London: On 18 February 2010, London's Leicester Square hosted a very different kind of premiere. Instead of the usual red-carpetful of A-list celebrities, crowds turned out to see ice-cream magnates Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield launch 100 Fair Trades, a campaign celebrating Ben & Jerry's commitment to use 100% Fairtrade ingredients by 2013, the biggest conversion to Fairtrade products the world has ever seen.
'Fairtrade is about making sure people get their fair share of the pie,' says Greenfield. 'Nobody wants to buy something that was made by exploiting somebody else.'
He's not alone. Despite the credit crunch, UK Fairtrade sales have grown tenfold since 2001, with more than 4,500 Fairtrade certified products now available. But getting Fairtrade certification can be easier said than done. For farmers in the remote hills of Neno, southern Malawi, a Fairtrade inspection later this year comes after nearly 20 years' work to establish macadamia nuts as a sustainable smallholder crop in the district.
Work began in 1991 when David Emmott, now Chairman of the Neno Macadamia Trust, planted 16 demonstration trees along one of Neno's main roads. Drawn to the crop because of its drought resistance and minimal need for fertiliser, Emmott hoped that it might prove a practical alternative for local smallholders, who were struggling to survive after years of trying to earn a living from orange trees. 'It was quite obvious that this was the ideal smallholder crop,' says Emmott. 'Once the demonstration trees were planted and people saw them becoming profitable, they decided they wanted to be part of this.'
As interest grew, the project secured funding and, with the help of students from Cranfield University, set up Support to Neno Smallholder Macadamia Farmers (SUNESMA) to assist emerging growers and the grower-run Neno Smallholder Macadamia Association of Clubs (NESMAC) to link up more established producers. Now, having conducted some trial runs, with last year's crop featuring in a limited edition Tesco own-brand nut mix, the Neno producers are ready to take the next step.
In fact, exporting nuts from Southern Africa is nothing new. In the 1960s, Africa supplied 90% of the world's peanuts, with Malawi alone exporting 25,000 metric tonnes per year up until the mid-70s. Then shifts in the world economy, alongside trade liberalisation, which barred weaker economies from protecting their interests with tariffs and quotas, and tightened food regulations, strangled the industry. By 2005, when Twin, the charity behind Fairtrade companies Cafédirect and Divine Chocolate, began its Regional Trade Facilitation Programme in Southern Africa, Malawi's peanut exports were negligible.
'There's been next to no investment in supply chains in the last 30 years,' says Andrew Emmott, Twin's Senior Nut Trading and Project Manager. 'For the smallholder producer in Africa to re-enter the market, it needs significant investment to meet EU standards.'
Twin has been developing Fairtrade nut supply chains since 2000. Working with producers around the world, it formed the International Nut Producers Co-operative (INPC), a peer-support organisation. Then came Liberation Foods CIC, the world's first 100% Fairtrade nut company. Co-owned by producers, the business turned over £3.4 million in its third year.
'It's been a brilliant journey,' says Andrew Emmott. 'We set up Liberation and shortly after that there was the credit crunch and then the commodity spike. Through all of those challenges, the INPC network has met regularly and continued to grow. It's very exciting.'
Yet, for Malawi's smallholders the biggest challenges are closer to home. Chief among these is aflatoxin, a highly toxic carcinogen produced by a mould which can get into crops post-harvest. In the face of stringent EU food safety standards, improving storage and processing facilities is essential, along with educating farmers about the risks and finding safe outlets for contaminated crops, which all too often find their way to African consumers. Add to this the decimation of the rural workforce by AIDS and malaria, the constant threat of droughts and cyclones, the six years it takes macadamia trees to yield any sort of crop at all, and the difficulty of maintaining links in a country where there are on average 100 people to every phone line, and you're looking at a business proposition it's hard to imagine drawing much support on Dragons' Den.
'It's a difficult story to tell,' says Andrew Emmott. 'The volumes are relatively small and for the first year or two there won't be any traceability. It's only when the product starts to come through that it starts to mean something to some people.'
However, if Malawi's nut trade is to succeed, it must do so in spite of its challenges. As Cafédirect and Divine Chocolate show, the success of Fairtrade businesses depends on the ability of producers to compete on the international market and, ultimately, manage their own affairs. For Nicholas Evans, who has spent the last five years in Malawi working with NESMAC farmers on behalf of the Neno Macadamia Trust, this has to be the end goal.
'There comes a point where you have to let a project sink or swim,' says Evans. 'The decision of when to change support is really important. It's not that we want to support the macadamia industry here forever.'
The importance of finding the right balance between support and independence has been demonstrated powerfully in Malawi in recent years. In 2005, newly elected President Bingu wa Mutharika shocked the international community by pressing ahead with plans to subsidise fertiliser for Malawi's poorest farmers in the face of opposition from IMF and the World Bank, who feared the scheme would lead to waste and corruption. Instead, maize production tripled, meaning that Malawi, a country that once relied on international aid to feed half its population, was able to export 400,000 tons of maize to Zimbabwe in 2007. The UK's Department for International Development has since funded the scheme and Malawi's economy is now growing at an annual rate of 7%.
'It was a gamble by the Malawian government,' says Evans. 'It could have jeopardised aid. But it was very good for smallholder farming, which is such an important area of human activity. It was an example of how targeted policy changes can be brought about.'
For the macadamia farmers in the Neno hills, though, the immediate goals are a little less ambitious. They're waiting for the arrival of the Fairtrade inspectors and the chance to begin the long process of establishing their products on the UK supermarket shelves, alongside the chocolate and the coffee and the tubs of luxury ice-cream.
* This feature was written between 6 March and 30 April 2010 as part of the Guardian International Development Journalism Competition