“Mahmoud Issa had given up on olive farming as a means of livelihood and was risking it all to illegally cross the Palestine border into Israel to work at a factory in the city, leaving behind his family for months at a time to lessen the chance of being caught. During the occupation, Palestinian farmers like Issa have been isolated from all major cities, with no access to an export market. Instead, they often ended up selling their valuable olive oil for less than the cost of production to local traders who would conspire to wait to buy till months after harvest, when farmers were desperate to sell for whatever they could get in order to to finance the next crop of vegetables or grains.
In 2003, amid the most dangerous time of the occupation, Nasser Abufarha, who had grown up in Palestine, left the safety of Madison, Wisconsin, where he was pursuing his doctorate in international business and anthropology, to return to his war-torn homeland to research his dissertation. Seeing the farmers’ situation firsthand, he knew he had to do something to help. Back in the States, he was drinking a cup of fair trade coffee when the idea hit him—if fair trade could help coffee farmers, why not olive farmers?
In 2004, he took money he had saved running a Middle Eastern restaurant in Madison and returned to the West Bank to form the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA). Working his way through barricades and armed checkpoints, he visited village after village to meet with farmers to educate them on fair trade and organic principles, select village coordinators and negotiate a fair price for the oil. The same year, Abufarha founded the company Canaan Fair Trade and by 2005, he began exporting the olive oil to co-ops, churches and nonprofit organizations in the United States and Canada—doubling the farmers’ income per kilo in just one year.
It was during this same time that Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soaps, one of the first
organic personal care companies, set a goal to convert all its products to at least
95 percent certified fair trade. Searching the internet for suppliers, there was only one that came up—Canaan Fair Trade. It was not certified organic, or even certified fair trade at that point, but the two companies shared the same vision. To support the project’s fair trade, sustainable farming and peaceful co-existence efforts, Dr. Bronner’s paid for Canaan’s organic and fair trade certification and was one of the first major clients to buy its olive oil at a fair trade and organic premium.
The organic and fair trade certifications, along with the support from several other business partners and grants, helped Abufarha open the doors to a much bigger market, and today Canaan Fair Trade works with over 1,700 farmers and exports close to $6 million worth of olive oil a year—making it the largest exporter of olive oil in the West Bank. The company now offers over 20 products in over 16 countries—ranging from olive oil, jarred olives and sun-dried tomatoes to almonds and hand-rolled couscous, which just landed shelf space in Williams-Sonoma high-end kitchen stores throughout the United States.
Meanwhile, Dr. Bronner’s has gone on to help several other operations throughout the world gain fair trade and/or organic certification and has met its goal of having all of its major ingredients certified fair trade.
Going beyond providing a better economic situation for farmers, both Canaan Fair Trade and Dr. Bronner’s different, yet symbiotic, business models powerfully demonstrate that in working together toward a common good, businesses can create positive solutions to support peaceful, sustainable change in the world.
Developing Fair Trade Under Siege
When Abufarha first came to Palestine to set up PFTA in 2004, he started with eight
members. By the end of 2004, they had formed 12 cooperatives, with 220 farmers who were willing to adhere to the association’s standards. But this was no easy task. Drivers going from village to village would have to call ahead to find out where the army checkpoints were. There were times when Abufarha himself was forced at gunpoint to lie down on the ground while they searched the vehicle. Barricades blocked access to water sources. Oftentimes they would end up collecting oil at night because of roadblocks and search conditions. Anyone leaving a village to do anything was taking a risk. It was a far cry from his life in Wisconsin.
But the risk paid off. Today, farmers like Mahmoud Issa who were making around $6,000–7,000 a year working in factories have been able to return to their farms and are now making around $18,000 annually thanks to Canaan Fair Trade. In fact, Issa was recently appointed as PFTA’s president.
Throughout all of Palestine, word about PFTA’s work has also helped raise the overall market price for olive oil. “Establishing a fair trade program gave farmers a new language that enabled them to ask for a fair price,” says Abufarha. Before PFTA, even NGOs that had been buying some of the olive oil out of charity were not paying enough to cover the true cost of living, he notes, but adds that they have raised their prices to meet PFTA’s prices now.
Working together in the co-op has helped farmers cope with the occupation in ways that go beyond just a better income as well, says Abufarha. “Under these conditions, it’s difficult to have an open mind. There are many sources of conflict. This project allows these people to express their resistance to the occupation in a creative, peaceful way,” he points out. “This is not just an economic project, it’s a social and cultural project. It’s empowering for these people to see that their product is now reaching the world with their story.”
