and the brochure claims that 19 countries will initially be included in the index. Although it is great to see resources directed toward understanding and improving the role of Women in Agriculture by these development organizations, this is by no means a strictly developing world issue. As organizations such as the Women’s Food and Agriculture Network in the US and the Women’s Food and Farming Union in the UK demonstrate, women have been and remain a vital force in the success of food production around the world, and deserve recognition and equal resources for their work. The increasing attention on the role of women in agriculture will hopefully expand to include a look at the empowerment struggles of women world-wide as stewards of the land and essential contributors to the future of our food.

Creative Supply Chain Transparency

Social Business Network and Ético bring actors together from every link of the supply chain to build mutual understanding and drive innovation and social change. An integral aspect of this work is good communication, often involving translation, deep levels of cultural understanding, and use of clear images. A high dose of creativity helps of course! Here is a beautiful example of how Social Business Network partner Thanksgiving Coffee uses imagery to educate their consumers about the many production stages in their coffee supply chain:

Coffee: from farm to cup – poster designed by Sven Sandberg Studio

Coffee: from farm to cup – poster designed by Sven Sandberg Studio. Click the image to read Thanksgiving’s blog post about this project!

 

Roots in Revolution

Make sure to check out the Spring 2014 issue of the Fair World Project’s publication For a Better World.  It features an article by Social Business Network director Nick Hoskyns on the Roots of Revolution, and photos of the fantastic ladies of Wikilí, Achuapa and one of the first cupping labs build in the hands of coffee producers.  You can also read the article online, spread the word – the revolution for a better world continues!

Cooperative Africa

In January Social Business Network’s director Nick Hoskyns traveled to Uganda and Rwanda with the Thanksgiving Coffee Company to visit several coffee cooperatives.

Nick brought his expertise in cooperative development to help deepen the relationships between the coffee growers, cooperatives, and buyers and resolve some transparency issues. He reflects afterward on the relevancy of his years of experience in Latin America in other continent, showing the universalism of cooperative business model.  “Uganda and Rwanda are beautiful and fascinating in their own ways with a lot of potential and really wonderful people.”

You can read more extensively about the trip on Thanksgiving Coffee’s blog.

Moving Upstream: Why Farmers Need to Gain Control over their Inputs

This post is adapted from the blog of Social Business Network’s Communication and Sustainability Director, Rachel Lindsay.  The original post can be seen at Sustainable Farming in Nicaragua.

The ground is fertile for new sustainable agricultural markets, pun intended.  Not only is there  growing consumer awareness and expanding markets for organic and sustainably grown products, but a recent estimate places a $4.5 billion value on the “green agricultural technologies” market over the next decade, including improvements in available biopesticides and organic non-petroleum based fertilizers.  Which is great, except that with harsher climate extremes and increasing intensity of pests and diseases, it is unclear whether this investment will result in increased production yields or simply be necessary to maintain the current level of production.  And of course, this doesn’t mean $4.5 billion for farmers – unless farmers come together to invest in the development and creation of their own amendments.  The infrastructure within the agricultural cooperative movement should give farmer cooperatives an advantage in centrally producing economical and ecological inputs for their member farmers, retaining some of the value of this growing industry in the hands of small farmers.   Since it is in the best interest of farmers to have ownership over the quality and source of available amendments, supply chains should come together to create policy and promote business models that give farmers a stake in the upstream agricultural supply markets.

