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Mitka: practising fair trade in Central America

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Meeting of coffee farmers
Picture: The conference brought people together and was an opportunity to exchange experiences and ideas and to devise new trade agreements. Photo Karin Heinze

The Central American Coffee Import and Export GmbH, abbreviated to Mitka, imports fair trade coffee from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and, above all, Nicaragua. For 30 years Mitka has striven, maintaining direct contact with producers, to practise fair and sustainable trading with the producers. During a three-day conference, the members of Mitka met the representatives of the partner cooperatives in Nicaragua. The issues discussed ranged from working conditions and pricing to the impact of climate change. Excursions rounded off the get-together and strengthened the basis for cooperation. In the video the representatives of cooperatives express their opinions about the advantages and disadvantages that organic agriculture and fair trade bring them and also their concerns regarding coffee prices, climate change and the plant disease roya (coffee rust).

Impressions from the Mitka meeting. All Photos Karin Heinze
Mitka-members welcomed the group from Mexico at Managua Airport
Cooperatives from Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua
After the conference the group posed for a photo
The excursion to the honey cooperative Boaco

In the mid 1970s, Nicaragua was the scene of fighting between the Sandinista liberation movement and the Somoza regime and the country underwent great social change. In Germany many alternative political groups were involved in supporting the new beginning in Nicaragua. Coffee played an important role in this and, in 1986, the members of the Adelante club founded Mitka GmbH, in order to import   coffee from Nicaragua. The intention was to support the Sandinista movement at a practical level and financially, to inform people in Germany through the sale of coffee about the political situation in Nicaragua and to show solidarity. 


Impressions from the excursion to a coffee cooperative. Photos Karin Heinze
The raw coffee arrives from the cooperatives
Cleaning of the coffee beans
The organic coffee beans are sorted by hand at the SOPPEXCCA manufacturing site
Storage of the coffee beans for the export
Mitka imports raw coffee for the participating companies
Mitka’s shareholders and the representatives of the cooperatives.
Picture: Mitka’s shareholders and the representatives of the cooperatives get together in Managua. Photo Karin Heinze

With an annual volume of about 300 tonnes (ca. 18 containers) Mitka is one of the important importers of fairly traded coffee from Central America. The shareholders - dwp, El Puente, el rojito, Fairbindung, FairHandeln! , Heidelberger Partnerschaftskaffee, Nicaragua Libre, Ökotopia and Venceremos - import the raw coffee. Roughly 90 % is organic coffee. For the most part, they are the founding members who have been active in fair trade for 30 years and whose company headquarters are located across the whole of Germany. The Mitka office is run by Anne Löwisch in Berlin. She coordinates the business and maintains close contact with the cooperatives.

Mitka sees itself not only as a fair trade partner for several thousand small farmers who are organised in networks of cooperatives and individual cooperatives in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua but also as a fair purchasing association, whose aim is not price competition but cooperation and solidarity. “When we import we strive to achieve the same conditions for all member companies, whether large or small,” Löwisch explains. “We want to make it as uncomplicated as possible.”  Mitka   compiles the orders from its members and concludes contracts with the cooperatives. She is responsible for ongoing contact with the cooperatives, financing, importing the raw coffee in Bremen and organising organic certification and the preparation of the coffee in Germany. It is taken to various coffee roasters, roasted using the delicate slow roasting process and is then sent to the Mitka members.

Thus enhanced, the varieties of coffee are packaged and sold mainly to the approximately 1000 World Shops. But wholefood shops, some outlets in the conventional trade, gastronomy and associations are also customers. Internet sales are growing.

“How fair is fair trade?”

In Managua, the Mitka members also asked themselves some critical questions. The first day of the conference revolved round discussing the price model. “The price should not only cover the costs – it should enable the farmers to live a life without hardship and ensure they have the benefits of education and social and health care,” argued Stefan Bockemühl from El Puente. In working groups and in the plenary session they moved closer to a solution that meets the needs of producers and cooperatives even better  . No matter how sophisticated their price system, it can’t always compensate for the problem of the often wildly fluctuating world market price and the practice of the ‘flying coffee buyers’ – they call them ‘coyotes’ – who offer cash for the raw coffee when the farmers urgently need money at the beginning of the season. Marcio Rodriguez, the philosopher among the representatives of the cooperatives, commented: “We’re looking for a fair price in an unfair world. That’s why we’re glad we’ve got the opportunity to express our opinions. Other traders don’t even ask us.”

Communication on an equal footing: in the garden of the conference venue the participants talk to each other about what they do. Photos Karin Heinze
Meetings in the garden of the conference venue
Workshop concerning prize models
High participation of women in the cooperatives
Discussions about price models and working standards
Premium payments and the right to voice their opinions are important for the cooperatives
Picture: Premium payments enabled the cooperative network Soppexcca to build storage facilities, accommodation for harvest workers and a community room. Photo Karin Heinze

The current Mitka price model, that starts with a basic price that can rise with increments for quality, organic and the creation of facilities and structures within the cooperatives, was closely scrutinised. In contrast to the usual practice, the basic price is not fixed in line with the world market price on any one day but is calculated according to the average price during the whole harvest season. In the end, they agreed democratically to continue this system plus an increase in the minimum price. There was general agreement and the representatives of the cooperatives expressed their appreciation of the democratic process: “We’ve got a good system. Above all, we value the excellent communication with Mitka, the understanding that they have for us and the fact that we can talk to each other as equals,” declared Marcio from Pueblo Nueo in Nicaragua in the plenary session and he added that “Mitka is the best thing that could have happened to us.” 
The payment of premiums is very important for the cooperatives because they guarantee, for example, the setting up of medical and educational facilities or infrastructure and technical improvements for the cooperatives.

Mitka as organic ambassador
Otmar Meyer (left) was the moderator
Otmar Meyer (left) was the moderator of the event. Photo Karin Heinze

Otmar Meyer is convinced that even though fair trade constitutes only about 3 % of coffee exports, it nevertheless makes the lives of tens of thousands of people in Nicaragua much better. 30 years ago, he was one of the people who began to create the structures for fair trade in Nicaragua. He is well acquainted with the situation of the small farmers and he advises cooperatives. At the Mitka event too his expertise was in evidence. He said: “Thanks to fair trade we’ve created robust structures in many sectors – not only in coffee production - and these benefit the communities too. Without fair trade much of what we have today would not exist.” Meyer said that the fair trade companies in Europe had promoted these structures. He emphasized the role of Mitka in particular. “Mitka was the first firm, and for a long time the only firm, that consistently supported organic cropping and local organic certification.” He praised the work of Mitka as a whole: “Mitka invests in grass-roots democracy, improvement of standards, training and networks like no other fair trade organisation. It’s prepared to take risks and isn’t afraid of accepting small cooperatives so that they can be integrated into the fair trade system, without any prospect of a quick benefit to the business.”


Trade partners of MITKA (description of the cooperatives

Nicaragua: Kooperativenverbände UCPCO, SOPPEXCCA und Cosatin, Kooperativen La Providencia und Guardabarranco

El Salvador: Kooperative Las Lajas

Mexiko: Kooperative Paluch'en und der Kooperativenverband Yeni Navan

Honduras: Kooperative COMBRIFOL

Guatemala: Kooperative AMNSI.

Lighthouse farm with own compost production. Photos Karin Heinze
Kaffeesträucher in Mischkultur mit Bananenstauden
Exkursion zum Kompostwerk einer Kooperative
Der Faire Handel ermöglicht den Kindern der Kleinbauern eine Schulausbildung
Verschiedene Kaffeesorten werden verkostet



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