Certification—The Key to New Markets
While Abufarha had insisted on both fair trade and organic practices from the beginning, he didn’t have the third-party certifications that many major retailers and industrial clients demand today. Then he got the call from Dr. Bronner’s, and by 2006, he was working with the organic personal care company and Switzerland-based certifier IMO to certify to both Fair For Life and USDA Organic standards.
Because most olive farmers in Palestine didn’t use chemicals in the first place, they were able to cut down the three-year transition period, and others who needed more time to transition to organic were still able to sell their product as fair trade, helping balance some of the cost associated with transitioning.
Dr. Bronner’s agreed to purchase 60 metric tons (MT) of olive oil and over the years scaled up to 200 MT, making it still the largest buyer of Canaan’s olive oil today. In addition, the company has sponsored Canaan Fair Trade for grants from the Dutch government to provide funds for olive oil bottling machinery, several dozen 5,000-liter stainless steel oil storage tanks and an olive pickling line. These funds are also helping Canaan achieve ISO22000 food safety certification for its olive oil processing.
While there had been some success selling to nonprofits and smaller groups in the United States and Canada prior to gaining organic and fair trade certification, taking this step greatly improved Canaan Fair Trade’s marketability. In 2007, Canaan was now able to participate in BioFach, the world’s largest organic trade show—quite literally opening up a whole new world of opportunity. Co-op Denmark saw Canaan Fair Trade at the show and soon launched the brand in 15 stores—and by the end of 2011, Canaan Fair Trade will be in all 700 of the chain’s locations.
All of this together has dramatically changed the farmers’ economic situation; olive oil that used to be sold to local traders for 8 shekels per kilo in 2004 is now going for 20 shekels per kilo for fair trade and 22 shekels for organic fair trade, and the overall market price for olive oil in Palestine has risen to 16 shekels.
In 2008, Canaan also certified to the Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) standards, enabling them to work with other processors that seek this fair trade label.
In addition to organic and fair trade, another value add, says Abufarha, is the fact that the product is produced in Palestine. “People feel good knowing that they are helping support a cause that is meaningful.”
Organic: Phase Two
Having met the standards for organic certification, Abufarha says his focus is now on the next phase, or what he calls “real” organic farming. This phase includes researching and incorporating organic methods to increase soil fertility, combat disease, improve yields and enhance moisture retention. “We have had to teach our farmers that organic is not just about doing things the traditional way and certifying it,” he says. “It is about continually looking for creative, natural ways to increase yields and deal with other issues. Yes, increasing yield is important, but we want to refute the idea that conventional farming is the best way to do this.”
For example, because rainfall is scarce and access to water is very limited due to the occupation, one of PFTA’s top projects is looking at limestone as a way to keep water in the soil. Farm research has also shown that planting legumes may add a nutrient to the soil that helps combat a common fungus found in the region.
Empowering Palestinian Women
Another issue that was really important to Abufarha was to make sure that women were represented in the PFTA. All of the representatives in the farming co-ops were men, so in 2006, Abufarha started creating women’s co-ops and this year began working with the NGO World Vision to expand this effort. The women’s co-ops focus on producing items that are traditionally produced by women, such as sun-dried tomatoes, hand-rolled “maftoul” (Palestinian couscous) and spice mixes.
“One of the roles of the PFTA is community building and it is not healthy to do this without integrating women,” Abufarha says.
This year, the women’s co-op’s sun-dried organic maftoul made its way onto the shelves of all 400 Williams-Sonoma locations, where their story is likely to get great exposure.
Partnering for Continued Growth
As Canaan Fair Trade has grown, and continues to do so, a key factor will be reaching new markets with their brand, as well as continuing to build partnerships with businesses such as Dr. Bronner’s. There is talk about the organic personal care company expanding more into food by doing a private label olive oil line (they have just launched a food-grade coconut oil).
While sales are important of course, for Abufarha, success is measured most through the change in paradigm in Palestine farming communities.
“For the farmers, the biggest change we made in their lives is that they started seeing farming as a viable way of earning a living again. Farming is a skill they know well; it is deep in their heritage,” says Abufarha. “Making farming viable again is good for the whole community, it creates hope and this is what makes it meaningful to me.”
Kat Schuett is the editorial director of Organic Processing Magazine. You can reach her at [email protected].