UNCTADThe recent United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Trade and Environment Review 2013 is entitled “Wake Up Before It Is Too Late” and stresses the need for transformations in our food systems that strengthen farmers’ ability to employ ecological practices that increase the stability and health of agriculture and the environment.  The report, compiled by over 60 experts in the field, lists as one of its key points the need to recognize farmers as more than just producers.  Farmers are managers of agro-ecosystems that impact public goods and services including water, soil, land use, energy, biodiversity and recreation.  When we recognize them as managers with influence in several areas of long-term impact, the resources that we make available to them and the role they play in trade relationships and business takes on greater importance.  In one section entitled “Democratizing the Role of Agriculture to Meet the Needs of the 21st Century,” the report outlines the effects of the consolidation of corporate interests in agriculture – from monopolization of upstream markets including seeds, pesticides and fertilizers, to lobbying and influencing trade and farm policies that protect corporate interests and rights over the rights of farmers.  Although as stewards of the land farmers have the potential to greatly impact carbon sequestration, erosion, local food systems and energy production, the consolidation of corporate interests effectively prioritize profit margins on fertilizers, seeds, and retail over supporting good farm management and profitability.  As the graph below from the Canadian Department of Agriculture shows, the price of fertilizers is directly linked to the rising cost of fuel, diminishing profit margins for farmers.

From 1999 the gap between the cost of fuel and cost of crops on the market has widened at an increasing rate, reducing profitability margins for farmers.

From 1999 the gap between the cost of fuel and cost of crops on the market has widened at an increasing rate, reducing profitability margins for farmers.

The UNCTAD report suggests a variety of concrete actions that should be relevant especially within fair trade and alternative supply chains.  There are examples of farmer groups who have made investments in the production of fertilizers and seeds.  I have previously written about SOPPEXCCA’s fertilizer plant as a model coffee cooperative’s initiative to take into their own hands the lack of effective organic certified fertilizers on the market.  Because the farmers themselves have a stake in the fertilizer production, the quality of the finished product, and the profitability of the coffee production, the investment includes annual tests and improvements in the composition of the fertilizer they make, effectively lowering the cost of the fertilizer for farmers rather than raising it.  The Juan Francisco Paz Silva  (JFPS) cooperative produces bio-fertilizers inoculated with mycorrhiza and beneficial micro-organisms for their member farmers and maintains a demonstration plot to continually test and experiment with improved formulas.

A range of fertilizers produced by the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, Nicaragua

A range of fertilizers produced by the Juan Francisco Paz Silva Cooperative in Achuapa, Nicaragua

Other examples of farmer groups taking a pro-active stance to protect available cost-effective quality inputs for farmers that are not controlled by  are seed savers groups and seed banks.  The difference between farmer-driven and corporate-driven amendments is simple – farmers have a vested interest in the effectiveness and quality of the product, as well as in their affordability and long-term ecological impact.  Corporations only have a vested interest in the first. As the examples of SOPPEXCCA and JFPS show, farmer cooperatives have the infrastructure to produce and monitor amendments.  In both case however, additional support would allow them to scale up their production and explore new formulas to continually improve the quality and availability of these products.  Actors within supply chains should come together to invest in the local development and production of upstream agricultural inputs.  To ensure the sustainable futures of our supply chains, we should heed the advice of UCTAD and support farmer groups in gaining ownership over their sources of inputs like fertilizers, amendments, and seeds.

What other innovative farmer-initiated production models or policies are currently working to shift upstream market control, productivity and profitability into the hands of farmers?

Ético: An Alternative Trading Company

In this guest blog Social Business Network/Ético intern Nora Burkey applies the frameworks outlined in a classic text used in many business and development schools to form an analysis of Ético’s business model: 

In their newly revised book “Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership,” Lee Bolman and Terrence Deal maintain that people live their day-to-day lives as parts of many complex organizations, from schools to sports teams, from families to the working world, and more.  Cooperativization in Nicaragua is a very clear example of how people commit to organizations, and likewise Ético: The Ethical Trading Company provides another example of organization in the workplace, as it is a company 100 percent owned by organizations who work together.  As a very innovative company that at its core is promoting a fairer model for international trade, how can Ético show that managing so many organizations and interests is not only possible, it is better?

