17 August, 2017

Coffee is in my blood: Will Valverde looks back on 10 years since his first visit to NZ!

Will In PNG 2017
by Will Valverde interviewed by Fairtrade New Zealand

As someone who has grown up surrounded by coffee farms his entire life, Will Valverde, well-known coffee connoisseur and educator speaks to us about his time with Fairtrade and the importance of striving for continual improvement with farmers and traders in today’s volatile coffee market.

You've been involved with Fairtrade for 19 years. Tell us your story, how did you begin in this field of work?

I come from a coffee growing background in Costa Rica. It’s part of who I am, it’s in my blood.  When I was 12 I joined my first cooperative at school.  The cooperative was set to help us as children to develop some financial literacy skills and to start saving.  Since then I have always been interested in cooperatives, because of the principles that govern them and how they bring people together to resolve common challenges.

In 1998, I joined Coopeagri (a coffee and sugar cooperative) where I was working on the ground helping farmers to be organised and work together, providing access to training and education and developing the cooperative philosophy with the farmers.  At the time Coopeagri had just become a Fairtrade Certified Cooperative and I was hearing a lot about how our sugar and coffee was being sold overseas for better prices. I could see that farmers were benefiting and for me there was a natural fit between my work with farmers and the Fairtrade model.  I like the fact that Fairtrade is supporting farmers working together and helping them to design a better future for themselves.


Will and Rachel

Will with Rachel Levine from Producer Support team at Fairtrade Fortnight event in 2011

In a nutshell what do you do at Fairtrade?

I work in the producer support team. We provide support to producers of coffee, cocoa, vanilla, coconuts and sugar in the Pacific region.  My main focus is on coffee and working with coffee growers in PNG, Solomon Islands, and East Timor.  I have been working with a number of groups across these remote coffee growing regions since 2011.  

My job involves helping farmers to develop their organisations so they can benefit from the Fairtrade economy. This involves working together to find solutions to the many challenges they face - things like access to information technology and training, provision of farming equipment and more recently, training on harvesting and processing techniques to help improve the quality and consistency of their coffee.


Will on one of his first producer training visits to HOAC in 2012 

When did you first start working in New Zealand and why?

It was 2007 when I was invited to visit New Zealand to be part of Fairtrade Fortnight.  At the time, I was a member of Coopeagri sharing our story and journey of being a Fairtrade Cooperative and the difference it had made to our community.  I really enjoyed my time in New Zealand, we travelled the length of the country on a very packed schedule visiting local community groups, schools, churches and giving media interviews.  I remember thinking that NZ was a very special place, different to any place I had visited before.  What really left an impression on me was the level of interest by Kiwis in the concept of Fairtrade  As a member of a farmer cooperative it reaffirmed for me our obligation as farmers to be the best we could because there were people out there who were passionate about our issues and wanted to support us through Fairtrade.  A few months after returning to Costa Rica we started trading sugar and coffee with some Kiwi companies and a couple of years later an opportunity came up to work at Fairtrade Australia & New Zealand so I applied and the rest is history.

Producer Tour 2007

 Will being interviewed as a Fairtrade producer on his first visit to NZ in 2007

Do you miss working in Costa Rica?

I’m a very adaptable person so I don’t miss it so much.  In fact people in Costa Rica on average have longer working days and heavier workloads than here in New Zealand.  The typical working week is 48 hours and often includes work on the weekends - so it’s really nice here to be able to spend the weekends with my family. There is also a good community of Latin Americans in Auckland so it feels like home away from home (except for the weather!).  

The one thing I do miss from working in Coopeagri was that we had beautiful gardens near the office where I would go for my lunch break.  The gardens were full of tropical fruit trees such as oranges, mangoes and guavas, which was a real treat for lunch! Ok, so maybe I do miss it a little, especially during winter and Christmas!

What has been your greatest moment of satisfaction working at Fairtrade? Do you have any particularly symbolic memories?

One of the most touching moments for me was when I was visiting a coffee group in PNG on a planned visit. On my way back I spontaneously decided to drop in on another group nearby who we’d had some contact with before.  As I walked into the village I could see a big group of farmers sitting together, men and women with children playing nearby.  As I approached I could see that the two farmers who had joined us at a previous training session were using our tools and training resources to passionately teach fellow farmers about Fairtrade and the cooperative way of working.  It was amazing to see.  It showed me that not only had they understood the concept but they also saw the benefit and opportunity for their community.  I always say that Fairtrade is about farmer empowerment and being farmer-led and here it was in action.


Fairtrade workshop in Papua New Guinea

 Producer Support team delivering solar panels to HOAC as part of Information Technology project 2015

Climate change threatens biodiversity: which crops have been more affected in the last years and which risk the most in the near future?

It is without a doubt one of the biggest challenges that all farmers are facing today.  From my experience with coffee farmers in PNG and Timor, over recent years they have seen decreasing yields due to changing temperatures. Changes in the seasons have also meant that there is less predictability with the weather and doing things like harvesting and drying coffee beans is consistently getting harder.  There has also been an increase in pests and diseases. On a recent visit to Timor I started to see more Coffee Berry Borer (a beetle that attacks the coffee berry and ruins the coffee bean inside), a disease which thrives on moist and hotter conditions and can multiply very quickly if not carefully controlled.  For many of the farmers we work with, coffee farming is their main source of income and if they lose that I don’t know how they will put food on the table.  

Similarly in Fiji we have seen the recent devastating cyclones - most recently that of Winston that wiped out 40% of sugar crops across the country.  Some farmers we know lost their entire crop, their houses and have been reliant on state handouts and support ever since.  They are facing the worst of climate change impacts and are the least prepared or resourced for it.


Why is Fairtrade important to New Zealand?

From my first visit to New Zealand I could see how Kiwis are kind and compassionate people who are always willing to help each other when in need, but I also learnt about the Kiwi idea of a “fair go” which is what Fairtrade is all about - giving people a hand up, not a handout, and helping them to reach their full potential.

TV One Interview

 Will being interviewed by Nadine Ross Chalmers for One News, in 2010

As each purchase means we are “voting with our wallet”, what would be your electoral appeal to reach hesitant Fairtrade voters in front of a supermarket shelf?

If you buy a product with the Fairtrade Mark you know that you are supporting a small farmer or a worker, you know together we are making a difference to their communities.  It’s more than just a purchase, it’s an instrument of change, and you can be that agent of change.

What is your vision for Fairtrade in the future?

I see Fairtrade as a living model driven by a movement of consumers, farmers and brands.   I can see Fairtrade working with brands sharing our knowledge and expertise so they can integrate Fairtrade into their own sustainability programmes in a transparent and accountable way.  For the farmers I work with, my hope is that they will become strong cooperatives, thriving communities, standing on their own, able to trade their coffee on international markets and continuing to benefit from Fairtrade.


Will and Mike

 Will with Mike Murphy - Managing Director from Kokako on a roaster visit as part of his tour in 2007

What do you believe most people misunderstand about Fairtrade and the work you do at origin?

I think a lot of people only see Fairtrade as a few components, mainly price and the Fairtrade Premium (the extra sum of money cooperatives receive for community or business development projects of their choice), but Fairtrade covers the whole concept of true sustainability - Fairtrade has strong environmental criteria for example.  The key thing is that Fairtrade is a model of development, driving for continual improvement with farmers and traders.  It’s not just a certification tick box, there is a lot more than people realise behind that blue and green Mark

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