In his previous interview Edward Akapire, Head of Region for Fairtrade West Africa introduced the Fairtrade philosophy. Fairtrade West Africa work to address imbalances in the conventional trade system by providing access to sustainable markets for producers and traders, empowering producers to give them a voice within the Fairtrade movement and within their countries and regions.

In this piece we take a look behind the scenes at our engagement with the Fairtrade West Africa team. Together, we explored the potential of a networks approach to open up possibilities for further empowerment of the West Africa producer network.

We worked virtually with the Fairtrade West Africa teams supporting cocoa producers in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, and the team working with other products, (banana, cashew, shea, coconut and mango) across West Africa.

The pace of our work and the profound journey we travelled together is testament to the passion and commitment of the Fairtrade team in quickly grasping and applying the principles we discussed and translating them into immediate action.

Setting the Context

Our first step was to build an understanding of the current context, recognising the knowledge, skills and experience the team brought to the engagement. We explored how they have arrived at where they are today, the challenges and successes they experienced along the way.

We tailored our approach and design to meet their specific needs and desire for impact. We absorbed information, listened closely to the team and heard what’s happening now, where their priorities lie and supported the team to create a shared perspective for their future ambitions. Articulating this future vision for impact enabled the team step out of the constraints of the present to create a new pathway forward.

This shared perspective gave us a strong foundation to explore the Converge Networks Approach as a basis for empowering members and deepening member engagement across Fairtrade West Africa producers.

Adopting a Networks Approach

Clarifying Purpose

Fairtrade West Africa’s re-articulated and shared future vision gave clear purpose; both what we wanted to achieve through this engagement and how this work will support the team in achieving this vision.

Convening People

Working across the teams, we used our tailored stakeholder mapping process to explore the complex web of stakeholders, producer organisations, government buyers, donors, traders and regulators that they engage with.

This exercise provided an opportunity to articulate the purpose which aligns these stakeholders. There was a shift in perspective in seeing these varied stakeholders as partners, working towards a shared purpose, and the potential of a truly empowered network.

Cultivating Trust

We explored the ways in which the team currently builds and maintains trust between members and stakeholders, and how this trust can be deepened. The focus shifted to deepening engagement across the network, convening in a way that fosters deepening relationships with stakeholders coming together in service of a shared purpose.

Coordinating Existing Activities

Continuing our exploration of the stakeholder map we asked questions on the potential for coordination and Fairtrade West Africa’s role as facilitator, coordinating their current work and bringing aligned actors together to accelerate impact.

Collaboration for Systems Impact

Over time, the focus on convening members to deepen relationships and engagement will lead to spontaneous collaborations to address shared challenges. This realises the vision for empowerment that the team expressed at the start of our work together.

Resourcing and Fundamental Challenges

The Fairtrade team saw several challenges in the introduction of a networks approach. Working across rural areas, often with poor connectivity, has made this work particularly difficult during the Covid pandemic. We focused on how the team can engage their members in what are likely to be hybrid events and convenings, with a mix of face to face and virtual engagement for the foreseeable future. The team recognised that each connection between the team and a producer, each opportunity to bring stakeholders together offers an opportunity to build trust and deepen engagement. This in turn requires a new perspective on the skills required across the team for the facilitation of a networks approach.

We considered the business model behind these activities. Much of the work here, deepening trust, creating opportunities for engagement across stakeholders such that new collaborations emerge is invisible. Articulating this, quantifying this invisible work and identifying the time needed will make it easier to resource it through funding proposals.

How Do We Measure the Impact of the Engagement?

We shared IMM tools developed by Small Foundation, to create a feedback loop – what is working? where to focus attention? – enabling adjustment of the facilitation, engagement, convenings, and deepening of relationships over time. This reinforces and further builds the momentum of this vibrant network.

Shifts in Perspective – Adopting a Networks Mindset

The Fairtrade West Africa team’s commitment to this work, and to exploring new ways of thinking and engaging with their membership, led to progressive mindset shifts. We observed new perspectives, new thinking and ways of building on the experience that the team already had to co-create new ways forward. Importantly, each shift was met with immediate application of the learnings that emerged. We saw a ripple effect as these shifts become embedded in the practices of the network, moving an already vibrant network to the next level of impact.

We have deeply enjoyed working with the Fairtrade team, seeing them quickly implement and develop this approach. Whilst so much has been achieved in these early stages, we know the ripple effect will build and change over time. We are looking forward to keeping in touch with the team to see how this unfolds in the future.

Next week we will share the second podcast interview with Edward in which he shares his thoughts on the process and his experience of working with Creative Metier.

We would like to thank Small Foundation for their support for this research, Converge for their willingness to share their work which was one of the inspirations for this initiative, and the Fairtrade West Africa team who entered so enthusiastically into this work.