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Export prices push green bean farmers into poverty

Rose Muthoni @rosemuthoniN

Kenyan farmers and factory workers are among millions of people who produce for Britain’s leading supermarkets worldwide who are exploited and struggle to feed their families as their earnings  continue to dwindle, campaigners said yesterday.

Across 12 supermarket chains importing avocados from Peru, tea from India and green beans from Kenya, an Oxfam research found that none of the workers or farmers earned enough on average to maintain a decent standard of living.

According to the European Commission’s Value Chain Analysis report 2018, Kenya exported around 34,000 tonnes of fresh green beans in 2016, which accounts for more than 50 per cent of the production, with the main export markets being the UK, followed by the Netherlands and France.

“It’s shocking that so many of the farmers and workers producing food for our supermarket shelves are going hungry themselves,” Matthew Spencer, Oxfam’s director of policy in Britain, said in a statement.

“Our biggest supermarkets are squeezing the price they pay their suppliers, resulting in huge, hidden suffering amongst the women and men who supply our food and trapping them in poverty.”

The European Commission’s report says that prices of fresh green beans from Kenya have been strongly declining in real terms over several years.

“Scattered smallholder farmers (who control two hectares and below), who account for 4,500 hectares strictly dedicated to growing green beans, appear struggling to make a significant income at €263 (Sh30,565.7) per year. Due to the lack of collective organisation, they rely on brokers for the sale of their produce, which reduces their farm-gate price,” reads the report.

Production of green beans demands substantial manual labour, particularly for harvesting, but also for planting, irrigating, weeding, spraying of chemicals, and fertiliser application.

Even mechanised farms, which use tractors for land preparation and irrigation pumps, rely on large numbers of hired workers for manual tasks. But with returns for farmers standing at a low of Sh30,565.7 per year, little trickles to manual labourers, thereby making life more expensive for them.

“While wages are in line with national standards, casual and temporary employment is unlikely to provide enough job and income security to provide a living wage. This is especially true in areas where the cost of living is very high, such as Nairobi,” the Europe Commission report reads in part.

From everyday groceries such as bananas, coffee and rice to clothes produced for high-street shops, major brands face rising consumer pressure to improve safety and conditions along their supply chains, render them slavery-free, and ensure fair wages.

Supermarkets such as Aldi, Asda and Tesco are increasingly squeezing the amount they pay their suppliers, fuelling poverty and workplace abuses, according to the Oxfam report.

While the British supermarkets’ share of what consumers pay rose to nearly 53 per cent in 2015 from 41 per cent in 1996, the percentage pocketed by workers in their supply chains fell by a quarter to 5.7 per cent over the same period, the charity said.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC) – a trade association representing Britain’s major supermarkets – said that improving equality was a key priority for its more than 90 retail members.

“Our members have made a number of commitments to improve the livelihoods of people working in our supply chains and to increase the transparency of those efforts,” a spokeswoman for the BRC told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.

Workers interviewed by Oxfam – from grape pickers in South Africa to seafood workers in Thailand and Indonesia – said they were struggling to feed their families and had endured abuse, forced pregnancy tests, dangerous workplaces and poverty wages.

“Low wages, poor conditions and discrimination against women are sadly all too common … for many of those who toil to produce our food,” Peter McAllister, executive director of the Ethical Trading Initiative (ETI), said in a statement.

“The danger is that unless action is taken, millions of workers and farmers will be condemned to in-work poverty, further fuelling unrest and conflict,” added the head of the ETI – a global alliance of trade unions, businesses and charities.

For the prices to go up and trickle down to Kenyan green beans small holder farmers, the European Commission recommends that value chain players comply with food safety regulations such as EC 669/2009, which advocates for more training and capacity building at every stage of the value chain.

Establishing processing companies, the commission says, would encourage value addition that would see farmers reap more from their green beans. Kenya only exports 900 tonnes, as of 2016, canned green beans in comparision to 34,000 tonnes of unprocessed beans. – Additional reporting by Reuters.

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