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Recalling Our Fair Trade Pioneers.

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For Focus94 Inese Japina spoke to Colm Ryder about Ireland’s coffee culture pioneers

Colm Ryder is an environmental engineer by profession. He was an early member of Comhlámh and worked with Campaign Coffee Group in Comhlámh throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Colm told us about the development of fair trade in Ireland.

How did the idea of importing Fairtrade coffee into the Irish market come about?

The idea started to take shape in the early 1980s. A small group of Comhlámh members decided to try to import and market Fairtrade coffee from a developing country in the Dublin area, and use the product as an educational message. The group was one of a number of active groups in Comhlámh, prompted by their overseas experiences, to bring the message of potential development change to Ireland.

What country did the first Fairtrade coffee come from?

The coffee came from Tanzania which was a model country for development at the time. Under Julius Nyerere, then President of a socialist Tanzania, the government were trying to improve the value of their export crops, especially coffee beans. A coffee production facility was opened in North Eastern Tanzania in 1967, supplied by local cooperatives, where the production of instant coffee took place. By manufacturing instant coffee and exporting it abroad Tanzanian producers were adding extra value to the basic agricultural commodity.

How was the imported Fairtrade instant coffee marketed in Ireland?

The coffee was imported into Ireland in small quantities through an Irish importer based in Wexford via a UK organisation called Traidcraft. Comhlámh members were not great business entrepreneurs, but managed to develop a reasonable market for Tanzanian Fairtrade coffee in the Dublin area by selling it to coffee shops, specialist outlets and the original Dublin Food Co-op, as well as to school and work canteens. We held numerous events to tie in with the selling of the coffee. Comhlámh was never going to be a major trading company, and we hoped that by getting the product out that the trade would grow. At the same time, combined with the use of the leaflets and posters developed, we worked to get the educational message across to Irish consumers.

Tell me a little about the educational message Comhlámh wanted to get across.

While Comhlámh was under no illusions that we were going to dramatically change the lives of the Tanzanian people by introducing this coffee into Ireland, we recognised that we could get a strong educational message across to the Irish public that there were alternatives available in terms of trade and produce. We wanted Irish consumers to realise that individually they have the power to make a widespread impact on the livelihoods of small producers and workers in developing countries like Tanzania, by shopping selectively.

The background principle we in Comhlámh emphasised was that ‘trade not aid’ could be more effective. A range of educational materials was developed including a series of slide productions (this was pre internet days!), which were used in schools, community and youth groups etc. The Campaign also appeared on a number of radio shows. The Comhlámh Coffee Campaign might even be credited with the development of the present Comhlámh logo which displays two hands joined together symbolising the cooperation between Ireland and the Developing Countries, and also a strong anti-racism message.

How did the first Fairtrade coffee importing influence the future Fair Trade movement in Ireland?

To an initial extent Comhlámh made the niche for further import business development in Ireland. It remained for business entrepreneurs to seek out more opportunities. Other Irish organizations began to take up the importing of Fairtrade products thus offering producers at the beginning of the chain the possibility to build sustainable businesses and earn a decent living. And today the Fair Trade movement has been a wonderful success and is bigger and stronger than ever. So, at least here in Ireland, Comhlámh can claim some credit for sowing the first seeds!

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