7 April, 2020

Clean hands for Fairtrade cashews

by Umano

At the end of the summer of 2019, a shocking report dealing with the production of cashews in India alarmed fans of this increasingly popular nut. Watched by millions of Internet users, the documentary produced by French journalists revealed the inhumane working conditions and the mistreatment suffered by workers in hulling centers.

A significant moment in the report was when the cameraman managed to secretly film the women exposing the palms of their hands burnt by the acid contained in the shells of the nuts. Caught in a trap of poverty and enslaved by greedy employers, these women lose their health and suffer for a living wage, all this to satisfy our indulgences and often our laudable desire to limit our consumption of animal protein.

Despite millions of views, and many outraged comments, two weeks later, almost everyone had forgotten about it. A few probably decided to boycott the product, while the majority quietly resumed snacking.

But at Umano, we haven't forgotten this news. Already pioneers in the importing of Fairtrade certified organic cashews to Canada; we mobilized our allies (and our loyal customers) and placed an even bigger order with our partners. Now, more of you can enjoy these cashews with peace of mind.

What is a Fairtrade cashew?

Like any Fairtrade certified product, Fairtrade cashews integrate social and environmental costs in the calculation of its price. Producers know they will sell at a price that will allow them to cover their costs and make a profit margin while offering decent wages and working conditions.

Umano's partner for cashews, the Kenedougou Agricultural Cooperative (Coopake) in Burkina Faso, is made up of producers of nuts and other fruits and local organic products. Together, they have access to a production center for hulling, drying, and packaging operations. People employed by the center work in safe conditions and are paid according to the legal standards of the country.

Also, Fairtrade certification requires that nut hullers coat their hands in vegetable oil to prevent burns caused by the acid in the nuts. It is this technique, combined with preheating followed by 24 hours of cooling the in-shell nuts, that ensures that the acid does not cause injuries.

According to the director of the cooperative, Mr. Konaté, all these precautions come at a cost: "At Coopake, we spend nearly $100 each week on the purchase of oil," he said. Most owners of the hulling plants prefer to keep this money in their pockets and save time and money by not waiting for the nuts to cool well before they are handled.

Also among the advantages of fair trade is a Fairtrade Premium of nearly $0.50 per kilo of nuts, which is paid into a fund for the development of projects carried out by the coop.

These may be small amounts, but at the end of the day, they make the difference between being a conventional or organic product and a Fairtrade product. In other words, it is the difference between the price illusion and the real price.

The long journey of cashew nuts

Practicing fair trade also means taking an interest in the product's production chain. Several journalistic sources, as well as collected testimonials by Umano, show that nuts may have traveled a very long journey before they get to us. When we think of the origin of a cashew nut, we do not spontaneously think of West Africa, but rather India, Southeast Asia or Brazil. However, it is mainly in West Africa (Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea, Ghana, Benin...) that we harvest these nuts.

But the weakness of infrastructures and businesses in this region means that the vast majority of nuts are sold raw, in their hull, to foreign traders. The suggested prices for these raw materials are ridiculous. For a Burkinabé cashew farmer, a few hundred dollars represents an amount of money that cannot be refused, even if it means exchanging a few dollar bills for months of work in the orchard or the field.

More than 90% of West African cashew nuts are shipped to India, Vietnam or Brazil. Once there, they will be hulled and processed, and mixed with local nuts to be sold in Europe or North America.

The product offered by Umano has traveled a shorter distance; rather than making a detour to another continent to be processed, our cashews only make one journey, directly from Burkina Faso to Quebec. We are thus supporting a rural and semi-urban community far removed from trade routes and the appetite of the agro-industry giants.

More than a product, a message of kindness

Fair trade is also, and perhaps above all, a state of mind. It is the idea that through a product, there is a feeling, an emotion, a part of an individual and a nation, which has traveled to the consumer.

In this case, it is the idea of ​​peace and kindness that circulates. Burkina Faso has for some time been grappling with serious problems of violence caused by armed groups who are spreading terror in several regions of the country. This is a problem with multiple geopolitical, ideological, criminal and ethnic sources that we will not dwell upon here. But all observers of this conflict agree that its magnitude is fueled by chronic poverty, isolation and the lack of opportunities experienced by a large segment of the population in these Sahelian regions.

On the scale of this humanitarian crisis, Umano's initiative is extremely modest, even symbolic. But we believe symbols are important.

It is a message that we are sending to the people of Burkina Faso: we have not forgotten you; we are with you. And a message that dozens of families in Kenedougou send us: we want prosperity and peace in Faso.

This is the essential role of a trader: that of a messenger between worlds, people, stories, and so much the better if these stories are sent through a small sweet yet crunchy nut in the shape of a comma.