Amanda Ege on the Meaning & Importance of Sustainable Development

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Amanda is Fairtrasa’s Head of Sustainability and Senior Manager of Strategy. After completing her undergraduate studies at Yale University, Amanda helped manage a non-profit organization in Guatemala that provided scholarships and support to at-risk youth in poor, rural areas. She then earned her MBA from the Yale School of Management, focusing on rural development in emerging markets. She joined Fairtrasa in 2013.

In this interview, Amanda discusses the meaning and importance of sustainable development for small-scale farmers, and reflects on her own experience with rural community development and social entrepreneurship.

You can also read this interview on Medium.

Fairtrasa recently published its first Sustainability Report. What does “sustainability” mean to Fairtrasa?

As a company, Fairtrasa follows the definition of sustainable development established by the United Nations in 1987: “Sustainable Development meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” We apply this definition to four areas: farmers, communities, the environment, and the global food supply.

With small-scale farmers, this means primarily helping them earn a decent living from farming in the short- and long-term. It also means that they see agriculture and all its necessary support services as a viable career path for their children.

On the community level, it means stimulating real economic development in rural areas that creates the opportunities and conditions for people to get out of poverty without abandoning their homes.

For the environment, it means promoting organic farming, eliminating dangerous agro-chemicals, carefully disposing of waste, and reducing water usage.

Then there’s the issue of the looming global food crisis. We’re going to need to find a way to feed 9 billion people sustainably by the year 2050, and it’s going to require more food production, better supply chains, and more environmentally sustainable practices. We believe empowering small-scale farmers through organic agriculture and fair inclusion in the global supply chain is one of the best ways to address these challenges.
So, for us, sustainability is about all of these things: The livelihoods of farmers, the economic growth of their communities, protecting the environment, and improving the supply chain for healthy food. And we aim to do all of this through Fairtrasa’s sustainable business model.

What role does business play in sustainable development?

I believe business is the best option for helping people support themselves in the long term. NGOs do a lot of valuable work helping marginalized small-scale farmers. It’s important to give farmers resources that they can’t afford when there’s a market failure. But it’s even more empowering when farmers are able to engage in business transactions as equals with their customers and as part of a supply chain linked to markets.
At Fairtrasa, sustainable development and sustainable business go hand-in-hand. We use market forces and train farmers so they can become active participants in the negotiations and business transactions that help them build a better future.

What’s the origin of your own interest in social business and sustainable development?

It grew out of my early interest in local education reform and activism. In high school and college, I was really passionate about giving a voice to students so they could participate in their own curriculum development. At Yale, I did a study abroad program in South Africa, where I got to visit schools and stay with families in different socio-economic situations, including very poor, rural areas. That experience had a huge impact on me, and I became interested in development for the rural poor.

After college, I moved to Guatemala and worked for a non-profit organization that provided scholarships and support to children of poor families, including the children of small-scale farmers. I ended up staying there for 4 years, and spent much of that time as the organization’s operations manager. It was an amazing experience, but one of the things I saw was that even the brightest kids with scholarship support didn’t have the right employment and economic opportunities after they graduated. Our organization was helping all these brilliant kids get an education, but there still weren’t good jobs for them in their home towns.

It was during that time that I began to see how important farming was to rural communities, and how difficult it was for poor, marginalized farmers to survive, let alone provide a better future for their children. So many of them were crippled by debt, or they didn’t own their land and worked as sharecroppers. They couldn’t escape poverty. So I began to see how small-scale farmer development could be an engine for community economic growth. I wanted to understand better how to get more money and opportunity into these areas.

I decided to go to business school to learn more about these dynamics, and chose the Yale School of Management because of its focus on social entrepreneurship. My goal was to learn about business, finance, and investment in developing markets, and to find a way to use that knowledge to help small-scale farmers. I focused on emerging market finance and development, studied market failures and how they happen, and learned how to evaluate businesses, balance sheets, and income statements. It was around that time that I read about Muhammad Yunus’s Grameen Danone project, which struck me as a great example of a “win-win”: a business structure that benefited children in poverty as well as Danone itself. I was convinced that the best solutions for small-scale farmers would come through win-win social businesses.

During business school, I met Patrick Struebi, who had founded Fairtrasa in 2005 in Mexico, and I realized that he was doing exactly the kind of work that interested me, with a social business model that I understood and believed in. It felt like a perfect match, so I joined the company in 2013.

What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about sustainable development during your first few years with Fairtrasa?

One important lesson is that helping small-scale farmers develop is complicated, and it’s crucial to really understand the situation that individual farmers and their communities are facing.

I remember one case where we helped a group of small-scale farmers improve their income dramatically; but when I visited the farmers for the second time, I didn’t see any changes in their material well-being. Then the farmers explained to me that they had to use their income to pay off debts, which they’d been struggling with for years. Debt is a huge reality and challenge for so many of these farmers, but it’s hard to see it even if you visit the farmers in person. So I realized early on that you have to understand farmers’ situations comprehensively in order to address their needs.

A second lesson is that training smallholders is very labor intensive. You need to invest a lot of time in one-on-one mentorship and farm visits. Helping farmers develop from marginalized subsistence growers into certified Organic and Fairtrade exporters requires a lot of education. They have to learn new farming techniques, logistics, certification management, and quality control. They need to understand the demands of the market and the supply chain that they’re joining. So there are serious behavioral changes that needs to happen, and this takes a lot of time and investment.

What is your favorite part about the work you do?

I love visiting our farmers and staff in the countries where we work. I’m based in our headquarters in Zurich, so I sadly don’t get to see our farmers and field staff on a day-to-day basis, but I’ve loved every trip I’ve taken to visit them. It’s always really moving and inspiring to meet the farmers and their families, learn more about their lives, and see the hard work they’re doing. Our local supply and development teams are comprised of really knowledgeable and passionate people, and it’s always inspiring to see the commitment they bring to the job.

What are your plans for the company going forward?

I am very much looking forward to 2017. In 2016, we provided health insurance for all of our farmers and workers in the Dominican Republic and in 2017 we’ll have a social worker ensuring that they know how to take advantages of the services offered to them. We’ll also have several new development projects with small-scale growers in Peru.

Also in 2017, we’ll be doing much more rigorous impact measurement in all of our offices, so we can figure out which of our programs are the most effective at improving the lives of farmers.
Fairtrasa is a pioneering social enterprise that is both profitable and impactful. Going forward, we want to find more effective and efficient ways of scaling our business model and our impact throughout Latin America and possibly Africa and Asia.