Farm fresh at fair price

MARI MARCEL THEKAEKARA | Updated on February 02, 2012

“Poor women in the UK paid a fortune for their tea compared to our Gudalurprices.Why not send them our tea, we wondered.” - K.K. MUSTAFAH   -  Business Line

Why should growers and consumers suffer while companies profit? An organisation that aims to Just Change all that.

Have you ever wondered why farmers are committing suicide so often, yet your vegetable and food bills continue to spiral upwards constantly?

Over 25 years ago, ACCORD, an NGO working with adivasis in the Gudalur Valley below Ooty, began a tea planting programme to secure the adivasis' rapidly diminishing ancestral lands. Outsiders had come in from neighbouring regions and cheated them of their land. The combination crops of tea and pepper took most adivasis out of poverty. Malnutrition levels dropped. Children did not have to go to sleep hungry.

Then suddenly in the 1990s, tea prices crashed. All tea planters were devastated. For ACCORD, it was a lifetime's work going down the drain. Suddenly, realisation dawned that although tea leaf prices had hit rock bottom, tea prices remained high as ever at the Bangalore shops where we bought them. So the planters and consumers were suffering even as tea majors continued to pay dividends to shareholders, and their profit curve went up. Something was totally unfair here. How could we fight this unjust system?

We started Just Change, about a decade ago, to fight for the rights of both poor farmers and consumers. If you think about it, every person is a consumer at some level, we have no choice. We have to buy food, clothes and basics. But do we have to pay unfairly big mark-ups on everything while poor farmers and producers continue to commit suicide?

Power to the producer

The idea for Just Change was conceived after a group of women weavers from Gandhigram visited the Gudalur adivasis. They brought with them saris they had woven. Beautiful Madurai cottons. The ACCORD team could not believe the women were selling the saris for just Rs 125 each. In Gudalur shops, the same saris cost Rs 250. Every single sari was snapped up. The weavers were delighted. When they sold their work to traders or shops in Madurai, they received only Rs 75. They'd just earned double. With the surplus cash, they bought tea from Gudalur at half the price it cost them in Madurai, and some of them took it back to sell to friends and family at a profit, but at less than the Madurai market price. The women couldn't believe the difference in their income from this one transaction. They were overjoyed. We discovered women, unemployed and living on welfare on a poverty-ridden housing estate, in Easterhouse outside Glasgow drinking enormous (by Indian standards) mugs of tea all day. They paid a fortune for their tea compared to our Gudalur prices. Why not send them our tea, we wondered. The idea kept growing.

Now, Gudalur tea is travelling to different parts of the UK, Germany, Orissa, Gujarat, and to women's groups in nearby Kerala. But this is not about Gudalur tea only. We are getting chillies and spices from Orissa and Madurai. We have met farmers from Karnataka, dalit groups in Gujarat, hill people from Uttarakhand. We hope to scale up pretty soon and make Just Change a household word.

Ethical investing and capital

While the organisation has been successful in connecting consumers and producers, a new dimension was introduced to us by Lord Joel Joffe (House of Lords, UK) a brilliant and successful businessman and philanthropist, who was thrown out of South Africa during apartheid when he was Nelson Mandela's lawyer. Lord Joffe said, “It's a brilliant concept, but you won't get very far unless you bring in ethical investors.” He put his money where his mouth was and funded Just Change UK for a year.

The idea of ethical investors was developed further by Stan Thekaekara, founder of Just Change, who floated the idea of Participative capital. When money is in the hands of poor people it flows out of their hands like water, to pay for essentials. But the minute it moves from the consumer, just one step up to the shopkeeper, it changes status and becomes capital, enabling her/him to increase business and make more money. Yet, all this money comes from poor people. Their participation in the economy brings them very minimal returns. An unfair system, which keeps them poor.

Within Just Change, the capital becomes participative. Everyone's contribution is recognised, not just investors'. The producers who grow the food as well as the consumers who buy it are all part of a new economic community. The Just Change Community. Profit for the sake of profit is not the motive. The contribution of producers and consumers to the economic process is considered as important as the money thrown into the pot by investors. All are equal partners.

Many little streams…

Recently, Just Change hosted a conference on “Participative capital” together with GIFT, a Hong Kong-based group that brought young business leaders to India to learn about Just Change. They met farmers, consumers and Just Change partners, and subsequently funded the conference to bring on board investors.

The event, which seemed like a pipe dream a decade ago, resonated with people who came and pledged time, support and money. Most moving was a women's cooperative from Nicaragua that pledged support and $100, a huge amount for poor farmers. Equally moving was a pledge from Unicorn, a co-op in Manchester that has sold JC tea for many years now. Friends and family pitched, and so did a number of “believers” who'd got the message from articles and news reports.

At the end of the evening most people left feeling it was possible. From an improbable idea, we might after all, Just Change the world.

Published on January 05, 2012

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