For most people in the United States, sugar is that commonplace ingredient we add to our food - a cup of it in our cake batter, a teaspoon in our coffee, or a pinch on a breakfast scone. Raw, brown, or refined to miniscule white grains, the fact remains that the average American consumes around 22 teaspoons of sugar a day - almost 100 pounds per year.
In the developing world, however, sugar is an export commodity of incredible value that provides access to the global market for rural farmers. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization, Africa's sugar production is expected to increase by nearly 4 percent over the next decade.
A greater intake of sugar by the food industry and increased local consumption by a growing middle class in sub-Saharan Africa has significantly increased raw sugarcane production in the region over the past decade, a trend that defies OECD-FAO's agricultural outlook of a decreased global demand for sugar and highly volatile sugar prices.
This raises questions by consumers and ethical trade organizations about the conditions that workers and farmers are subjected to, and most importantly, if the increases in production have resulted in improvements to livelihoods.
The most visible agent in the promotion of ethical sugar production has been the Fairtrade Foundation, a nonprofit that licenses fair trade products in developing countries. The development model is simple: by capitalizing on consumerism and the "hip" fashion of ethical consumption, Fairtrade uses purely market-based forces of supply and demand to add premiums on products.
This results in greater profits for producers, which are then apportioned for specific purposes, like higher wages for workers, infrastructure development, and sustainable land maintenance. There is no governmental management or regulatory oversight; all labeling and certification is carried out by the non-profit in compliance with businesses and workers.
Buoyed by the success of Fairtrade labeling initiatives in other parts of the developing world, the organization is seeking to increase their presence in Africa's nascent sugar industry. With exports of sugarcane from sub-Saharan Africa increasing due to relaxed global tariffs, particularly in the European Union, and a more consumer-conscious population in the developed world, Fairtrade labeling is expected to result in improvements for sugar farmers in the region.
Although its presence in sub-Saharan Africa's sugar industry is recent - Swaziland and Malawi sugar companies have only received their Fairtrade label in the last few years - the conditions of sugar farmers and mill workers have significantly improved here since the late 90s. One such example is the Kasinthula Cane Growers Cooperative in Malawi.
As one of the larger sugar companies in the region with a collective of over 500 farmers, it is an example of the benefits that Fairtrade labeling can bring. According to a Fairtrade case study of the cooperative, the ethical label has resulted in increased financial remuneration for farmers and workers; development projects to improve access to clean drinking water; the addition of new machinery to aid workers and minimize hard labor; and future plans to build schools, clinics, and roads.
Masauko Kembo, the general manager of Kasinthula Cane Growers Limited, tells MediaGlobal why the Fairtrade label is a significant benefit for the Malawian sugar farmer.
"The label has helped in a way that the farmers have been able to invest some of the premium money into the business... Just this year they have a tractor which is being used in the field. This will have an impact on production thereby sustainable development," he says.
There is also an important environmental element to Fairtrade sugar that is helping the farmers develop their industrial practices more responsibly and with greater ecological focus.
"Because of the label, farmers are forced to observe environmental requirements when doing their business. For example they have to control erosion which in the end help the farmers themselves in safeguarding their most important resource which is land. Without the label they would have cared less about environment and soil erosion," Kembo says.
Pursuing ethical certification is not a new phenomenon. Social justice and ethics have been incorporated into product consumption for a while now, especially for items such as coffee, tea, and cocoa. But unlike chocolate and coffee, which are now commonly associated with ethical consumption, sugar remains largely outside of the scope of Fairtrade labeling and other ethical certification schemes.
Dr. Ben Richardson, a researcher for the non-profit Ethical-Sugar and an expert in international sugar trade, says the sugar industry is a relatively new business with less historical context than other commodities.
"The provenance of sugar is not as important culturally as coffee or cocoa, where people want to know where it comes from," Richardson tells MediaGlobal. He says the product's low public profile, as well as poor infrastructure and mismanaged businesses, help explain why ethical sugar is a slow-moving initiative.
Monika Berresheim, Fairtrade's Global Product Manger for Sugar, expects Fairtrade certification of sugar from sub-Saharan Africa to increase, driven by increased global demand for ethical products and consumer awareness of the financial benefits that rural farmers receive.
"The volumes have increased considerably in 2012 especially from the south of Africa and Indian Ocean. Volumes are certified on demand, so that the success should be similar everywhere," Berresheim tells MediaGlobal. "For some countries, Fairtrade is their only hope, not only because of the financial benefits, but also for the impact of the standards on the population."
Even still, ethical certification initiatives like the ones from Fairtrade do not guarantee an increase in the overall well-being for African sugarcane producers. The sugar research organization Ethical-Sugar has done extensive studies on the major actors and activities in the sugar industry. They have shown that, despite efforts towards sustainable sugar production in the region, more can be done by businesses and governments to assist the rural poor.
But Kembo remains confident that the Kasinthula model can be replicated in additional sugar mills throughout sub-Saharan Africa. "The reason is because it is being done by smallholder farmers, so every smallholder farmer in Africa can be organized to do the same," he said.