For over five decades, the Windward Islands of the Lesser Antilles in the West Indies – which includes the Common Wealth of Dominica (Dominica), St. Lucia, and St. Vincent – enjoyed both unremarkable climatic conditions and a sustained local economy. Since the 2000s, however, these island nations have been engaged in a battle for survival in the midst of an economic and environmental whirlwind that has swept across the area.
Having largely subsisted on the products of one crop – the banana herb (commonly known as the banana tree) – and its auxiliary industries, Windward Islanders were suddenly faced with new financial, pestilential and environmental challenges that threatened their socio-economic base. The most destabilizing of these were the liberalization of the global economy, price fluctuations due to international financial and exchange rate crises, supply shortages (including fuel and fertilizers), typhoons and crop disease.
Thus trapped in a whirlwind of economic and ecological concerns, the West Indian nations joined hands in the early 2000s when 3,300 producers from the region formed the Windward Islands Farmers’ Association (WINFA). Intended to unite the bargaining power and aspirations of banana farmers while preparing them for future challenges, WINFA has worked with regional governments and industry partners in order to support the farming community in the Lesser Antilles.
Together, the cooperative and its partners have created a strong corporate reputation, diversified the farmers’ products, improved product quality, enhanced farming processes and developed producers’ skills. In so doing, WINFA farmers have been able to enter the international market with strong brands and competitive goods while ensuring their environment and placing their future success on a sustainable footing.
The cause of WINFA farmers’ struggle can be traced to the islanders’ historical over reliance on a banana monoculture and the revenue it accrued based on tariff-free exports (up to 50% of islanders’ income) to the European Union (EU). When this preferential treatment was ended (during the so-named “banana wars”), the islanders lost their economic advantage and were suddenly faced with stiff multi-national competition due to a large influx of cheaper bananas into the EU from South and North America.
Having recognized the potential danger of competing on a level playing field against such formidable counterparts, WINFA made the strategic decision to regain its competitive advantage based on premium goods aimed at a niche EU market. To achieve this end, the farmers' cooperative worked with several agencies from government and industry and others such as non-governmental organizations (NGOs).
Among the cooperative’s closest allies has been the Fairtrade Foundation (FF) – a charity based in the United Kingdom (UK) that empowers disadvantaged producers across the developing world. As a promoter of certifiable policies of fairness between suppliers, buyers and consumers, FF was a natural partner of choice for the cooperative’s farmers.
Indeed, the producers’ charity was responsible for establishing the fast-growing, multi-million pound Fairtrade niche market in the EU, especially within the UK. Having been instrumental in WINFA’s foundation, FF subsequently helped farmers in the region to improve their skill and knowledge of the industry by providing educational seminars and supporting their efforts to implement internationally recognized quality standards.
For instance, working with the University of the West Indies and NGOs such as Oxfam (a conglomeration of organizations that advocate to alleviate poverty and inequality), FF’s educational programs for producers have included farm and environmental management, leadership development, strategic thinking and planning lectures and basic accounting seminars.
Moreover, the Fairtrade charity not only advised and educated WINFA farmers but also helped them to win a series of legal battles that, for example, allowed producers in the region (who often worked in small family units) to bypass middle-men buyers (who usually asked for reduced prices) and enter the market directly.
In part due to advice from FF, farmers were able to sell their produce at a higher price via the Windward Island Banana Development and Exporting Company (WIBDECO) – an independently run regional banana exporting and commercialization company, that is partly owned by the farmers themselves, established in 1994.
Indeed, WINFA’s direct partnership with WIBDECO has been a particularly important one for the farmers’ economic revival. Jointly owned by the banana farmers and the governments of the Windward Islands (including the Grenadines and Grenada; there is a 50:50 ratio between government and producer shareholders), since the 1990s WIBDECO has facilitated international market access for Fairtrade farming groups in the region.
The fruits exporter, moreover, has been more than just a conduit of bananas; it has actively promoted the islanders’ products and opened new avenues for commercialization based on its modernization and product diversification program. The company, for example, was responsible for the tremendous growth enjoyed by the island’s farmers (between 2001 and 2008) and, indeed, for the recovery following the global economic crises that occurred shortly thereafter.
To meet the challenge of economic recovery on the islands, WIBDECO managed a number of innovations such as making investments and improvements to its production facilities. The exporter’s banana ripening plant, for instance, has been augmented with state-of-the-art equipment and information technology systems that have increased efficiency and streamlined production.
