Naturland Fair

On making a living income come true

Results of a research project on living income in organic farming and fair trade in Burundi

Ann-Kristin Schmidt, Naturland e.V.

What do you expect from your wage or income? Probably, that it allows you to afford decent housing, nutritious food, the medical support you need, to invest in your own or your children’s education and – in the best case – to build reserve assets for your future and times of crises. However, especially in underprivileged regions, there is a gap between a so-called living income and the actual household income. Naturland Fair wants to reduce it: A study with the Burundian union of coffee cooperatives COCOCA reveals promising levers on the ‘how’.

Fair trade has high ambitions: to foster decent living conditions for all stakeholders along global supply chains by long-term trading under fair standards. The reality is that this goal sometimes cannot be reached or proved due to a lack of data collection and analysis.

Therefore, Naturland Fair implemented a one-year-research project on "Living Income: Sufficient family income through agroforestry systems, fair trade and organic farming in Burundi" together with the University of Burundi and the Rottenburg University of Applied Forest Sciences. The aim is to think food security and living income in disadvantaged regions together. Therefore, different factors contributing to closing the gap between real and living family income in typical rural poverty regions were identified. They help to envision new fair-trade strategies for Naturland with partners. The research was based on data of Naturland Fair certified members worldwide, international fair trade literature as well as data and concepts circulated in the “Living Income Community of Practice” for measuring living income.

Fair trade is an entry ticket to global markets, but cannot guarantee a living income

BIOFACH 2023 in Nuremberg, the world´s leading trade fair for organic food, was the perfect event to discuss the findings of the research project and present the resulting position paper to an international audience. Dr. Christina Weber, team leader of Naturland Fair and Social Responsibility, introduced the research and explained the role of an organic and fair certification when striving for Living incomes. Burundian project lead Audace Niyonzima, Assistant Professor at the University of Burundi at the Faculty of Agronomy and Bio-Engineering, enhanced the discussion presenting data and local empirical evidence. The panel was moderated by Dr. Jutta Kister from Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt as research expert on global value chains in fair trade.

Dr. Christina Weber (Naturland Fair & Social Responsibility), Audace Niyonzima (University of Burundi) and Dr. Jutta Kister (Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt at Biofach 2023 in Nuremberg. Source: Naturland e.V./ Sabine Bielmeier

Cultivation at different levels in agroforestry systems in Burundi: Tall trees form a shade canopy, mulch protects the soil. Source: Naturland e.V./ Christina Weber

“The very initial thought of fair trade is to raise a living standard”, initiates Dr. Weber the session. However, even though connected to a fair trade supply chain, smallholders sometimes face a large gap between the measurable level of a living income and the income actually achieved. It is a struggle that needs to be addressed and supported while also building awareness: Consumers in affluent societies might wonder why to pay higher prices for fair trade products when farmers still do not earn a living income. On the other side, producers wonder whether added value of a living income outweighs the added bureaucracy of new calculations. Fair trade certification givers do provide the “entry ticket” to a global market by signaling fair trade production but cannot regulate the market prices.

Facing this complexity, the research aimed to answer the question: How to derive strategies to close the gap between living income and real income by fair trade and organic agriculture in regions and populations struggling for food security?

Burundi’s agricultural sector offers potentials for closing the income gap: through technical efficiency and entrepreneurial skill development

Audace Niyonzima laid the foundations for an exemplary region by explaining the high importance of subsistence and crop agriculture and coffee export for Burundi.

Some facts and figures about agriculture in Burundi:

  • Local agriculture accounts for 95 percent of food supply and 84 percent of the working population works in the sector. Therefore, it is a huge guarantor for national food security.
  • Nationally, around 40 percent of GDP is due to the agricultural sector.
  • Internationally, the only link to the world market is coffee.
  • In all, this shows clearly that the agricultural sector needs to enable decent living and working conditions to reduce poverty among rural households in Burundi. Because currently, there is a gap between a living and a real income of around 30 percent (living income of 1,855 USD per year vs. real income of 1,268 USD per year).
  • The good news is: A one percent increase in technical efficiency would allow a 12 percent increase in household income. Consequently, technical support for small scale farmers to optimize their use of available cultivable land can have a great impact.

In addition to technical efficiency as an important factor in increasing household income, the study revealed other variables: the education level of landowners, a multipurpose cultivation on small fields for higher harvest volumes, the possibility to incorporate workers, and lastly, a factor that Weber points out as particularly promising: entrepreneurial training and, hence, entrepreneurial activity. Research showed: This does not mean that all family members should become entrepreneurs while being farmers at the same time. In fact, if only one family member is entrepreneurially active providing an additional income to the family, this contributes to closing the gap between living and real income significantly.

The reason: Entrepreneurial thinking allows to see and find opportunities, for example the access to more productive technologies, transportation, contacts that increase the organic farm’s productivity. “Training entrepreneurial thinking and financial literacy; not just thinking in supply chains but in new business models for additional value” – this could also bridge the gap between unemployment and living income goals, explains Dr. Weber.

We do our share in enabling a living income for farmers: by both seizing our area of influence and area of control

Dr. Weber concludes that for us as an international association of organic agriculture engaged in fair trade certification, this can become part of our area of control – as opposed to an area of influence: We can decide to provide not only training on organic farming but include basic entrepreneurship training. Furthermore, when adding the living income or wage in fair trade certification standards, we could as well include food security principles to highlight this topic’s relevance for consumers and us, as certification givers (see also “Sustainable Development Goal 2: No Hunger”). Equally important factors that we can actively control are price and wage transparency and reliable long-term contracts with farmers.

By contrast, we must not underestimate our area of influence: By collaborating with partners and engaging in advocacy and political action, we can contribute to shaping market prices, the supply chain and eventually enable minimum living standards. Lastly, we should increase awareness on our power as consumers through “unlearning our consumption patterns and rethinking our influence on fair global trading”. Both the area of control and the area of influence left the audience at BIOFACH 2023 with a clear message and call to discussion: There is a lot to do! Let us join forces to derive actionable strategies together, so the living income claim is set to governments and becomes a reality for farmers and workers worldwide.

If you would like to learn more about all factors that leverage the living income, the case study research results in Burundi and the conclusions drawn by Naturland Fair team, we invite you to have a look at our newly published position paper.

This text is a translation. No guarantee can be given for the correctness.


Ann-Kristin Schmidt is specialist for Naturland Fair and focuses on innovation projects and networking activities in the field of fair trade and social responsibility. Moreover, she is responsible for social and community-supported agriculture at Naturland.

Further information:

More information about the project can be found here: https://www.naturland.de/en/producers/projects/research-network/living-income.html

Other useful link: https://www.living-income.com/

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