Center for Fair & Alternative Trade

Colorado State University

"New Methods for Sustainable Development: Participatory Commodity Networking within South Africa’s Emerging Rooibos Tea Sector" Jennifer Keahey

Presented by Jennifer Keahey, CSU Sociology Doctoral Candidate & CFAT Research Assistant

On Friday, May 04, 2012 Jennifer Keahey (Sociology Doctoral Candidate and CFAT Research Assistant) presented “New Methods for Sustainable Development: Participatory Commodity Networking within South Africa’s Emerging Rooibos Tea Sector.” This presentation may be seen as an extension of the seminar discussion that CFAT began in April 2011, when Sandra Kruger presented PAR Methodologies for the 21st Century.

Via generous support from the 2010 USAID Horticulture Collaborative Research Support Program (HortCRSP), Ms. Keahey collaborated with scholars, practitioners, farmers, and industry actors to develop a Rooibos action research program. Stakeholders included emerging farmers, their communities, and various commodity network groups. The core project team included local training services provider Sandra Kruger and Associates (SKA) and a group of farmer leaders who were elected by their communities at project outset. This partnership enabled Keahey to operationalize a commodity networking approach to producer support as part of her dissertation research.

South Africa’s government denotes farmers of color as ‘emerging’ in recognition of their historical exclusion from land and markets. Under apartheid, non-white farmers were excluded from Rooibos production and trade. Post-apartheid reforms have promoted industry diversification and as the global demand for Rooibos has grown, emerging groups have organized to access alternative certifications such as Fair Trade and organics. While South African Fair Trade growth has occurred almost entirely within its white-dominated hired-labor sector, emerging Rooibos producers comprised the first South Africans to enter Fair Trade markets under smallholder standards. Despite these prospects, FLO has instituted both smallholder and hired-labor standards within Rooibos and less-advantaged emerging farmers must compete with well-established commercial actors for market access. Whereas many commodity network actors support emerging farmer involvement, information exchange remains problematic and structural power relations continue to hinder performance as most emerging Rooibos producers have yet to reap livable wages from production.

To address these concerns and frame research engagement, Keahey integrated the following conceptual components: (1) commodity network analysis, (2) sociopolitical theories of power, (3) Sen-Nussbaum human capabilities, (4) participatory action research (PAR), and (5) Participatory Action Training-of-Trainers (PAToT). Commodity network analysis enabled Keahey to connect multiple units of analysis and thereby capture multilateral linkages from within a unifying framework. She incorporated theories of power to directly examine the democratic, bureaucratic, and social dimensions influencing network engagement. In conjunction with SKA, she applied human capabilities precepts to initial workshop design in order to capture producer resources, capabilities, and training needs. PAR provided an overarching ethical framework, and by connecting PAR with farmer leadership training, the project team was able to more effectively integrate research, training, and networking components.

Keahey maintained a grassroots focus by working directly with farmer leaders and members of participating project communities. Facilitators first conducted capabilities workshops, at which time farmer leadership elections were held. Workshop findings directly informed the development of PAToT sessions, PAR fieldwork, and related commodity networking activities. As engagement progressed, the team’s understanding of participation deepened and farmer leaders increasingly took control over research and training activities. In terms of research, they developed farmer sampling frames, helped conduct interviews, engaged in data analysis, and facilitated final community surveys. By linking research with training, the team was able to share research visions well in advance and Keahey provided leaders with the technical support necessary for research participation. Broader PAToT also helped leaders develop public speaking capacity. In final project stages the leaders designed and facilitated workshops within their own communities, as well as presented emerging farmer concerns at a commodity network policy seminar.

Action research outcomes are promising. Not only did the involvement of farmer leaders in the research process enable a significantly deeper understanding of emerging Rooibos farmer challenges and opportunities, the team found that the New Methods approach provides the flexibility necessary for broad-based commodity networking. The concept of an integrated training/research framework is well suited to promoting participatory engagement and numerous network actors are working to align interests via collaborative information exchange. Yet challenges also remain: the persistence of structural inequalities makes it difficult for emerging Rooibos groups to develop long-term network and trade partnerships, and in particular, producers note the short-term and often inconsistent nature of both trade and community development efforts.

Commodity network capacity building requires multilateral information sharing, but despite progressive transformations, network functioning continues to limit the potential for less advantaged groups to engage with the systems that impact their livelihoods. Where their involvement is present, it is difficult to distinguish between pseudo and genuine forms of participation, particularly in large projects or trade initiatives that attempt to bring together diverse groups. Power imbalances are intractable precisely because they are so often subtle: as members of a fundamentally unequal world, people tend to behave in socially proscribed ways that have been informed by crosscutting colonial and post-colonial inequalities. Pseudo-participation does not require malicious intent, but is more likely an unintended consequence of superficial and/or unconscious action.

More genuine forms of participation may help actors realize social, environmental and economic sustainability, but in-depth involvement requires all groups to address entrenched assumptions. To devise solutions to pressing development concerns, scholars and practitioners should invest in research that promotes multilateral dialogue. Indeed, the project team worked hard to unite its diverse interests and skills in order to realize mutual goals and while Keahey provided the conceptual framework, the critical contributions of each team member made New Methods synthesis possible.