I have travelled quite a bit but this is my first time in Africa and Chelsea feels very far away. I feel immediately at home.
A trip to Ghana showed me how easy it can be for us not to think about people living in poorer countries and about the farmers who grow so much of the food we eat.
We can instead get completely wrapped up in our own lives, friends and family over here - I know sometimes I'm guilty of that myself. So I decided to visit banana and cocoa farmers with Fairtrade and understand more about it. We hear so much about ethical shopping and see the Fairtrade Mark on so many products I wanted to know why it has grabbed everyone's attention.
I have been an active supporter of Fairtrade for a few years. I'm one of the generation who learnt about Fairtrade at school so I feel as if I've grown up with it in a way. I've always thought it makes simple sense - to make sure farmers and farm workers are paid a fair price for their crops. I wanted to meet them and their families to understand why this is so important.
After landing in Ghana, It was fascinating to travel through the lush green countryside to meet women cocoa farmers who belong to the Kuapa Kokoo co-operative. Banana, date and palm trees dotted the landscape. It's all really beautiful. We arrived at the village of Ntinako Society in the Kumasi region and were greeted by a large group of women waiting for us under as shaded area covered with corrugate iron. I was really excited to visit their farms and talk things through with them. These really are the people at the very heart of Fairtrade.
Cheska in Ghana on her trip visiting Fairtrade farms
What I hadn't expected was how moved I felt when I talked to them. I got a real sense of how strong the women were. They seemed united together and ready to take on anything life threw at them. They were really inspiring. And they were a real community. It was all very different from life in London where many people don't say hello to their neighbours.
Women over here are known to love chocolate and what's interesting is that they are very important in the process of growing cocoa as well, farming and processing the cocoa pods. Their contribution is sometimes not properly recognised and the men in the households often keep hold of the money made. But the women's group is helping the women to gain confidence and stand up for themselves.
It was amazing to see how much independence Fairtrade has given them. Some are widows, some single, some married. Often women in Ghana are not allowed to own land but through Fairtrade and the Kuapa Kokoo these women have had the confidence to fight for their own plots or to earn extra money in other ways, such as making soap and beautiful batik cotton which they sell at the local market.
Secondary schools are fee paying and many of the women had had very tough financial choices to make. The women's group helped them have the strength of mind to make the decisions which were right for them and their families.
I learnt how chocolate is made. Before this I probably thought chocolate grows on trees and in one way it does as the cocoa pods are cut down from branches. Then they are opened up and the cocoa beans are removed and fermented in piles and dried on the ground. It is a long, tricky, skilful process, all carried out in searing heat.
We then travelled further to the south of Ghana to visit Fairtrade banana farms on the banks of the Volta River - Volta River Estates Ltd (VREL). This was a much bigger operation but equally fascinated and equally hard work in tropical temperatures. I learnt about how the 'mother' banana plant is chosen and deemed to be the top quality one of the batch and how a daughter plant and then a grand-daughter plant are grown from the mother. The women rule in the world of bananas!
Most of all I learnt about the friendliness and warmth of the Ghanaian people and how Fairtrade helps change communities. As well as guaranteeing a fair price for the harvests, the farmers and workers organisations get paid an additional premium and everyone votes on how this should be spent. Clean water supplies are a big favourite for obvious reasons. So is good education for their children and free healthcare. The workers at the banana farms felt a huge sense of achievement that they had managed, through the premium, to pay for health insurance for their families too. There is even maternity pay for the banana workers whose Fairtrade bananas can be found in Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer.
Kuapa Kokoo owns a big chunk of the UK company Divine Chocolate which we enjoyed during our trip. My favourite was the salted caramel. Look out for this and Fairtrade bananas because as well as tasting delicious you'll know that my lovely friends grew it and it's full of Fairtrade sun!
To support Fairtrade Fortnight's campaign to make bananas fair and sign the petition, visit stickwithfoncho.org.uk
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