As the United States has ruled that corporations may be considered people, at least symbolically, perhaps it is not so strange to consider Bolman and Deal’s point that companies or organizations need ethics, or a soul, to survive.  They need a sense of identity.  Bolman and Deal write,

Many would scoff at the notion that organizations can have soul, but there is growing evidence that it is a critical element in long-run success.  A dictionary definition of soul uses terms such as “animating force,” “immaterial essence,” and “spiritual nature.”  For an organization, group, or family, soul can be viewed as a bedrock sense of identity, a deep confidence about who we are, what we care about, and what we deeply believe in….Growing evidence suggests that tapping a deeper level of human energy pays off (p. 396).

Quite possibly it is the very soul of Ético that makes it function so well.  Ethics, and giving voice to more people within an organization is not only moral, it is equally if not more efficient than power concentrated in the hands of one leader or one owner.

In their book, Bolman and Deal present four frames with which to look at and understand organizations.  Their purpose in doing so is to help organizations better manage themselves, as “modern mythology promises organizations will work splendidly if well managed,” (p. 8).  Although, they say, there exists book after book on how best to manage a company or organization, very few people understand the importance of joining solutions together and understanding organizations through many different lenses.  This is critical, as organizations are made up of individuals who all see differently.  Viewing Ético and the cooperatives they work with in light of the four frames outlined by Bolman and Deal gives a better sense of their function, mission, and effectiveness.

The structural frame emphasizes goals and roles for a unified strategy that produces output. The workplace can be viewed as a factory, whereby “the ethical imperative of the factory is excellence: ensuring work is done as well and as efficiently as possible to ensure high-quality output” (p. 400).  There are many examples of high-quality, unique and individual output in the work of the cooperatives and Ético.  The Body Shop (TBS) buys quality sesame oil from one of Ético’s shareholding cooperatives, Juan Francisco Paz Silva (JFPS).  When the price of sesame rose in 2008, The Body Shop and the JFPS Coop renegotiated what the new price was going to mean, and in doing so authored the unique “Recognition of the Unpaid Work of Women.”  As an additional example, cooperative members have created their own unique products, from sesame candy to hibiscus wine, all of it at a level of quality that both The Body Shop and small farming communities can be proud of.

In the human resources frame, the organization can be viewed as a family.  Bolman and Deal write,

Caring—one person’s compassion and concern for another—is both the purpose and the ethical glue that holds a family together….A caring family or community requires servant leaders who serve the best interests of its members and stakeholders.  This implies a profound and challenging responsibility for leaders to understand the needs and concerns of community members so as to serve the best interests of individuals and the community as a whole.  The gift of the servant leader is love” (p. 402).

Both authors acknowledge that it seems strange to talk about love in terms of organizations, but maintain that a successful leader of an organization is truly a servant, and serves out of self-less love for the family or organization.  The very structure of Ético relies on servant leadership.  Historically, The Body Shop had been buying from the JFPS Cooperative before Ético existed.  In fact, Ético was born when L’oreal bought The Body Shop to preserve the direct relationship between the JFPS Cooperative and the renowned cosmetics line.  What this demonstrates is that Ético was born out of service to the cooperative when the farmers needed a new type of leadership to be able to continue working with a large multinational company.

In the political frame, the workplace can be seen as a jungle where there is a constant battle and the routine seeking-out of self-interested gains.  “In a world of competing interests and scarce resources, we are continually compelled to make trade-offs.  We cannot give everyone everything they want, but we can honor a value of fairness in making decisions about who gets what” (p. 403).  Bolman and Deal maintain that leaders can ensure this type of justice in the workplace by putting power in the hands of employees.  “People with a voice in key decisions are far more likely to feel a sense of justice than those with no seat at the table” (p. 403).  In the cooperative model, members gets one vote no matter how much land or money they have, and no matter how much they supply to the cooperative.  By working with cooperatives, Ético ensures that it works with the most marginalized groups, the smallest of farmers, giving them as much as say as those better off, creating a sense of justice in being a cooperative member.