In line with its modernizing policies, in 2009 WIBDECO changed its corporate name to WINFRESH – a neutral word that has opened new opportunities for commercialization and growth beyond the cultivation and sale of bananas.
Furthermore, the Windward Islands and its producers have benefitted from key financial support provided by the international community. At the height of the global financial crisis between 2008 and 2009, the governments and producers of the region – including WINFA – relied on the support provided by the EU (approximately €190 million) which was intended to help governments and farmers in the Lesser Antilles implement capacity building polices and develop competitive practices.
In order to stave off a number of challenges, therefore, WINFA and its partners have successfully managed a series of legal and capacity building interventions. As a result, the cooperative’s members have been able to strengthen their bargaining position in the industry, improve farmers’ skill and production processes, and retain a strong position in the international fruits – and, increasingly, beverages – market.
WINFA and its partners have been aware of the need to develop and diversify product brands in order to distinguish themselves from others, be competitive and attract new customers in a crowded and risk-intensive global economy.
In order to enter the niche market of Fairtrade products in the EU, WINFA has worked with the Fairtrade Labeling Organization (FLO) – a sister company of FF that is responsible for standards and certifications within the Fairtrade market. Having satisfied the FLO’s standard for production (which cover environmental, social and economic fairness issues), most of WINFA’s products were subsequently certified and labeled with the organization’s distinctive Fairtrade stamp.
Because of such certifications, the cooperative’s farmers can receive a price for their products – known as the Fairtrade Minimum Price – that is usually higher than the average market price. Moreover, producers and their representatives can receive a separate payment – called the Fairtrade Premium – that is earmarked for investments intended to develop their business or farm (up to 40% of the premium can be used for this purpose). Clients and customers, on the other hand, can be assured of the products’ quality and ethically sourced origin due to these international standards.
With Fairtrade certification at the core of their production processes, WINFA farmers have been able to develop a strong brand reputation and enter the lucrative Fairtrade market of the EU which totaled GB £150 million (in 2008) in the UK alone.
Furthermore, as WINFA’s main export and commercial partner, WINFRESH has spearheaded the modernization drive that has improved the economic capacity of the Windward Island’s farmers. Having already received Fairtrade certification, the exporter has not just adopted a new and attractive corporate name; it has developed a range of products, brands and campaigns that extend the region’s commercial reach beyond bananas.
As Mr. Cornibert, the chief executive of WINFRESH, said, “This unhealthy focus, this kind of fixation on bananas, we need to get out of it.” He continued, “When we look at the landscape and what is ahead, the company, unless it changes, will not continue to grow and our ability to assist in agricultural development in the Windward Islands will be stumped.”
To this end, WINFRESH has embarked on a marketing blitz that has led to the creation of a wide array of new brands, products and promotional campaigns. Among its many brands, the company has created Vincy Fresh (air-packed snacks based on Caribbean fruits, root crops and vegetables, including bananas, papayas and potatoes); Sun Fresh (drinks such as mixed fruit juices); Winfruit (dairy-free, low fat, frozen fruit desserts that have a texture similar to ice cream and are suitable for vegetarians and vegans); and Winfresh (cassava plant based products whose name resonates with the company’s corporate name).
WINFRESH, moreover, has developed other products based on a variety of locally grown crops including yams, breadfruit, plantain and ginger.
Commensurate with its home-grown range of products, the company has engaged in several campaigns in order to promote the local farming community. In 2010, for example, WINFRESH collaborated with several agencies of government in the Windward Islands – including the Ministry of Agriculture, Lands, Fisheries and Forestry – in a promotional campaign called “Buy Local Produce” which supported the region’s commercial crops industry.
Indeed, both WINFA and WINFRESH have purchased an agro-processing plant and farming estate (based on capital investments from Fairtrade premiums) that has grown a number of crops such as passion fruits, guavas and mangoes. These products have been processed into jams, jellies, juices and chutneys for the local market.
Furthermore, in a bold move to develop new income streams, the farmers’ association has developed an agro-tourism sector for its producers. Because WINFA’s agro-processing plant is situated near the tourist hot spot of La Soufrière in St. Vincent, the cooperative has planned for visitors to tour its premises where they can learn about the island, access a nature trail and enjoy the organization’s many products.;
Rather than relying on a single product or brand, therefore, WINFA and its partners have opted to diversify their goods and brands in order to become competitive and appeal to a wide client base and customer appetite. As of 2012, the cooperative’s bananas and other value added products were commercialized locally and in supermarkets in the EU – including Sainsbury’s Supermarkets, the UK’s leading Fairtrade retailer – and, increasingly, in the Caribbean and North American markets.
