Many of you have seen Oké bananas at Willy Street Co-op, but do you really know what’s Oké is about? Oké is a pretty unique company. Its ownership structure is a bit complex, but follow me as I explain. Agrofair is our European parent company who owns 60 percent of Oké, 30 percent of which is given to the farmers. The other 40 percent of the company is owned by fair trade pioneer Equal Exchange and Red Tomato, a New England nonprofit that brings fruit from family farms to market. In one word, I would have to say that Oké bananas are about community “empowerment,” but read on and develop your own opinion.

“From my point of view,” said John Boyes of the Zebediela Citrus Farm in South Africa and farmer-owner of Agrofair and Oké USA, “I never thought that this type of relationship would be possible within the commercial world. We have equity in the company, a say in how it is run, and are also suppliers to it. This is a mindset change. This relationship is unique.” Oké fruit is transformative. We are taking the fair trade model to the next level and transforming the system of ownership that has been at the heart of inequality in the global marketplace.

Economically the Oké fair trade model has ensured a level of stability for producers by shielding them from boom and bust cycles, providing a steady income flow and the ability to manage their finances and plan for the future. The social premium paid as part of fair trade empowers producers to save and invest in any area they deem necessary, giving them a choice and a voice over their own development.

“Through AgroFair we have found fair international markets for our pineapples,” explained Roberto Ugalde Soto of the Asoproagroin Pineapple cooperative in Costa Rica. “This has improved our lives as farmers and those of our communities. I now know my neighbors for miles around. We meet regularly to discuss and to decide together how to spend the fair trade premium. We have a project for elderly people in our community, buying them things to help in their homes, such as respiratory machines and better beds. We helped a local women’s group to set up a shampoo and conditioner business. They use local organic ingredients and sell to local markets. Next we want to help them to find fair international markets too!”

Access to social mobility

Socially, fair trade creates access to social mobility. Producers may start off with one job function and aspire and attain another job function which is very rare within large scale corporate plantations. Since fair trade cooperatives work on the basis of community and producer networks, this accumulation of social capital enables them to strengthen their leadership skills, organizational behavior, and business practices. “This is an organization in which I not only receive a fair wage for my work but also the business training I need through seminars, classes, lectures and the opportunity to interact with other producers to exchange ideas and experiences,” said Don Arturo Irigoya from El Guabo cooperative in Ecuador.

The Oké Impact reaches deep into farmer co-op communities by providing access to health care, engagement in philanthropic works and even deepens community involvement. In Ecuador, our producer partners in El Guabo created a community clinic and pharmacy accessible to all community members at very low cost. In order to alleviate the costs of schooling, all producer families with children receive a stipend for school supplies. Moreover, women benefit from fair trade by being included in the work force. In El Guabo, a cooperative of women have been employed in creating organic fertilizer for the crops.

Transforming the quality of life

Several projects made possible by El Guabo’s co-ownership of Agrofair and Oké USA have transformed the quality of life for children of the co-op and local community. In Machala, Ecuador our producer partners in El Guabo helped build the first school for mentally disabled children in the region. They donate bananas weekly to neighboring low-resource schools, feeding a total of 6,000 children within the region, and have donated soccer and basketball courts to neighboring schools. The contributions are a part of a holistic view of development which involves projects that not only focus on necessities but giving kids the opportunity to be kids.

Institutional and national benefits

The benefits of Oké fair trade not only affect the cooperative but extend to institutional and national levels. Currently our producer partners in Ecuador are working with local universities to publish findings on one of their improved seed case studies. On a national level, our producer partners in Ecuador are setting new legal precedents for civil rights. One largely ignored Ecuadorian law requires businesses to employ at least one disabled individual per business and El Guabo proudly employs two. Fair Trade is about much more than a fair price, it’s about building a culture of positive change. “Fair trade for us does not only have aesthetic or environmental quality but social value as well,” said Leonardo Bravo of El Guabo while participating in the United Students for Fair Trade annual convergence in Boston. “This is the type of value we create in our cooperative; we are setting an example in our country so that companies can work in the same way and produce high quality products that are not at the expense of people or the environment nor dependent on their sacrifice. We are leaving our future generations a clean and healthy environment.”

Seeds of systematic change

Already we are beginning to see the seeds of systematic change in the produce trade. BanaOrg is a new organization that functions as a consulting firm for organic plantations. Something unique to this organization is that its founder organizes other organic banana producers to demand fair trade prices from exporters. The idea is power in numbers and volume. Since organic banana plantations are not plentiful and because organic bananas are in high demand, producers in this area of production when united have the power to set prices. Fair trade planted the seed for this type of organizing work and with the success of Oké Fruit, we may be looking at the future of the banana trade.

Fair trade versus non-fair trade

On fair trade plantations, workers are paid $80 per week or $400 per month in addition to complete access to health services and the social premium they receive per box. Overall, fair trade prices per box of bananas range from 30 to 50 percent higher depending on market behavior. Non-fair trade plantation workers earn $25 to $40 per week, work over eight hours per day with scarce if any access to health care (source: Gerry Andrade Gomez of BanaOrg).

The three most powerful impacts of Oké Fair Trade are price stability, investment in human and social capital, and empowerment. The ownership structure of Oké enables producers to learn to make decisions not only in production but also in managing their own business; Oke’s model of fair trade transforms producers from a position of disempowerment into small-scale entrepreneurs with a voice and a vision.

So when you see Oké bananas at Willy Street Co-op, know that they are bringing you more than just a good, healthy and environmentally friendly product. They are making you an agent of societal change and directly connecting you to a community’s empowerment and well-being. Co-ops like Willy Street Co-op are taking the lead in living their values by carrying products that are beyond ethical; they are life changing.

For more information please see: Oké USA at www.okeusa.com; Asociacion de Pequenos Productores Bananeros “El Guabo” at http://www.asoguabo.com.ec; or Banana Link “Alternatives for the future” at http://www.bananalink.org.uk.