Finally, in the symbolic frame , “An organization, like a temple, can be seen as a sacred place, an expression of human aspirations, and monument to faith in human possibility.  A temple is gathering place for a community of people with shared traditions, values, and beliefs” (p. 405).  Above all, workers must feel that the organization is doing something worth doing, that there is some significance to their work.  As the founder of Ético has been with the cooperatives from the beginning, instrumental in their creation, Ético is an outgrowth of the existing family.  Together, that family has many traditions.  For example, each year the cooperatives and Ético share traditions, such as putting on an annual music festival, and so far these traditions have not been broken.  There is a very real sense of community, and based on conversations with cooperative members, there is the belief that the cooperatives, as well as Ético, are there to help.  The cooperatives believe in what they do and therefore members believe in them too.

Source: Bolman, L. G. & Deal, T. E. (2003).  Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership.  San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Nora Burkey is currently a candidate at SIT Graduate Institute for a Master’s in Sustainable Development.  She became involved with Social Business Network in August 2013 after connecting with Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, a trading partner of ÉTICO.  She currently lives in León, Nicaragua, and plans to continue working with Dean’s Beans and Social Business Network on development projects into 2014.

Coaxing a Phoenix to rise from the Ashes of La Roya

This year, in the face of the leaf rust blight that has devastated coffee farmers across Latin America and the added insult that the coffee price on the international market have taken a sharp dive over the past year, Social Business Network has joined forces with The Community Agroecology Network and a farmer’s cooperative outside of Matagalpa called the UCA San Ramon to try to turn the onslaught of this double disaster into a turn for the better.  

One of the small member cooperatives of the UCA has been hard hit by the leaf rust, losing up to 85% of their harvest this year.  A walk through the coffee parcelas reveals not only the damage of the fungus but also signs of underlying stress and neglect – vines cover the coffee trees in certain areas, and in others the forest floor is bare and eroding.  The farmers recount the difficulties they face – first among them, the rising cost of fertilizers and fungicides, and difficulties securing financing.  Then the increased intensity of the diseases, which mean even more financing needed to purchase larger amounts of fungicides, narrowing even farther their profitability margin.

Historically this community has grappled with “organic” farming.  After a bad experience with poor technical assistance and costly certifiers, mentioning the word to any of the coop members sets off a tirade of a million reasons why “organic farming” doesn’t work.  Lack of quality organic fertilizers on the market and strict certification standards that rely heavily on verifying what farmers are NOT doing (NOT applying any agrichemicals, NOT using any non-certified off-farm inputs, not even their neighbor’s cow manure) have left many farmers frustrated and with the impression that organic farming means doing nothing and leaving everything up to mother nature.

Our new collaboration has kicked off by organizing a series of workshops bringing together the coop members, a local succesful bio-dynamic coffee farmer, and an agronomist.  For two days, we transformed a local school into a laboratory complete with microscopes and a centrifuge.  Even though the farmers have had their soil tested before, the samples are sent away to a laboratory and no one learns how the tests work.  Using a type of soil test called chromatography which reveals mineral content but also the microbial life of the soil, farmers were able to perform the entire soil test in their own community.  The agronomist, after a straightforward presentation on several different types of beneficial and detrimental fungi that either attack coffee plants or contribute to the plant’s better absorption of nutrients, went with the farmers to gather soil samples from around their farms and then used the microscopes to identify and see the different physical structures of different fungi.  Demystifying the invisible biological world that impacts so directly farmer’s livelihoods will hopefully not only empower them in this moment of crisis by giving them a new understanding of part of the crisis, but also impact how they manage their land.  Although it is common knowledge that the leaf rust virus travels by spores through the air, seeing the millions of tiny round balls on each leaf (see the image header on this post) revealed clearly how this fungus has been able to cause such devestation in the region.  Examples of beneficial fungi that were found locally were isolated using the microscopes and then used to innoculate seeds in sterilized soil to reproduce them and use them in a fertilizer that can be elaborated on-farm, improving the coffee plants absorption of minerals and nutrients in the soil.