WINFRESH has relied on the intellectual property (IP) system in order to protect its entry into the international market and secure its brand reputation. The company registered a trademark for Winfresh as a word and a figurative (in two kinds) in 2009 for the EU market at the Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM). Moreover, seeking to protect its brands while opening new avenues for future expansion, the exporter registered Winfruit and Winfruit Fruitfull as trademarks in 2010 at OHIM.
Furthermore, with a view to entering the lucrative United States of America (USA) fruit and drink market, in 2010 Winfresh was registered as a trademark at the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
Having developed a wide and growing range of IP protected assets, the exporter has placed the Windward Islands and its producers on a firm path for success based on strong brand identity, quality and product diversity.
WINFA’s farmers have had to endure and surmount an unprecedented and devastating onslaught of environmental and socio-economic challenges caused by drought, disease (including an outbreak of black sigatoka – a fungus that lowers banana yields by up to 50%) and hurricanes. These disasters have often led to landslides, widespread crop destruction and harvest failures.
In a region where banana production has occupied 27% of agricultural land (or 9.7% of GDP), the consequence of such loses – including social dislocation and sharp reductions in farmers' incomes that can last eight months or until the following harvest – have been severe. The upshot for many farmers has been indebtedness as producers struggled to meet their financial commitments.
In response to these challenges, producers’ cooperatives in the area – including WINFA – have relied to a large extent upon the premium prices that they have received due to Faitrade certification.
As part of Fairtrade Premiums, the Windward Islands have each been able to tap into an extra income known as the Social Premium (SP) – or 60 cents per box of bananas. Invested in capacity building projects (including governmental and health projects) chosen by community steering committees, the SP has been managed by National Fairtrade Organizations on the islands – or local Fairtrade agencies with local offices.
During the global economic crises in 2008 and 2009 (which led to high fuel and supply prices), for instance, approximately US$ 200,000 from the SP fund was released in order to off-set the increases in the price of fertilizer, a key ingredient for farming practice.
Several other uses have been made of SP funds for environmental purposes including those for proper disposal of farm waste, water purification, soil erosion control, establishment of natural buffer zones via tree planting between farms and eradication of pesticide usage on farmland.
The SP, in addition, has been utilized in order to enhance the health of farmers and their families. Not only has the fund helped to establish health clinics; it has been relied on to finance an annual health care allowance of US $370 to cover a farmer's visits to clinics, pay for medicines and help fund surgical procedures.
Fairtrade certification and its premiums payments have therefore allowed Windward Islands’ producers to ameliorate the effects of socio-economic and environmental change, while remaining competitive in the global market and sustaining their customary mode of subsistence.
Having struggled to remain competitive in the latter part of 2008, WINFA and WINFRESH managed a significant recovery during the 2009/2010 financial year when the exporter saw profits after tax increase to US $11.2 million (compared to losses of over US$20 million the previous year).
In the same period, WINFRESH’s corporate reputation for quality products had grown and the company had become one of the largest suppliers of Fairtrade bananas to the UK market (the volume and value of Fairtrade sales grew by 4% and 28% respectively and accounted for 85.5% of sales in this period). Indeed, the exporter (as of July 2012) was set to be one of the Fairtrade suppliers of fruit and beverages – including 10 million bananas – to the 2012 Olympics in London, UK.
WINFRESH, moreover, has negotiated with others in the industry (including Sunfresh Limited, a water and beverages manufacturer based in St. Lucia) in order to consolidate its market position and expand its brand presence. Because of the growing equity in its new corporate name, products from the Sunfresh Limited partnership were to be marketed primarily under the WINFRESH trademark.
WINFA’s director, meanwhile, won the International Development Achievement Award (2011) by the Guardian newspaper, an established publication in the UK. The award recognizes “one individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the lives of some of the world’s poorest people”.
In 2012, the farmers’ organization was an active member among approximately 48 other Fairtrade Groups in the region with a total of 3,347 farmers and workers. Indeed, WINFA has continued to develop, diversify and deliver quality premium goods while maintaining its members’ socio-economic wellbeing and the environment of the Windward Islands.
Faced with a dual threat from socio-economic and environmental change, small-scale farmers on the Lesser Antilles have been able to join hands, modernize and remain competitive based on quality products sold in a niche market.
With a growing brand reputation supported by protected IP assets at the sharp end of their entry into international trade, these producers have shown how investments in plant and personnel can be converted into sustainable economic gains.
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