Agnes is one of the women working for Level Ground in Tanzania. Her face can be found on the packaging of their Tanzanian coffee.

Agnes is one of the women working for Level Ground in Tanzania. Her face can be found on the packaging of their Tanzanian coffee.

WOMEN IN BUSINESS – Working toward a level ground

Level Ground’s initiative in Colombia is another example of direct fair trade changing the lives of people

In Tanzania coffee beans are typically sorted by women.

In the community where Level Ground Trading does business, all were women and virtually all were mothers.

But while there was a health clinic nearby, high costs meant these families weren’t accessing it.

In looking for possible solutions, Level Ground set up a health plan for each worker, which amounted to $25 per year per household.

For the Victoria-based company founded on the principles of direct fair trade, “part of the cost of doing business is ensuring the women who are sorting the beans have access to health care,” explains Stacey Toews, Level Ground co-founder.

Based on the success of the initial program, the health care initiative spread further to also encompass the drivers and workers on-site.

It’s just one example of the efforts to spread the philosophies of direct fair trade in an increasingly globalized system, where the faces of the workers are less and less visible.

And that’s exactly while you’ll see the faces of the people responsible for the products on Level Ground’s packaging, Toews explains. “We’re trying to make it a really human transaction; we’re trying to humanize trade.”

Level Ground was founded by four families in 1997 for the purpose of improving the lives of disadvantaged producers through trade. Its first trade relationship was with a cooperative of small-scale coffee farmers in Antioquia, Colombia. For the families in the area, their greatest wish was greater access to education for their children, and that very first year, six students received full scholarships to high school. In fact, all of these original students completed high school with top marks and went on to attend university and technical colleges on scholarships.

Today, Level Ground is working in nine countries, and with an expanding product line sourcing the harvest of 5,000 farmers. “A big part of what we’re doing now is making a name for fair trade beyond coffee,” Toews says.

That means that in addition to coffee from Tanzania, you’ll also find dried mango from Colombia and coconut oil from the Philippines. Soon to come is tea from Assam, India, with spices from Sri Lanka.

Level Ground’s initiative in Colombia is another example of direct fair trade changing the lives of the people it touches.

Because of the country’s on-going internal conflicts, many women have been displaced by violence. Typically rural women whose husbands, and sometimes children, have been kidnapped and forced to work as soldiers under threat of violence to the remaining family, the women have fled to refugee camps outside Bogota, often with children. The women have suffered the terrible results of violence and trauma, and “most of all, they needed a stepping stone to employment,” Toews says.

In looking for a business model that would both work and provide employment, Level Ground explored how to adapt Okanagan fruit-drying technology to South America, where the entire crop of mangoes ripens within a six to eight-week window.

The result is Fruandes – fruit from the Andes. The program has created 30 full-time jobs, where the women work cutting, drying and processing the fruit. And as further “value-added” for the region, Level Ground has also helped the 130 farmers they’re working with get their organic certification.

Coming up, watch for Level Ground’s tea, expected to hit the shelves in the middle of this year.