Moving beyond Fair Trade

Moving beyond Fair Trade to empower coffee farmers with education

Equator goes beyond fair trade principles to serve the best organic coffee to customers and empower the children of coffee farmers in Latin America through education – the original intent of the fair trade movement.

By Sarah Kerr, Executive Director of SchoolBOX

June 10, 2014 – TORONTO – Equator Coffee Roasters is not your average coffee shop. Based in the ‘friendly town’ of Almonte, Ontario, just west of Ottawa, this coffee roaster has committed to realize their dreams of making the world a better place with every cup of coffee they sell. This social enterprise was founded by Craig and Amber Hall in 1998 with the purpose of improving the lives of coffee farmers in the global south. Newly married and eager to make their mark, Craig, a graduate in international development and Amber, a high school teacher, decided to launch a social business – an organic coffee roaster with fair trade organic principles.

“I just spent my undergrad learning about the horrific conditions and exploitation that coffee farmers were experiencing and I wanted to make a difference,” says founder and President Craig Hall. “While friends of mine had gone off to work on large scale development projects with CIDA or other large non-profits, I believed that I could have a greater impact by creating opportunities using market principles of supply and demand. The premise was that customers would pay a premium for high quality specialty coffees that were farmed using sustainable, organic practices and social justice principles of paying fair wages to farmers. That money would then help those farmers break the cycle of poverty.” Obviously this model has resonated with consumers since the concept of ‘fair trade’ has exploded on North American markets since the 1990s.

Despite the explosion of this new movement that sparked hope for social and economic justice for farmers, Craig and Amber soon become disillusioned with the fair trade movement as big business began to co-opt the ‘trend’. Amber Hall, Equator co-founder, explains, “Fair trade lost much of its value when large multinationals began to pressure certification programs like TransFair to reduce the minimum standards. It felt like we were no longer on the same team. We truly wanted to empower the coffee farmers we were working with, whereas these large companies simply wanted to capitalize on the increased profit margins they could gain by getting a ‘fairtrade’ logo on their bag”.

That is why, in 2011, Equator Coffee Roasters removed the TransFair logo from their bag and began to give 10 cents of every pound of coffee sold to SchoolBOX, a registered charity working to ‘Make Education Possible’ in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere, a major producer country of some of the world’s best coffee, and a country where half of the children are not finishing primary school. “The impact that Equator Coffee Roasters has been able to have on coffee farmers and their families has been astronomical”, says SchoolBOX Executive Director, Sarah Kerr. “Equator can now measure their company’s impact, not merely based on company profit, but on the number of children they are now ‘Making Education Possible’ for each quarter. Currently Equator sponsors over 2,500 kids annually with school supplies through SchoolBOX, directly removing the barriers these kids face of getting into school or staying there through to the 6th grade!”

Equator still abides by fair trade, organic principles, purchasing all their coffee through Cooperative Coffees and tracking every bag of coffee to a small scale co-op. But they have gone beyond fair trade to empower the children of coffee farmers in Latin America with basic education with SchoolBOX. They have replaced the TransFair logo with SchoolBOX’s logo on their bags and in addition to their quarterly donations, they bring teams of staff and customers to visit the SchoolBOX projects and help build schools they are funding in Nicaragua.

In 2011, Craig and Amber visited San Antonio, an extremely remote community where members of one of their coffee cooperatives, PROCOCER, live and work. They quickly learned of the barriers to education that these families faced. The remoteness of the community made a local school a necessity, but the little ‘school’ they had was simply a dark, structurally unsound little shack with a dirt floor. Some of the students had to study outside under an awning or under the shade of a nearby tree. In partnership with SchoolBOX, Equator sponsored a new school for the community's children.

They returned to Nicaragua again in 2012 to inaugurate the new, well ventilated and structurally sound school. They celebrated with the children studying happily at their new desks, and saw the children taking advantage of their new library books and sanitary lavatory facilities. “Equator Coffee Roasters has made the community of San Antonio stronger for the future” says SchoolBOX’s Nicaraguan Director, Ronald Chavarria, “Not only does their company continue to buy coffee at fair prices from these families, but they support the education of the community’s children. This combination of economic sustainability and quality education will destroy the cycle of poverty that these families have faced for generations.”

Equator is taking the lead in sustainable development and they encourage other companies to do the same. "Our support for SchoolBOX has been very good for us as a business even beyond just the feel-good opportunity it provides for knowing that we're making a difference,” says Hall, “We have found that there are many individuals and companies who choose our product because they know that we actually live our commitment to social justice and we invite them to join us on our next trip!"

For more information on SchoolBOX, contact Sarah Kerr, Executive Director at 647-882-7484