Ottawa-based worker co-operative La Siembra produces the Camino brand of delicious chocolate, sweet treats and baking products. They are currently celebrating their 20th anniversary and everyone here at Fairtrade Canada is looking forward to collaborating with them (and enjoying their products) for many years to come. We asked Mélanie Broguet, their product development and marketing manager, some questions about the history of the co-op and what fair trade means to them.
What inspired the launch of La Siembra?
The story began with three young entrepreneurial-minded friends who were passionate and dedicated to making a business that they could believe in and feel good about. They wanted to do something that would appeal and speak to the future generations as a way to promote a more ethical and sustainable way of doing business and consuming products: a model that could become the new norm. At that time, Fair Trade coffee was already available, but it wasn’t so much of a kid-friendly product. Hot chocolate and sweet products deemed the best way to do this…and no one else was doing it.
In 1999 they bought a small mixing machine and set it up in the basement of a church in Ottawa were they manually canned tins of hot chocolates and cocoa powders with the help of volunteers. The cocoa and the sugar were sourced on the fair trade principles, since there were no fair trade certified standards for cocoa and sugar at that time. Later, La Siembra worked with Fairtrade Canada (formerly Transfair Canada) to establish those standards. This was the launch of the first fair trade and organic hot chocolate and cocoa powder products in North America. The Cocoa Camino brand was born.
The founders deliberately chose to incorporate La Siembra as a worker co-operative as a way to identify with our producer partners, adopting the same model that they follow in their own producer co-operatives – one of democracy, participation and transparency. We are now celebrating our 20 years as 100% fair-traders and as an independent, democratically run Canadian organisation.
The principles of fair trade have always been a part of La Siembra. Why are these principles important to your organization?
The fair trade principles are at the core of our business’s mission and vision. We want to do right by the small-scale farmers who produce our food. We want to do right by the future generations. When the founders of La Siembra decided to embark on this journey, they imagined children and families in Canada connecting around a warm mug of fair trade hot chocolate. They imagined cocoa and sugar farmers in the global south earning enough money to stay on their land, to invest in their communities and to be able to live a life with dignity and opportunity. Building a socially responsible business that can inspire people to do good along the way is not easy but we do believe however that this is meaningful and worthy.
When one knows that more than half of the world’s poorest people (2 billion people) live on small farms in rural areas of the Global South, earning less than two dollars a day, that worldwide 152 million children are still in child labour, and of these 70 percent are working in agriculture, and that farmers in the global south are already experiencing the negative impacts of climate change, we wonder how it is possible for companies to continue conducting business as usual?! Our economies are not sustainable, nor respectful of anyone: the farmers, the workers, the people and our planet. We don’t claim to have the perfect business model that will solve all the world’s issues, but the collective “we” owe ourselves and the future generations to do better. The time of measuring impact solely in terms of financial success is over. We must think holistically to ensure that our actions impact the collective positively, and the fair trade principles are a good starting point for anyone who would like to be part of the solution.
Tell us more about the relationships you have developed with Producers over the years?
We work closely, and where possible, directly with our partner co-operatives of small scale family farmers to ensure transparency, respect, and fairness in the supply chain. To accomplish this, we visit them to learn more about their challenges and successes. Similarly, we invite representatives from our partner co-ops to Canada to learn more about the markets in which their products are sold, and to connect with Canadian consumers, activists, farmers and processors. On our producer trips we learn by immersing ourselves into producers’ everyday lives and communities. This is the best way to get to know them and to create personal connections. And knowing that they feel just as privileged to meet us as we are privileged to meet them is incredibly rewarding and motivating.
We import almost a 1000 MT of fair trade foods a year. The bulk of our purchases come from 5 countries: Peru, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Sri-Lanka, and Panama. In the case of our longest standing products, we have been sourcing from the same producer groups for more than 15 years. During this period, we have supported producer work in many ways including pre harvest financing, producer visits, market visits, and hurricane or climate change relief. For Manduvira, (sugar producer co-op in Paraguay) we were their first North American client and to this day represent 85 % of their North American Sales. Our long-term commitment to Manduvira, coupled with that of other Fair Trade Organizations has led them to the construction of their own sugar mill. It is through our direct trading relationships, collaborative business practices, and fair trade pricing and premiums that La Siembra continues to be a valued customer and partner to each of the producer co-operatives we work with.
As the first registered importer of Fairtrade Certified cocoa and sugar in NA, how have you seen Fairtrade Certification grow over the years?
Over the years we have seen the number of fair trade products grow in the market, beyond what most of us could have dreamed 20 years ago. This is a true testimony to our efforts, as we have pioneered the way in Canada, specifically for organic and fair trade offerings in the chocolate category. It is very encouraging to see that there is still a growing demand for more ethical products and that farmers are receiving more as a part of the transaction. In the fair trade model we value checks and balances as a way to ensure trust, traceability and fairness in our commercial activities. That’s the value of a third party certifier. While the Fairtrade mark found on our products is still the most recognized certification seal in Canada, there are more and more certifications available to choose from with their own set of auditing standards, in addition to numerous ethical claims appearing on product packaging. This is definitely making it harder for the consumers to discern what authentic fair trade is, and what makes La Siembra different.
What does the future look like for La Siembra?
In a world of growing consolidation and corporate ownership over our food systems and our agricultural supply chain, our place as a 100% fair-trader is getting more and more difficult to defend. We are mission-driven organization, as such, small-scale producers and worker-democracy is at the center of our business model and as we work to forge long-term relationships based on solidarity and cooperation. It is the true embodiment of P6 – cooperation amongst coops. We are now feeling the need to fight against this corporate take-over of our mission and the commodification of our values. One-by-one we have watched as many of our peers be acquired, demutualized or simply disappear, leaving farmers and workers disadvantaged and invisible in the transaction. Marketing dollars and corporate shareholder models are driving innovation and competition on the shelves, while unfortunately fair trade values are in our opinion, mainstreaming and weakening in order to check off a box on the corporate social responsibility card.
We know this is confusing for consumers. We also know that without the strong and committed engagement of our supporters, this could have been us. To resist this mission-drift we chose a solidarity-based model and ally with other mission-driven organizations to keep fighting for the social and economic prosperity of our producer partners.
Even though corporations and large plantations still threaten the integrity of the fair trade movement, we are confident that we can count on the ongoing support of our partners and people alike, and that with our collective vision and voice, we will keep planting new seeds to bring consumer citizens and small-scale farmers together and defend these hard-won gains.
Image © Marco Garofalo