In the year 1973, a woman saw a movie. Her name was Ursula Brunner and she got really upset about the things depicted in this movie. Bananera-Libertat was a film by the Swiss filmmaker Peter von Gunten.
The movie showed something, which hasn’t changed since. People in the so called third-world work under horrible conditions in order that we, the richer part of the world, benefit. Ursula Brunner and some friends organized protest actions against the unfair banana trade. Soon enough they were known as the Bananawomen.
The voting right for women was introduced in Switzerland in 1971. No wonder, that they often got yelled at on the streets. The recommendation was to go home and care for their families and for their men.
You can find the Banana-Women here on Youtube (in (east-Swiss)German language, 1973).
According to this video, one kg bananas set you back one Swiss franc and 35 cents or 135 cents in 1973. The producers of the Bananas got only 13 cents. A big part of the retail price was shared between the United Fruit Company in the US (today Chiquita) and the Swiss retailers. Even Swiss customs got more on import duty than the producers for their product.
Today, label free/not fair-trade bananas set you back 1 franc and 50 cents per kg – as there was a rise in prices since 1973, Bananas are cheaper than ever in Switzerland.
It took only 19 years in Switzerland to found a fair trade label. Max Havelaar was introduced in 1992. It is not a Swiss invention; the idea came from the Netherlands. Switzerland is however world champion in fair trade.
Max Havelaar is a foundation. They certify your product if you work according to their standards. For the certification work they demand licensing fees. As all big producers are on board, they got 7.2 million Swiss francs in license fees last year, but the standards apparently got lower.
The Banana-women started to call themselves “Arbeitsgruppe gerechter Bananenhandel” or gebana in the early 1980s. Later they formed an association called terrafair. Unfortunately, this association doesn’t exist anymore, and Ursula Brunner passed away in March, aged 92.
In 1998 gebana AG was founded as a company. It is a trading company and they trade like everybody should do it. Without greed but with a strong ethical mindset. They just bundle demand and organize the transport of fruits and raw goods to Europe.
In Greece, for example, there are orange farmers (in the German part of Europe, there is no Orange production as the weather is too cold). They switched their production to organic standards 15 years ago. Nobody paid them the higher organic price, it was the opposite. Apparently, in the traditional production, you apply chemical hormones to keep the oranges on the tree and to control their ripening. This gives you flexibility to sell your fruit when you want. The fruit traders in Greece knew, that these farmers don’t do this. So, they could lower the prices they paid for these oranges to even less. The farmers were simply forced to sell because otherwise they risked losing their entire work and income for the entire year.
Somebody somehow heard something about gebana and in 2013 they sent oranges to Switzerland and asked, if gebana was interested in selling them. Gebana was highly interested.
To keep the prices low and out of environmental protection, gebana does not repack these oranges. This means, that you can order a quantity of 13 kg per delivery only. It will set you back 51 francs or 52 $. But you get the freshest organic oranges delivered to your door. The price is highly competitive with the prices for organic oranges at the retailers. It works, people are ordering like crazy.
You can even pay upfront for 3 separated deliveries, so you get 3 times 13 kilos in December, January and February. You can store this oranges for up to one month. Some people order these deliveries several times. Small businesses, who have to do with the public for example and wish to do advertisement for themselves by giving away super tasty, super fair and super organic oranges.
Gebana works in partnerships with the producers and stays with them even when it becomes hard and difficult. They support the autonomous regions in Mexico by buying coffee. They support other regions in the world, where sometimes tanks roam the streets and residents accuse other residents to be terrorists. It is not easy to harvest olives, when men with assault rifles ask you, not to it. Nevertheless, gebana organizes the shipment of these olives and the oil to Europe. They stayed with their date producers in Tunisia when the revolution hit.
Every time when I thought “that’s it, a better product can’t exist” I found something new. If your car uses diesel and you want to do something because you have a bad feeling regarding the competition between eatables and biofuel, you can buy compensation at gebana. They will invest the money in the production of biofuel out of waste from the tofu production which can’t be used to produce cattle feed.
On their investors day, they invited some partner companies who could present themselves.
There was a chocolate company with the name Choba Choba. The founders of this company know from what they are talking as they worked in traditional big brand chocolate companies before.
Cocoa farming is a dirty business. Traditionally, the farmers have to sell their beans for an extremely low price to companies like Barry Callebaut because there are no alternatives. Barry Callebaut makes big money in reselling the so-called couverture, basically the raw chocolate, to the producers you find in your local store. They again make a big profit by mixing couverture with, for example cow milk and hazelnuts (a technique invented in Switzerland during world war II when cocoa was rare) as well as fancy marketing.
By buying chocolate in traditional stores you directly support this cruel business model, where a company with headquarters in Zurich makes money, but the farmers barely get enough money to stay alive. One of the founders of Choba Choba was present, when a child in Africa was sold for 25 euros to work on a farm.
Choba Choba is the opposite: The company belongs to the farmers who produce the cocoa beans. They decide themselves for how much money they want to sell their cocoa to their own company. One 100 gr bar of Choba Choba chocolate will cost you 8 dollars. Roughly four times the amount you have to spend for traditional big brand chocolate. It is however the only responsible way to eat chocolate.
They are not Max Havelar certified as they don’t need somebody who attests themselves that they do a reasonable business. And the best thing about Choba Choba, other than their reasonable business: It is an open secret here in Zurich, if you work on the production and packaging lines for Lint & Sprüngli, you are allowed to eat as much chocolate as you want. Employees at Lint & Sprüngli can’t stand their own chocolate any more after 10 days or so. The CEO of Choba Choba still eats his own chocolate even after several years and not only when he has to. I saw it with my own eyes.
Another company present was Algrano: A digital platform for coffee producers. It allows them to sell their beans directly to the roasters without the shady traders and their non-transparent business models. Because, surprise surprise – traditional coffee trade works similar to the chocolate business. Even McDonalds in Switzerland uses this platform. Not because they care about people (if so, they would close down their restaurants immediately because of public health considerations) but because they are interested in avoiding the uncertainty of the raw material stock exchange.
By using the Algrano platform, you know where your coffee comes from and exactly who works in the fields. Companies like McDonalds need to know this, to avoid negative headlines. For McDonalds this may come too late, as popular demand for junk food is not on the rise and regardless what they do, their business is faltering in Zurich. At least in Zurich you can get healthy and more or less sustainable burgers for a reasonable price and some McDonalds restaurants had to close.
I work for gebana at the moment, but it is unclear for how long, as I am a replacement for somebody and I have a one-month contract only. As everything else, it is a question of perspective. I would even work for free for gebana, as I prefer to work in a company who does useful things.
At gebana at the moment, we type orders into the web shop from customers who ordered by paper form. People understandably look forward to getting their Oranges, so we must process this orders within a short amount of time as there are cutoff dates before shipment dates for logistical reasons.
If we do a murky job, customers will not be happy and they will not order again. So even in a simple task, there is a responsibility. Now you can argue that the Greek are used to crisis anyways, but the idea is to grow this kind of business because we think that organic farming is the only way to go if future generations also should be able to enjoy this planet.
And it’s not only the Greek. In Africa, gebana in Burkina Faso employs 400 individuals directly and has more than 3000 farmer families who supply Cashew and Mango. It is a risky operation and now gebana in Switzerland tries to raise half a million to allow a fresh start in 2018.