Spreading Wellness Through Tea

notebook.thumbThe words 'wellness' and 'tea' are often used in the same sentence and usually are followed by terms like antioxidants and flavanoids etc. As a tea-drinker, the feelings of well-being that tea bring me are immediately obvious but another understanding of wellness is surfacing in my awareness. This awareness is the wider effect of trading in tea...the promotion of wellness in the tea producing community.

I've had the privilege of meeting a number of tea growers in Assam who have chosen a different path in growing tea. They have rejected the chemical fertilizers and schedules of pesticide spraying most commonly followed on major tea estates. In many cases, their story stems from a shocking realization that the chemicals that are killing the pests are then spilling into their waterway and ultimately harming far more beings than they originally thought. The choice to go organic is an obvious step towards wellness for all who live, work and play near the gardens (never mind those of us who drink the tea leaves later on).

Then there is yet another layer to the story of wellness and this involves the labourer's who work in the tea gardens plucking leaves and rolling leaves to make tea. In the Direct Fair Trade arrangement we have with each garden, it is the labourers who take up the responsibility of determining how the Fair trade premiums are spent. This is no small task as premiums can add up to the equivalent of many month's wages. In the case of Dhiren's Garden, there are 12 labourers. Together they produced 800 kgs of tea for Level Ground resulting in a premium of about $1400 US. The premium is divided in half with part going to benefit the labourer personally and half going towards a community benefit. The personal projects are always the easy part and the labourers crowd around to announce their plans as we record the project in our ledger; piglets, bamboo building supplies, metal roofing, bicycles, school tuition etc. It's an exciting time. The challenge comes with the collective decision making with the larger community in mind. In Dhiren's garden, the group came up with 4 water filter projects; 3 to go to local schools and one to a temple. This is a new experience for most involved as their income is usually not in excess of their immediate family needs.

Better treatment of the environment, investing in communities and a cup of tea at the end of the line...wellness, widespread.

Letter from Philip Schluter

Every so often an article appears in the papers that criticizes the Fair Trade movement. In the wake of one of these discouraging articles, Philip Schluter who ships coffees out of Ethiopia, Tanzania and D.R. Congo for Level Ground offered these words of encouragement to us. We thought we'd share them with you as it explains the heart of our work. (Thanks Phil!)

Dear Hugo,

Recent articles flying around on the rights and wrongs of Fair Trade have had me thinking, and I thought that I would put pen to paper (or at least fingers to keyboard) and write a few words of encouragement to you and the team at Level Ground.

As I have stated several times, I think that Level Ground has the best model for sourcing coffee in a sustainable way that makes an impact that I have seen in the market. We deal with over 70 roaster around the world, and I have been in the business for 20 years now and seen many different buying systems - and I believe that your model is the best. Why?

  1. Continuity and Commitment. To see real change and development we need long term relationships and commitment. Many NGO projects do not work because they are funded only temporarily and often fall apart once the initiators leave. There are buyers who support a particular coffee during a season, but few who show such an active interest in a local community over the long term.
  2. Annual visits. Level Ground makes the effort to personal visit the smallholder coffee farmers in Africa who supply them, and you do this consistently year in and year out. You know the names of many of their farmers, and you visit them year on year. You get to know the, understand who their children are, and you can see first hand during your visits if coffee is improving their lives.
  3. You pay good prices. You are not a ‘price first’ buyer. The buying/roaster comment is dominated by people who buy primarily on price. You ensure that the prices you pay leave the farming communities with an income level which prospers them, and you add on top a ‘social premium’ which is added to the price. This is used to support projects, but also to support additional quality price premiums. Including this in the price teaches farmers that they can receive higher prices to better coffee. They can work harder, pay more careful attention to their processing and harvest, and be paid for it. They have some say in their own destinies, and are able to contribute to and determine their futures. As you do not follow the international market, they know that they will supported year by year. Whilst I believe that the Fair Trade certification movement has contributed positively over the years to the supply chain, the minimum price is never linked to quality, and thus can engender in the worst cases inefficiencies, and can teach producer groups that they do not need to work hard and take care of their processes and quality. It also ‘out-sources’ the verification of standards to a third party, which can never replace the direct relationships which are built through face to face contacts and annual visits.
  4. The regularity and long term partnership engenders a win-win situation. Farmers know that they will be supported for producing good coffee. At the same time, you ensure that the high prices you pay reach the farmer – both through your contract transparency and requirements, but also through the fact that there is no need to price in the risk factors inherent in not knowing who the final buyer is going to be each year. Having to hedge coffee on futures markets, ship it to destination countries without knowing who the buyer will ultimately be etc.. All have costs, and these ultimately benefit no-one. A Direct Fair Trade model takes these risks, and the costs of covering them out of the supply chain. You also get fresher coffee. Whilst I recognise that there are still delays in African coffee shipments (and we are thankful for your understanding and patience), the reality is that you get your coffee before most buyers, and thus get fresher coffee. As the farmers know who is buying their coffee before the season starts, they can organise themselves to process it, and export it as quickly as possible to maintain maximum freshness. Where each season requires that they look for a new buyer, they have to store the coffee whilst waiting to find one, and this can lead to delays in processing and shipments, which frequently leads to the coffee being shipped after its peak freshness is long past.
  5. You are transparent and open. You add value and tell a true story in a transparent and engaging way.

