Does Fairtrade certification benefit poor farmers? In Ethiopia and Uganda, research indicates the answer is No

Fairtrade coffee beans. Jaan Pill photo

This post concerns an April 2014 research report about the Fairtrade certification program.

The report is outlined in a May 26, 2014 Globe and Mail article entitled: “Fairtrade coffee fails to help the poor, British report finds.”

The opening paragraphs read:

  • Coffee drinkers who choose brands carrying the Fairtrade logo are not helping the poor and the “ethical trading” claims made by fair-trade organizations are hollow, according to an in-depth report into the employment practices on coffee, tea and flower plantations in East Africa.
  • Research published by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at London University reveals that workers at Fairtrade certified farms are paid less and suffer inferior working conditions compared with those working for non-Fairtrade farms.
  • The criticism emerges after a four-year research project conducted by development economists at SOAS. Funded by Britain’s Department for International Development, the researchers investigated labour markets for export crops in Ethiopia and Uganda. The micro-study of life for the rural poor involved 1,000 days of field research and the data covered 1,700 respondents including focus groups and life histories.

[End of excerpt]

Response from Fairtrade Foundation (UK)

After I sent out a Tweet from @jaanpill about this report, I received a Tweet from @FairtradeUK which said: “Fairtrade is a work in progress, we’re always improving but it does benefit many. See our response

The response (see link in previous sentence) stated that the Fairtrade Foundation “believes there are significant flaws in this study and that it is wrong to state that Fairtrade does not improve the lives of the poor.”

University of London economist refutes Fairtrade response concerning quality of the research

A May 30, 2014 overview regarding a recent research report regarding Fairtrade programs in Ethiopia and Uganda is available as a podcast at CBC Radio’s The Current:

How fair is fair trade?

If you are interested in this story, I would recommend that you take the time to listen to the podcast.

As the CBC’s The Current website (see link above) notes: “Christopher Cramer is an economist with the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. He’s also the co-author of a new report called Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda. Harriet Lamb is the CEO of Fairtrade International, one of the largest fair trade certification groups.”

In the above-noted CBC interview, Christopher Cramer offers an effective rebuttal in the above-noted interview, in my view, of the claim by Fairtrade International that the quality of the SOAS research is questionable.

He also notes that it would be helpful for Harriet Lamb to rely on good quality research to advance her arguments, rather than relying on anecdotal comments about how helpful Fairtrade is to individual farmers.

A key message from the CBC Radio segment (on which there is agreement between the two interviewees) is that the Fairtrade story is part of a much wider narrative about poverty and labour conditions. The next segment, for the May 30, 2014 broadcast at CBC’s The Current, after the interviews highlighting the recent research regarding Fairtrade certification programs in Africa, is entitled: The World Food Programme’s fight against chronic hunger.

Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda (FTEPR)

I’ve posted several links at my Twitter account @jaanpill and at the Long Branch Historical Facebook page concerning an April 2014 research report published by the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London.

The report concerns Fairtrade projects in Africa.

The key document, in this regard, is the research report itself, entitled Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda.

Additional documents include:

Appendices to Final Report

Frequently Asked Questions

Also of relevance is an SOAS document entitled: How to do (and how not to do) fieldwork on fair trade and rural poverty.

SOAS overview of the research findings

A May 24, 2014 news release from the School of Oriental and Asian Studies (SOAS) at the University of London is entitled: Research finds Fairtrade fails the poorest workers in Ethiopia and Uganda.

The news release notes that:

  • Wages were lower on average in research sites defined around Fairtrade certified producer organisations than in sites without Fairtrade certified producers.

It notes as well that:

  • The findings on lower wages held true even after the effects of scale and other differences across workers and sites were taken into account in detailed statistical analysis, contrary to the claims made in the Fairtrade Foundation’s own statement about this research.
  • Fairtrade publicises its contribution to the funding of schools, health clinics, improved sanitation and other “social projects” in rural areas.  From hours of quantitative and qualitative interviews with respondents and others, including in some cases cooperative managers, the SOAS researchers found that the poorest often had no access to these ‘community’ facilities in the research sites, even when they were or had been wage workers on the processing stations or for producer members.

The release concludes with a statement from Christopher Cramer, Professor of the Political Economy of Development at the University of London:

“The British public has been led to believe that by paying extra for Fairtrade certified coffee, tea and flowers they will ‘make a difference’ to the lives of poor Africans. Careful fieldwork and analysis in this four year project leads to the conclusion that in our research sites Fairtrade has not been an effective mechanism for improving the lives of wage workers, the poorest rural people.”

[End of excerpts from news release]

Additional links at Long Branch Historical Facebook page

I’ve posted additional links related to the April 2014 SOAS research report at the Long Branch Historical Facebook page.

Additional posts about the Fair Trade concept

Click here for additional posts about Fair Trade coffee >


A Huffington Post article, downloaded July 19, 2015, is entitled: The Myth of the Ethical Shopper. We’re still trying to eliminate sweatshops and child labor by buying right. But that’s not how the world works in 2015.

Also of interest: The Rebel Sell: How the Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004).

A Jan. 4, 2017 Guardian article is entitled: “Coffee from Rainforest Alliance farms in Brazil linked to exploited workers: Certification schemes criticised for failing to spot labour rights violations on farms in Brazil, the world’s largest coffee producer.”


2 replies
  1. Bob Carswell
    Bob Carswell says:

    If you are interested in finding out how FAIR the fair trade stories are, you might want to contact my sister Lesley in the Netherlands. She has been travelling to distant markets from time to time to find original artisans and make direct purchases for a Fair Trade shop in Apeldoorn. Some of her original contacts go back to her days spent in Africa and the trips she and her husband made through the Far East and South America. I would say she has been a volunteer for at least 20 years now and is quite well respected by other volunteers for her ongoing contribution.

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    This is a good story to know about, Bob. The direct purchase arrangement that you describe would work well assuming that the original artisans are getting a price that bears some kind of reasonable relationship to the price that the consumer in Europe pays at the point of purchase.

    In one of my posts I speak about what appears to me to be a fair arrangement between coffee workers in Thailand and a coffee business in Canada:

    I became interested in Doi Chaang coffee after reading a research report about Fair Trade coffee

    As well, the Fair Trade arrangement for coffee that Birds & Beans has in place appears exemplary:

    Fair trade coffee: Backpacking trip to Nicaragua changes course of entrepreneur’s life (Nov. 14, 2013 Globe and Mail)

    That said, I used to think that every time I was buying Fair Trade coffee of any kind, I was thereby invariably being a great help to some impoverished farmer somewhere. Further study has convinced me, however, as I’ve said in my posts about the topic, that the “great deal” for the impoverished farmer may be more of a meaningless (but nonetheless effective, from a marketing point of view) brand statement directed at the consumer than a matter of a better life for the farmer.


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