The main purpose of our trip west was to meet with two fair trade farming cooperatives that have been participating in the Uganda Federation for Alternative Trade (UGAFAT). As part of our research for Assetmap, we wanted to know how these two groups use technology, how they access markets, how they form partnerships both within Uganda and abroad, and a host of other things.

The two groups we visited were called “Mubuku Vanilla Farmers Association” and “Mpanga Tea Farmers Cooperative.” Both are located outside of Fort Portal.

Mubuku Vanilla is comprised of over 1,000 farming families located in the Mubuku sub-county. 14 primary societies–or groups of farmers–come together to form the larger organization. Many of the farmers grow an array of different crops including banana (matoke), maize, cocoa and coffee, but all commit to harvesting at least some vanilla, which the organization then sells to a processor in the area called Ndali, which in turn sells the processed vanilla on the global market, both to conventional buyers and “fair trade buyers” (such as Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, we discovered) who pay a higher price.

During our visit to Mubuku we chatted for a little over an hour with the General Secretary (Israel) and Sales Manager (Andrew) of the organization. After the interview, Israel and Andrew took us on a tour of a few of their members’ farms to show us how vanilla grows. Although Mubuku is a young organization (2 years old) with modest resources (headquarters is a small one-room office with two wooden desks and a bookshelf), its clear these guys have their act together. On the day we came, Andrew was sorting through piles of material about how to get their farmers certified organic. The walls of the office are covered with organized charts, timelines, and plans written neatly on butcher-paper.

Mubuku’s key challenge, as is the case for most of the groups were meeting with, is the lack of a sufficient market for their product. Currently, Mubuku sells about a third of its total vanilla crop to Ndali, who is their only buyer at present. The rest lays fallow and basically goes to waste. The challenge of finding additional buyers isn’t helped by the fact that they have very little access to technologies that would help them connect to the outside world. Israel just recently started an email account, but has to travel about an hour to Fort Portal or Kasese Town to use the internet at unreliable and costly internet cafes. But, with their dedication, strong organizational skills, and unique product, it seems that Mubuku has a bright future–or so we hope.

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Mpanga Tea, in contrast to Mubuku, is a twenty-year old organization located on a large compound complete with its own tea processing plant. About 800 tea farmers contribute to the Mpanga cooperative. Mpanga has established customer relationships with large fair trade buyers, such as CafeDirect, in addition to doing regular business on the conventional market. And, as you might expect, access to internet is no problem for them! It was interesting to talk with Mpanga’s General Secretary Rogers and imagine what 20 more years of development might do for the Mubuku people. Rogers explained in detail how tea exporting works–a complicated auction system that, for African tea farmers, takes place in Mombasa, and is largely a relic of British colonial creation. Our meeting with Rogers was especially encouraging for the Assetmap project, because he spoke emphatically about how it was important for different groups around Uganda to share information and skills with one another for the purpose of national development. After the meeting, Rogers took us on a short walk into the beautiful tea fields where we also saw a clinic Mpanga has started for local farming families to sue, paid for by the “social premium” provided by CafeDirect as part of its commitment to fair trade.

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For me, these farm visits were particularly enjoyable for a few reasons.

For one, I’m am learning a ton about the world of ‘fair trade’. Up to now I had a surface level understanding of why it is important, but I left the details to the expert in the family–Lauren. But, walking vanilla and tea fields as Israel, Andrew, and Rogers explained the miniscule prices paid by transnational corporations, and the opportunity fair trade offers for achieving a sustainable livelihood as a farmer made it come alive for me.

Secondly, walking those fields turned on the part of me that longs to retire at 40 and spend the rest of my days tilling a few acres in the quiet company of a few good thoughts. I like to think farming is in my blood, even if I have been a city/suburb kid for my entire life.

Lastly, I gained some new confidence in the usefullness of our work with Assetmap. In virtually every instance, the groups we have visited with testify that the people who buy their products found them through informal, social means…person X knows person Y who knows about organization X that makes so-and-so product. By simply mapping out fair trade organizations and some basic information about them, and posting this information online in a dynamic searchable format I think we will have done a great deal to improve the ability of fair trade producers and consumers to connect with each other and advance the cause….or that’s the idea, at least.

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