All these factors mean that the Level Ground buying relationships are far better than the generic Fair Trade ones. They involve real face to face relationships with the farmers who supply you, and a transparent business model which benefits them as much as it benefits you.I do not know the ins and outs of the flower business, and thus cannot comment in an informed fashion on the exactitude of the recent SOAS study, but I can say with confidence that if the world of coffee all moved to the Level Ground buying model, we would not need a Fair Trade label at all.


15 Years of Famicafé

bibiana.hugo.thumbEvery year, Level Ground invests a Direct Fair Trade Community Premium when we purchase coffee from Colombia. Since 1998, we have been investing this community premium in Famicafe. Famicafe has granted 1,184 academic scholarships to rural youth in Colombia plus investments in infrastructure development in rural mountain schools.

The 15th Anniversary report is available

Cacao Nibs of Colombia

cacao-facecacaoLevel Ground recently introduced Cacao Nibs to our family of products. Cacao Nibs are produced by Fruandes, a Fair Trade company in Colombia. We were excited to hear from Giovanni of Fruandes who just returned from visiting the Cacao producers in Urabá, Colombia. This group has an inspiring story since they operate in a tough conflict zone and they are managing to live in peace in a middle of the conflict.

Here is a
visual report of their findings.

Stacey on his way to the Philippines

cayatano-2014.thumbIt's been a couple of years since Stacey trekked over to the Philippines to visit coffee farmers.  In the mean time, we've begun working with the Southern Partners Fair Trade Producers Cooperative to purchase their Coconut Oil.  We've kept pretty quiet about the coconut oil because we can barely keep it in stock.  Cebu was seriously affected by Earthquake and flooding last year so these coconut farmers and processors have been working very hard to rebuild.

The coconut oil is first cold pressed, meaning the whole coconut meat is pressed without being heated (this can destroy some of the nutritional value).  It smells and tastes delicious and has made its way into our kitchens for baking, frying and into our soap making and skincare!  Stacey is excited to meet up with the team in Cebu and will see the press in action.


Colombia Trip Recap

hugo-patricia-jeep.thumbdonna-ttv.thumbPatricia Pearson, sales representative for our Ten Thousand Villages and Non-Profit / Fundraising accounts, just returned from Colombia, where she experienced many things for the first time—like riding on top of a jeep with Hugo, and picking coffee with Donna, a regional sales manager for Ten Thousand Villages USA.Read More »

Vanilla beans available!

vanilla-package.thumbWe are delighted to let you know that we now have Vanilla beans available on our webstore!

Each package has 10 grade A beans inside. The beans are grown by small-scale farmers in Uganda and cured in Uganda as well.

Purchase Vanilla Beans

If you've never used vanilla beans before, it's easy! Here are two methods:

A. Score a bean lengthwise with a knife and scoop out the tiny seeds (seeds = flavour) and add them to your recipes. Note: Seeds from one bean will provide flavour equal or greater than 1 teaspoon of high quality, double strength (two fold) extract.

B. Make your own extract - it's very easy!

1. Chop up 6-8 beans into a 250 ml glass jar
2. Fill the jar with vodka
3. Wait (at least) a few weeks, it's best to wait a few months
4. Strain off the bean fibers and you've got your very own vanilla extract

How it's made - Cane Sugar!

how.to.cane.sugar.thumbThis delicious cane sugar is processed in El Jabon, Huila, Colombia. One of the farms in the community runs the press and our friend, Luis demonstrated the process. On Hugo & Reg's last trip, they took some footage so you can see how it's done.

Click on the image to the right to watch the video.

Letter from Assam

dheren-phukan.thumbassam-tribune.thumbDear Carol/Laurei,

Greeting at the onset. Last year I wrote you after reading an article in The Assam Tribune and got a reply from your side. And today i found the garden you visited is actually located just 30KMs away from my father’s residence here in Assam, India. And yes today I met this great guy called Dheren Phukan from Assam, India and his organic tea garden. He spoke a lot about you guys too.

What Dheran has achieved here amidst many odds is just not easy. His entire garden is so so so healthy and complete pesticide free. Even the others big players like McLeod Russel India Ltd who owns thousands of hectares of gardens are heavily dependent on chemical pesticides and other chemical fertilizers like Urea and what not.

I so much appreciate the efforts of level ground to promote healthy product in your country and a great encouragement for organic tea produces of Assam.

Do stay in touch.

Dibyajyoti Kaushik

Can Fair Trade work with the Big Companies?

hugo-adam-flex.thumbIn 2006, we embarked on a trade arrangement in Tanzania with a small company called Lima, specifically in support of their H.O.P.E project in Ileje, a small community tucked in the southwest corner of the Mbeya province near the Zambian border. At the time, we were purchasing 2 containers/year which was about all they could produce. The Fair Trade premium went to healthcare benefits for the women who sorted the coffee at the mill. Nice and tidy.

Fast forward 6 years. Corporate mergers resulted in Lima being sold to Dormans, a large coffee trader/roaster/retailer based in Nairobi. Dormans was then sold to Armajaro, a large commodities trading company based in the UK. So, a small fish was eaten by a large fish who in turn got swallowed by a much larger fish. Aha!, the joys of free-market capitalism!
Read More »