by Martine Parry, Media Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation
On Save a Banana Day, Martine Parry, Media Manager at the Fairtrade Foundation, documents a recent visit to banana producers and workers in Ghana, and tells us why valuing our bananas, and those who produce them, is more important than ever.
Maternity pay, sick benefits, overtime payments and the potential of owning a share of the company are not the terms and conditions most obviously associated with labouring on fruit farms in the scorching heat of West Africa.
But the Volta River Estate Ltd (VREL) Fairtrade banana plantation in the south east of Ghana is no ordinary place of work.
It was here where the UK’s first Fairtrade bananas were grown – and from where the first African bananas were exported - and the workers here are delighted to be joining the celebrations to mark twenty years of the Fairtrade Foundation this year.
Bite into a banana carrying the FAIRTRADE Mark and you are tasting the fairness of fruit which has been farmed by workers being paid a fair wage, who aren’t using hazardous chemicals. The producers and workers here say the natural processes they use adds to the deliciousness of what they grow, as well as helping protect the land they love.
VREL has endured through devastating hurricanes and drought, surviving largely thanks to the hard work and commitment of its 500 strong workforce and by selling its bananas on Fairtrade terms. On top of this the workers benefit from the true empowerment which comes from being involved in decision-making and having their opinions heard within the organisation.
Juliet Arku-Mensah, who is the Health and Safety Officer as well as the Fairtrade Officer, explains the many ways in which both parts of her job help her care for and enhance life on the plantation.
‘Here Fairtrade is about empowering workers and empowering women too. They are able to come to me and tell me the difficulties they face at work. Through this the company is able to get information about what might need changing and then problems become easier to solve,’ explains Juliet. ‘They find it easy to talk to me because they know that before I was given this job I was an ordinary worker too.’
She explains how the workers vote to decide how the extra money which comes with Fairtrade – the Fairtrade Premium – will be spent. Some has been used for specially treated mosquito nets for the workers, their families and the local community, some on ensuring there is a clean water supply in the nearby villages. Health care is always a priority. A hospital block has been built and a health insurance premium has been paid for meaning all workers, spouses and their families are covered if they are ill.
Juliet adds: ‘I organise health tests for the workers including eye tests, and others for diabetes, hepatitis, breast cancer, typhoid, HIV and other conditions,’ she says describing one of her many responsibilities. ‘It is important to catch any problems as early as possible.’
Someone else keen on the health benefits of Fairtrade is supervisor Mabel Matetsu, who’s 39 and a mother of two. ‘The Fairtrade premium is something that helps workers and takes care of them,’ she says. ‘If a worker falls ill you can help them. We are able to help with sending people to hospital.’
Another empowering step forward for women at VREL is the extra income they are able to make through soap-making, batik and tie dye. They sell the yellow, oval soap bars and beautifully decorated batik cloth. The women have been given free training and a loan to start up these businesses.
Fatimah Briamah, who’s 45 with three grown up sons, has worked at VREL for 23 years. She is a field worker who advises women on setting up these projects. She says: ‘I enjoy my work because I am learning new skills and helping others with training. Fairtrade helped me put my second son through secondary school but I do struggle to manage on my small salary. We hope that through Fairtrade things will continue to improve for our communities. We work hard to produce good bananas so people in the UK will keep supporting us.’
The bananas are produced using a minimal amount of agrochemicals. The workers prefer using chicken manure and their own home-made compost. One ingredient is weeds chopped down from the banks of the Volta River. This helps them protect themselves and their families from malaria as the rushes, when left to grow on the riverside, encourage mosquitoes. Some of the bananas are also organic.
The importance of Fairtrade
Gariba Musa has worked at VREL for 20 years, starting in the nursery area where new banana plants are developed. He is now a security guard and the representative of the Ghanaian Agricultural Workers Union which represents all workers.
He says ‘Belonging to the union is very important for VREL workers. You have to unite so that if you have a problem you can present a united voice and negotiate. For five years I worked at a non Fairtrade company and I can feel the difference. Here you cannot be fired without being heard and that gives us a great feeling of comfort and security.
'Fairtrade is very important for us as workers at VREL,’ he adds. ‘With Fairtrade we have achieved a great deal, especially through the premium. It helps us send our children to secondary school and we have scholarships for secondary education and university. My eldest daughter, who is 20, has just completed secondary school and I am very proud of her. Secondary education is very, very expensive here. You have to give about two or three months pay before they start and then you have to pay more every term. That’s why the scholarships and other help which comes with Fairtrade means so much to families here.’
Before one of the local schools was part funded by the premium, some of the children were having their lessons under palm canopies which leaked when it rained. Now there is a new building, a computer lab and a headteacher’s office. A transformation.
Gariba is in no doubt what he thinks consumers in the UK should buy when they go shopping. ‘Choose Fairtrade bananas,’ he says with a smile. ‘If they do, it helps the people who produce the bananas. The workers will benefit and their children’s lives will be better along with their local community. The bananas also taste good because they are grown under fair conditions without harmful chemicals.
‘So there’s no question - buy Fairtrade bananas!’
Today is Save A Banana Day – did you know in the UK alone we throw away 1.4 million bananas every day? You can join in the discussion, stock up on banana recipes or add your own on The Guardian’s Live Better pages here
Want to test your banana knowledge? Take our banana quiz here
You can sign our petition to help Make Bananas Fair here