Ndali Vanilla, Fort Portal Uganda


July 14 & 15, 2010


Since I arrived in the dark, it was much to my surprise to awake to an absolutely beautiful estate. Turns out the main lodge and my cabin were situated on top of a mountain between two lakes! It was a beautiful view and a welcome awakening as I enjoyed my breakfast on the porch overlooking the lake.

Shortly after breakfast, I finally met Lulu Sturdy, owner and operator of Ndali Vanilla. (www.ndali.net)  We met over coffee getting to know each other’s stories and discussed the model of fair trade and how it applies to her work in the vanilla industry. Lulu basically pioneered the movement amongst the local farmers organizing 1000 of them to become a fair trade certified co-operative. She has a lot to be recognized for and I was honoured to meet her and grateful that she had welcomed my visit. Her knowledge and experience was very educational for me and I found myself talking with her in great interest.

One of her challenges within the fair trade model is a lack of significant sales in the western markets. It would become the common thread of all visits in the coming days that producers can’t sell enough of their product at fair trade prices. For that which they do, it’s fantastic. But they need more. While the product that’s sold at fair trade prices is making an impact, (her farmers are making 5 times what they made before), there is plenty of room to sell more.

Other challenges lie in the administrative side of the model. FLO requires annual meetings, minutes, voting for leaders and so on. While well intentioned, gathering farmers from across the mountains of Uganda can be a challenge and costly for them. As well, most farmers  are illiterate, so something as simple as taking minutes and keeping records can be a huge challenge when required by FLO to maintain their fair trade status.

Touring the Facility:


James & Lulu Sturdy, Founder of Ndali Fair Trade Vanilla

Knowing nothing about vanilla, I was excited to be getting a tour of the Ndali facility to learn about vanilla production as well as fair trade.

When I first arrived I was greeted by Kato Bernerd, the facility manager. He was very friendly and answered many of my questions. This was my first visit to any fair trade facility, so I was eager to hear and observe working conditions, wages, what the premiums might be used for, etc. Kato was helpful in telling me about these things. He confirmed that the employees work regular 8 hour shifts with standard breaks and that their wages are higher. I asked him if people are trying to get in to work here being as the situation is so much better, and he said with a smile: “Yes, I get many requests every week.”

Social initiatives have been funded by the premiums as well. For example, a medical clinic was built, micro-loans issued to start a bee farm for honey production, and school fees can be afforded as well as clothes for their families due to the higher wages. Not only this, but Lulu’s business has been doing so well that she has managed to increase her staff fourfold, thereby bringing these positive impacts to more people.

Since trading at fair trade prices, Ndali has shifted focus from basic survival, to improving health & social improvements for workers. Here are some additional benefits:

1. Ndali donated a cash sum to the workers which they now own and have pooled together to form a loan fund. Workers apply to the committee of the loan fund (made up of elected Ndali staff) and obtain loans for things like buying land, building houses, buying cows, paying for a wedding etc. The workers themselves decided to charge themselves interest so that the fund would grow and they could extend the number and size of the loans. Ndali will be adding to this fund each year with some of the profits from FT sales.

2. No longer rushing about trying to squeeze every penny out of every hour (thanks to fair trade sales) Ndali encourages the staff to break off work an hour early twice a week to play games of their choice on the football pitch. This they do with much zeal and has sparked a whole series of football teams to form in the region which regularly play matches and tournaments on Ndali’s football field.

3. They play games – all 90 plus staff – on the football pitch every Wed morning for 2 hours; after which they collapse with a hot very sweet milky tea made with milk from the farm’s cows. Games played are volley ball, badminton, rounders (type of baseball), frisbee and lots of “very daft running games”. The games are a fantastic ‘leveler’ for managers to be viewed by the other workers as equals, and has really brought the staff together into a lighthearted energetic team off the playing field.

4. Once a month on a Friday afternoon during work hours all staff watch a film at the processing factory. This alternates between educational films such as David Attenborough’s Planet Earth, and something more relaxed chosen by the staff such as a Nigerian drama or Kung Fu Panda.

5. Ndali takes all the staff on an annual outing using FT profits: the last outing was to Queen Elizabeth Game Park where they saw a lion chase a warthog just metres from where they were, and elephants galore. In the afternoon they went on a boat to see hippo and crocodile (96 of the 98 staff had never set foot on a boat, so this was an interesting affair!) Moreover most of the staff had never seen a Ugandan Cob (a type of deer), let alone a lion and despite only being two hours away from Ndali, none had the resources to visit Uganda’s best-loved game park and see the animals that used to in fact roam all over the Ndali area 150 years ago.

6. With the higher wages the workers get, they are making improvements at home which is spreading among their families and relatives and moving like a slow fire through the communities. For instance they can afford to hire local people to work in their fields; others have bought plots of land; some have bought motorbikes and begun a ‘taxi’ service; one has opened a hardware and basic food supplies shop; all are happy that they can afford to take their family members to a proper doctor if they fall sick; and also have enough spare cash to make donations within the community, including helping out orphans with schooling or housing, or neighbours who need medical help; trees and flowers are popping up along the roadsides and in their gardens. In sum, fair trade is helping to spread a flowering of possibilities, not just among those directly involved with the system, but throughout whole communities through knock-on effect. The changes are slow and happen naturally, but precisely because of these two factors they are deep, internal and long-lasting: in strong contrast to a quick, forced change that is only surface deep – as is often the case with well-intentioned donor/aid money.

Speak Your Mind