The local farmer leading the soil chromatography process was very clear that this was not a workshop to promote organic agriculture, it was a workshop to promote better agriculture.  His own farm has only suffered a 15% decrease in production due to the leaf rust, well below the 50% national average.  In any other year he might have been met with glazed looks and disinterest from this group of farmers.  But this year, when the management systems they use have failed to mitigate the impact of this blight, their interest was keen, everyone participated, and they requested another workshop to continue deepening their understanding of soil life and assistance in using beneficial fungi to innoculate the new coffee seeds they will be planting to replace the portion of their farms that have perished due to the leaf rust.  Studies have shown that in small farmer cooperatives where management of the coffee and soil is tended to more carefully, there is less presence of rust.  Revealing the direct relationship between management and soil biology cuts through the layer of faith in purchased inputs that disempowers producers.  With the right approach, the double crisis hitting small coffee farmers right now could be transformed into an opportunity to reinforce better management practices that will help protect farmers and their livelihoods over the long term.

Reclaiming Fair Trade – A Reflection

Presenting our first guest blog by Nora Burkey, who Social Business Network has the honor of hosting for her Master’s research in Sustainable Development: 

While fair trade enthusiasts are quickly dropping their affiliations with certifying bodies, explaining it is because they are still committed to original standards whereas new members are not, the confused reader, inundated with information about poor farmers just getting poorer—fair trade or not—might wonder why fair trade ought to be defended at all.  Remember that income accounting does not create the whole picture.  Fair trade has contributed to increased access to credit at lower interest rates, more childhood education, a greater degree of food-security, and more.  Fair trade premiums to cooperatives also benefit farming communities as a whole, such as greater access to healthcare for the whole village.  But fair trade wasn’t just about poverty, it was about revolution, and its successes and failures ought to be looked at in that light.

Fair Trade offered the cooperative structure as a solution to privately-owned farms that have an unfair system of wage labor.  This allows farmers ownership of their land, not just their labor, and provides a democratically governed body to oversee social projects and communicate with buyers without being owned by them, leaving decision-making with the farmer.  So when large coffee plantations can become certified as fair trade, as Fair Trade USA recently decided to allow—breaking off from Fair Trade International in order to do so—what we have is a private system that has nothing to do with what fair trade ever meant to imply, and what fair trade ends up meaning is something like minimum wage with a social premium benefit.  And whereas before 20% of a product had to be fair trade to receive the label, now just a mere 10% is required by Fair Trade USA, so it’s not even minimum wage for all.

Under current standards, to sell fair-trade certified products, only 5% of a company’s sales must be fair trade, and there is no obligation to increase this percentage over time.  Nor are large producers required to slowly become more cooperative in structure by giving each farmer a vote and ownership over their own production.  The presence of large multinationals and large plantations at the table only limits a small farmer’s access to the market and ensures the largest piece of the pie goes to the largest producer or buyer.

The most damaging of all is that the weakening of standards has forced the founders of fair trade out.  No longer do the truly committed want to be associated with the term they created, as to many consumers, it denotes something so tame the only impact it makes is a bad one.  It seems anyone can create their own label these days and certify it independently, allies and enemies alike.  Some have stricter standards and some have weaker, but if consumers are not educated, it is impossible to know which label is which.  And since fair trade depends on consumers rather than the state to ensure it continues to be a part of commerce—it only exists as long as people are willing to buy fair trade products—creating so many labels, and so much confusion, is a lot like playing with fire.

The struggle is whether to reclaim the name that has been co-opted or admit that it’s already been stolen.  In my own life I choose to reclaim it, because I believe it is important that people understand fair trade was and is not a failure, it can only be failed.  I choose not to be someone that fails it, to be someone who fails to support all that fair trade has done.  The commitment still feels pretty radical to me, in all senses of the word.

Nora Burkey is currently a candidate at SIT Graduate Institute for a Master’s in Sustainable Development.  She became involved with Social Business Network in August 2013 after connecting with Dean’s Beans Organic Coffee Company, a trading partner of ÉTICO.  She currently lives in León, Nicaragua, and plans to continue working with Dean’s Beans and Social Business Network on development projects into 2014.