In the early 1970s, a group of forward-thinking women in Switzerland were brought together by a simple but far-reaching question. They wanted to know why bananas imported from the tropics were cheaper than apples grown in Europe. The question went to the heart of the exploitative trading practices of the banana trade and a movement was born. Led by social activist, Ursula Brunner, the Banana Women – as they came to be publicly known – continued to ask questions about unfair trade and how to address it. Their campaign grew to become the Working Group for a Fair Banana Trade – or Gebana for short.
Today, Gebana has diversified into other foodstuffs but its ambition remains the same; to create equitable access to markets by establishing a direct link between producers and consumers. Gebana’s development manager for Benin and Togo, Michael Stamm, says: “Being close to the producer is important for us. Not only are we paying a premium on top of the usual market price but we are trying to make a difference. Smallholder farmers face huge pressures on price and struggle to access markets – that’s why we try to build relationships, provide agronomic training and invest in certification, as well as production processes on the ground”.
Gebana’s approach is to develop integrated supply chains that bring producers closer to consumers on a global scale. It is a trend that is steadily positioning Switzerland as a creative hub for innovation in the value chain.
“The consumer has the power to be active in supply chains”, adds Michael. “When the consumer is well-educated and cares about the products they buy, they are happier to pay a premium that helps the farmer. That’s why Switzerland can help to lead in this area because the shorter and more transparent supply chains we have, the greater the value is shared with producers. Algrano fits very well with our own model. We have sent several samples though the platform and are now looking for buyers in Switzerland and other markets. It is a challenge because we take on the risks from all sides – but it is worth it”.
Since 2014, Gebana has been working with cocoa producers in the West African country of Togo to help them directly reach markets in Europe. Patrick Eboe, Gebana’s General Manager for Togo, explains: “Since the liberalisation of the economy, the sector has tried to align with exporters which has driven down prices for farmers. As many of our cocoa farmers also grow coffee, we thought we should do something. Since then, we have been supporting them with technical help to raise standards and gain certification such as organic and Fairtrade. We now have a presence in the field from the point of production and buy directly from the farmers”.
This year, the second shipment of high grade natural process Robusta – a product of nearly 1000 cooperative members from the mountainous plateau of Kloto in the southwest of the country – will reach Europe. Since the demand for quality Robusta remains particularly high as a component for blends, especially in coffee consuming markets in Southern Europe, Gebana are supporting growers to increase quality and yields for western markets. It is estimated that currently, coffee growing supports 20,000 families in Togo.
And there are positive signs that Switzerland’s status as an international platform for trade is evolving. Following an amendment in the country’s fiscal law in August last year – which allows public deposits of up to CHF 1 million – new opportunities are opening up for the crowdfunding of sustainable supply chain projects. A recent roundtable discussion hosted by Gebana, which brought together logistics and production startups with investors, shows that there is a growing appetite to reinvent the role of global trade. As the Banana Women so successfully demonstrated in the seventies, Switzerland is well placed to lead the way in developing a counter-model to traditional, exploitative trade structures in the future.
Co-founder of algrano, Gilles Brunner, echoes this optimism: “Sixty to seventy percent of the global trade in coffee happens in Switzerland and many people work in commodities such cocoa and grains. We have the knowledge and resources here so the conditions are right to innovate new, transparent supply chains. In the case of Gebana, they were one of the early pioneers so our partnership shares a very similar mission. Swiss consumers are also one of the biggest buyers of Fairtrade and organic certified products per capita in Europe, so even from a consumer perspective the market is already asking for fairer, more sustainable models of trade”.