Independent Appeal: Ecuador's yellow revolution

Fairtrade has transformed the lives of banana farmers and their families but a computer charity has helped them take on the big boys. Guy Adams reports
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The Independent US

Let's unpeel the banana. You go to the supermarket, and buy one. Quite a lot of your money goes straight into the hands of the retailer; most of the rest goes to the companies that shipped and packed it. At the very bottom of the commercial food chain are the people who actually grew and picked the fruit. In Ecuador, they can earn as little as $4 [£2.50] a day.

None of this is a big secret. Which is why there came the Fairtrade banana. It costs a few pence more, and tastes exactly the same. Everyone who handles it still turns a tidy profit. But when you stick a bunch into your shopping bag, you'll also feel a warm glow: those farmers and pickers were paid what is known as a "living wage," which back in Ecuador gives them the $9.60 [£6] a day they need to support a family of four.

Fairtrade is one of the great success stories of modern retailing. A decade ago, it barely existed. In 2008, the organisation's branded UK banana sales alone amounted to £184m. Its overall sales of all certified products, from coffee, to wine, to chocolate hit £712m, an increase of 4,300 per cent over 10 years.

But for the producers at the grass roots of the Fairtrade phenomenon, playing with the big boys isn't always straightforward. After generations as subsistence operators, in thrall to corporations like Dole or Chiquita, they must behave as independent businessmen. They are now required to deal daily with suppliers and wholesalers, keep accounts, and operate like entrepreneurs. And in 2009, even if you earn under $10 a day, this means owning computers.

Anibal Cabrera is about to achieve this dream. An organic banana farmer in the El Oro region of Ecuador, near the Peruvian border, he talks of revolutionising his medium-sized landholding, which he farms as a member of Asociació*de Pequeños Productores Bananeros de El Guabo (APPBG), an association of 351 banana producers operating under the Fairtrade banner.

First, though, he needs to be able to get online. Earlier this year, Computer Aid International, which is one of the charities being supported by this year's Independent Christmas appeal, shipped a consignment of 540 Pentium 4 machines to APPBG. It is about to be delivered to his home. "I will be so glad to receive it," says Mr Cabrera. "My objective is to start managing my small farm as a real company. I can archive documents related to my farm in the computer, keep registers of usage of agricultural products in my farm, run the payroll of my workers, and do some basic bookkeeping. Managing information is going to lift our farming to the next level of professionalism."

The computers shipped to Ecuador by Computer Aid International were, like all the PCs the charity exports, fairly high-powered Pentium 4 computers which had been replaced with even faster models by major companies or government departments. Employees at the organisation's north London headquarters wiped the memories, and prepared them for the field – installing working versions of Office and Windows, and sourcing power cables that would adapt to the sometimes-spotty Ecuadorian electricity network.

For an organisation like APPBG, the shipment represents a lifeline. They don't just go to farmers, but to trade unions and schools. Without the computers, it would be impossible to run the healthcare schemes for the co-operatives' workers and their families, or ensure that payments subsidising the education of their children are handled fairly.

"We teach students with special needs, for whom it is particularly important to create a computer department," says William Tapia of the Institute of Special Education in San Antonio de Padua, which also received two of the machines. "They give them a chance to take part in a significant learning process, and may eventually help these young people, with very different capacities than is normal in our society, to enter working life."

Computer Aid is doing its best. Indeed, since it was founded in 1998 it has shipped more than 150,000 computers to the developing world. But resources are stretched thin. Dr Tapia's school could use dozens more machines. The APPBG, though successful, is only able to represent a fraction of the farms in Ecuador.

For the rest of Ecuadorians, life can be tough. Some 80 per cent of the country's citizens live in poverty, and most agricultural workers, employed by major corporations, have no social security or education, and suffer health problems from agricultural pollution. Computers aren't just one way out of poverty, they can at times be the only way out.

Mr Cabrera and his colleagues say that Oro means gold, and the El Oro region where they live and work was originally named after the precious metals that were found in the region. In future, a different type of bright yellow export could bring locals prosperity. Provided, that is, they are helped to first bridge a digital divide.

The charities: Who they are, what they do

ActionAid works in more than 40 countries, and is dedicated to ending poverty and injustice. It specialises in community development. Its projects include one aiming to help poor women in Ethiopia to buy their own shopping mall, working with farmers to fight climate change in eastern Africa's Rift Valley, helping sex workers in the world's biggest brothel in Bangladesh, and supporting a school in Afghanistan for child soldiers rescued from the Taliban.

ComputerAid International collects old computers in the UK and refurbishes them to send out free to schools and charities in the developing world. Its 150,000 computers are helping African meteorological offices to advise farmers, and allowing rural health workers to send X-rays over the internet for diagnosis from specialists.

Peace Direct sets up initiatives among local people to lessen tension in conflict zones, mindful that many conflicts fester and often reignite after peace deals. Peace Direct brings Muslims, Sinhala Buddhists and Tamils together in Sri Lanka. It funds Afghanistan peace councils. It eases tensions in Northern Ireland. And it works on relations between oil companies and locals in Sudan.

The charities all have extraordinary stories to tell. We hope you will give generously.

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