CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: Organic rooibos tea farmers of the Heiveld Cooperative from Nieuwoudtville in the Northern Cape have a quandary. These emerging farmers produce a boutique product that’s ethically and environmentally sound. But to reach their international markets, they have to ship the tea great distances, which racks up ‘air miles’ and gives the product a big carbon footprint.

Ideally, they’d like to tap into a market here in South Africa, one that’s prepared to pay a premium for tea that’s been grown in a way that treads lightly on the environment, while also benefiting poor black farmers. Reaching this kind of local market would also help absorb some of their produce as international sales dip in the wake of the global recession.

‘Niche producers like these face very real challenges. But these challenges also present an opportunity for market expansion,’ says Mandy Moussouris, from Cape Town-based non-governmental organisation EMG (Environmental Monitoring Group).

EMG recently brought together a collective of farmers, retailers and civil society organisations who are concerned with linking producers of ethically and environmentally sound produce, with domestic markets.

‘Small scale farmers meet many of the criteria for ethically and environmentally responsible produce. But they struggle to access markets that are prepared to pay a premium for their produce, either because of the distance from the markets, or because they don’t have a critical mass so that scales of economy work in their favour,’ explains Moussouris.

Dried produce like tea and raisons are easy to export, but the fresh vegetable growers need to sell more locally because of the short shelf life and small volumes of their goods.

The cost and complication of certification with global standards like Fairtrade can also be prohibitive for some small producers.

‘We’ve been talking about establishing an ethical network, a loose collective of parties throughout the food value chain, aimed at linking these producers with local markets that want ethical produce. For instance this network would make it easier to link the Nieuwoudtville rooibos tea farmers with the Ethical Co-Op here in Cape Town.’

The workshop was a step towards hammering out what kind of support a network like this would need to provide various parties in the ethical food value chain. Knowledge sharing around certification, and research into accessing markets were identified as two areas that needed attention.

‘We’re going to meet again in six months to see what we’ve learned in terms of how to get best practice certification with local Participatory Guarantee System. And we’ll see what happens around the idea of small farmers setting up their own union.’

Moussouris says there’s also scope for a network like this to lobby the National Planning Commission to makes its policy on small scale farming more appropriate for the sector.