Fruitful Success for Palestine
02 Mar 2010
The Story of the World’s First Fair Trade Olive Oil
Attention: This article has been imported from our old websiteWhile we've taken every precaution to ensure that the content of this article remains intact, it may contain errors.
From the steep terraces of Jenin to the heights of Gilboa, you hear the sound of strings and stamping feet. It’s just a murmur at first but with every beat there’s more vigour as the Dabke takes off. The leader waves his beads like olives in the breeze, and the local kids gather round. Their cousins have journeyed home, the harvest is in and the festivities begin.
For Mohammed Isa of the Anin Co-op for Olive Oil Production, there are more reasons to celebrate the harvest this year than in the past. For the first time, his oil will be sold with Fairtrade certification. This means, he will sell more of it, at a higher price, to a wider clientele — and be able to invest in next year’s production. He’s proud too, to be part of the world’s first initiative for fair trade olive oil.
In 2004, when Heather Masoud and Cathi Pawson first contacted the Fairtrade Foundation about Palestinian olive oil, they didn’t get much of a response. “It was seen as a developed country product — from Italy or Greece,” explains Heather.
The two women, who originally met through a permaculture course, had just returned from a spell as peace volunteers in the West Bank. They had been struck by the prevalence of the olive tree — there are terraces everywhere — and its central role in Palestinian culture. But they had also met olive farmers who were unable to access markets, due to restrictions on movement imposed by the Israeli occupation and were determined to do something constructive.
“It was a combination of the warmest hospitality I have ever received and the scale of the injustice,” explains Heather, who is married to a Dabke dancer from Gaza. “We met farmers who’d lost trees to Israeli settlements and whose land had been cut off by the [security] wall. You’d see this swimming pool, golf course sort of environment and then down in the villages, you’d turn the taps and there’d be no water. In a very British way, we were thinking: ‘Surely, if something is illegal you can pick it up with someone and change it…’”
They soon realised that it wasn’t quite as simple as that. But, while the politics may be frozen, perhaps trade could offer hope. So, once back in Britain, they explored options. At first, they assumed that the sort of fair trade groups who’d bought Nicaraguan coffee would also be a natural market for Palestinian olive oil. However, initial research was discouraging. “We couldn’t find anyone who was planning to import it,” Heather recalls, “so, we thought we’d give it a go.”
Today, just four years down the line, the pair are directors of Zaytoun CIC, a community interest company that takes its name from the Arabic for ‘olive’. It’s the first UK company to import olive oil and other produce from Palestine and the first in the world to win both organic and Fairtrade accreditation for it. The combined achievements helped Heather win the 2009 ‘Women in Ethical Business Award’, sponsored by Triodos Bank.
“We want this olive oil to be an education medium,” she says. “It’s a nice way to tell people about what is happening in Palestine, while they’re consuming a delicious product.”
Sympathy for the farmers’ plight helped to get Zaytoun off the ground. “We had volunteers coming in to do graphic design. One did the labels to meet food trading standards and a Turkish guy lent us warehouse space for the first import.”
Zaytoun’s opening order was for just 200 bottles. “But a word-of-mouth thing happened,” says Heather. “Those bottles just disappeared.” They began to market it more widely and six weeks later, their second order was for 5,000 bottles.
By the end of 2005, it was clear that Zaytoun had too much potential to be run solely on a part-time, voluntary basis. If they were to keep going, they had to earn a living. So in 2006, they took the plunge and launched themselves as a registered company with a co-operative structure, inspired by other well-known fair trade brands, such as Divine and Cafe Direct. Meanwhile, their suppliers were proposing a little diversification. As Heather explains: “They kept saying things like: ‘Do you know that Palestinian dates are amazing?’ Medjoul dates are grown in the Jordan valley; big, fat, really good ones.”
So, they began to buy dates, followed by soap from Nablus and prize-winning long grain couscous, hand-rolled by a women’s co-operative at Ein Al Sultan refugee camp, in Jericho.
Zaytoun now has two full-time members of staff and three that are part-time, including Taysir Arabasi, its director in Palestine. In the last financial year, they imported 80,000 litres of olive oil. This year, with their first Fairtrade-certified harvest bringing new bulk buyers onboard from The Co-operative and Equal Exchange, they’re expecting sales to grow by at least 30 per cent. “At the moment, we’re still covering costs,” says Heather, “but we are aiming to be turning a profit in about three years.”
Heather is also hopeful that they will bring in about £100,000 additional funds over the next year, as a mix of loans and grants. So far, the company has relied on initial charitable support from The Funding Network, a loan and overdraft from Triodos Bank, and a large network of volunteers and solidarity NGOs giving both their time and their custom.
Zaytoun would like to offer their producers a stake in the company, Heather says, but first: “we need to borrow some expertise … There’s so much that we’d like to do better.” There’s a lot of cross-cultural learning to be done too. Zaytoun organise exchanges, whereby European students travel to the West Bank to visit co-operatives during harvest time and Palestinian farmers come to the UK to speak at Fairtrade Fortnight events and to learn more about the market. “Fair trade sounds like a nice concept to our producers, but they want to understand why customers would be prepared to pay premiums when you can get very cheap European olive oil.”
Meeting the exacting standards of large-scale European food buyers has been a bit of a learning curve for the producers, too. They have had to grapple with everything, from correctly ventilated storage for controlling the levels of acidity and peroxide, to submitting their produce for organoleptic (taste) tests. “The farmers have really embraced all of this,” Heather says, “and they’re proud of the results.”
French olive growers council, Adolive, declared Zaytoun oil to be: “Very fine, harmonious, in terms of both fragrance and taste … with salad-like hints of green bean, broad bean [and] young walnut … with a peppery, even spicy finish.”
And, while some farmers struggle to adapt to organic methods, for Zaytoun’s producers it was simply business as usual. Most have never been able to afford fertiliser and other chemical inputs, so there was little to change. “It’s hand-picked, rain-fed agriculture, really suited to the hilly terrain,” Heather says, “and the trees take so long to bear fruit, they’re passed down from generation to generation.” Which is why the whole family comes home for the harvest.
Article courtesy of Green Futures
If you enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation
Donating helps us keep reporting on positive news