The story starts in an independent coffee house in Madison, Wisconsin, selling excellent and fairly traded coffee. At the time Palestinian born Nasser Abufarha, was working on his PhD (in cultural anthropology and international development – if you must know) and hence was a frequent customer.

Nasser Abufarha: ‘I was lucky to have the chance to study in the US, I always thought that I want to give something back to my people’

While enjoying a break and his coffee he started thinking about the concept behind Fair Trade. Could a system that benefitted smallholder coffee farmers be made to work for olive growers near Jenin, Nasser’s hometown? With his PhD, his charm, enthusiasm, business sense and a green card Nasser could easily have chosen the good life in the US, far away from the political troubles and poverty of the West Bank. ‘But Palestine is my home’, says Nasser, ‘I was lucky to have the chance to study in the US, I always thought that I want to give something back to my people’.

Olive tree and its fruits

Returning to Jenin it was easy for him to see the problems Palestinian olive growers were facing: the local market for olive oil was small, selling the oil to neighbouring Israel or even export it was too complicated and costly for small holders which is why most farmers ended up selling their olives for low prices to middle men. None of the farmers around Jenin Nasser talked to made enough money to support their families, most had to search for other work, some gave up their groves altogether.

The olives are hand picked in early autumn and are pressed immediately after harvesting

In 2004 he founded the Palestinian Fair Trade Association (PFTA) and Canaan Fair Trade, a processing and marketing company with an export licence. Since then he’s turned around the lives of thousands of Palestinian olive growers and their families: they now produce excellent olives for which they are not just guaranteed a good price, they also get a Fair Trade premium. The olives are hand-harvested and are immediately delivered to the Canaan processing plant where state of the art technology helps to gently extract the oil, preserving its flavour and natural qualities.

Canaan’s state-of-the-art press. Decorated with calligraphy of words relate to the fair trade concept, and to the culture of the olive harvest as a way of appreciation for the farmers’ work

It’s then bottled, packed and shipped to destinations worldwide, including the US and the EU. Canaan has become a well-established brand for high quality olive oil and Palestinian olive growers receive a good price – but for most of them Fair Trade is more than that: ‘Fair trade for me is pride. I am prouder, I have more dignity and a better life. Instead of selling the land to make money, I am buying land (…), I invest in my land and I make money’, a farmer, Odeh Abed Al Aziz Ali, told a researcher compiling a seven year impact study of Canaan Fair Trade.

Nasser Abufarha is still working on his dream – Canaan helps women farming cooperatives to diversify, it facilitates micro credits, internships and stipends… And who knows what else Nasser will come up in the future – just give the man another coffee.

Photo credit: Canaan Fair Trade