The second conversation of our Fairtrade Chat series takes place between our Director of Cut Flower Operations, Tyler Paterson, and General Manager of Agrocoex, Diego Espinosa.
Located in Ecuador, Agrocoex has been a Fairtrade certified flower farm for 20 years and has shown a strong commitment to Fairtrade Standards through its continual development of worker programs and services.
As General Manager, Diego has overseen the development of scholarship programs, dental services, computer lessons and a housing development that all have been started with funds raised through Fairtrade flower sales.
Read Below or watch our IGTV to see how much Fairtrade means to Diego, his employees and their community!
Tyler: Can you tell us about yourself and a little bit about Agrocoex’s history?
Diego: Hi, I’m Diego Espinosa, and I have been the general manager of Agrocoex for 27 years. I have been fortunate to work for Agrocoex for so long.
Agrocoex began operating in 1992, and next year will be our 30th anniversary. It is a family company that was started by my father, uncle and another family here in Ecuador. They wanted to do something different and decided to start a small, pioneering project in CotoPaxi province. So, they decided to start a flower business by investing money into land and went on some trips to understand the industry. Even before this venture, the family has been in the agricultural business for many years, dating back to my great grandmother.
Tyler: That’s excellent! I never knew that, very interesting. So, I know that Agrocoex grows roses and a few other products. Do you mind going into detail about what other products you are producing now, and in particular, the Fairtrade products that are accessible through your farm?
Diego: Roses are the most important product we sell, representing 85-90 percent of our sales. In roses, we have about 120 different varieties, and we update about 15 percent of the varieties every year. We are always looking for new varieties to match the latest Canadian and European market trends. We have a lot of rose varieties to manage as we have a line of garden, regular and fryer roses. Besides roses, we started to grow some other products such as ranunculus, which is a new crop for us that we just started to produce in the last 4 years. We also have Anemones, Spray Alstro called Florinca and are looking for new products every year. We are currently looking to grow some greens like Safari Sunset, Lucerne and others. If you put everything together, I’d say our sales in the past would be oriented to Bunches, but now we want to position ourselves more like a bouquet business that sells focal flowers, fillers and a nice design.
Tyler: That sounds excellent! Those are some interesting products for sure. I was recently able to see some of the butterfly ranunculus, which was also very beautiful, so that is exciting.
Diego: We have new butterfly ranunculus that are very nice.
Tyler: Yeah, it’s good to expand and try new things. That’s very interesting to hear.
You mentioned that you’re based in Ecuador, a very important growing region, particularly for roses for those who may not be aware. Diego, would you mind expanding on why Ecuador is so important and why that region, in particular, is great for growing high quality roses?
Diego: I heard a really good explanation that will explain why Ecuador is a conducive environment to grow flowers. Our farm is located in the Andes mountains that allows us to grow flowers at an altitude of 2800 to 3200 meters above sea level. This is important because when combined with Ecuador’s warm temperature, it creates special weather conditions that create the perfect temperature to grow flowers. Essentially, our latitudinal location combined with our altitudinal location allows our farm to live in an eternal spring with twelve hours of daylight and direct sun rays. Because of this phenomenon, there are little to no other places in the world that can grow flowers this way – it is tough to replicate these conditions. If you move north or south just a little bit, you will start to experience seasons, changes in temperature and deviation in sunlight. When this happens, you no longer have the best condition to grow flowers.
Tyler: I know Agrocoex, and yourself have implemented a lot of social programs at the farm prior to Fairtrade – you’re pretty passionate about your workers and your people. Could you tell me how you became involved in Fairtrade, your commitment level and why this was important to you?
Diego: Honestly, these principles started from the very beginning and have to do with the mentality of the people that started the company. They always treated it as an agriculture business, but they wanted to do so in a socially and environmentally responsible way – It was about what you think and feel. We wanted to run our business in a way that supported these principles, but we needed some guidance and tried to become part of different labels. For example, in ’93-’94, we partnered with a flower label in Germany and some other programs locally to work within the rules here and outside our country.
At some point in 2002, we were invited by a person from Switzerland who wanted to develop a pioneer project selling Fairtrade flowers in the market. They selected eight farms in the world that had a good reputation, quality and sold to Switzerland. In those days, it was not called Fairtrade but called Max Havelaar, a popular brand in Switzerland. They started a new project that was more related to food and small growers who sold to markets in the northern hemisphere before they decided to add flower growers and companies that had hired labour. We started with this new idea, working three to four years in the swiss market until it grew worldwide under the Fairtrade banner. It has been fascinating to see the benefits of Fairtrade that provides so much for the workers.
Tyler: Yeah, it’s interesting because the Fairtrade movement traditionally works with co-ops and small growers. It was an interesting evolution to bring on some larger farms with hired labour and create worker groups for those projects. Could you expand on projects you’ve done since you have become Fairtrade certified and how that has helped the workers and even the community?
Diego: I was looking at some numbers, and we have been a Fairtrade Certified company for 20 years. Because our company started small and Fairtrade sales were not really big, we didn’t have too much premium money to invest. Even then, some really good ideas were generated from our workers’ meetings. After speaking with them, we understood that they had some basic needs related to education and health, being that we are located in the countryside. So, our first focus was to cover those basic needs by starting some programs to cover them. For instance, the dental service we started at the farm is a good example of how these Fairtrade programs work.
Using the premium money gained through Fairtrade sales, the workers buy all the dental equipment, Agrocoex employs a dentist to work for the company, and the workers pay for the materials used when they have a dental problem. When a worker gets a cavity, they only have to pay 50 cents per visit. Whereas if they had the same problem elsewhere in the country, it would cost them $30.00 to $40.00. For workers that do not make big salaries, $30.00 to $40.00 is a lot when many must also give up a day of wages to visit the dentist. In other workplaces where Fairtrade is not in place, workers may even put off such visits until the problem becomes worse. With this system, the idea is that we can offer preventive health care to workers made possible through a combination of the premium money and funds from the company. This service is open not only to the workers but to their families and the community around the farm. Again, it involves Fairtrade, Agrocoex and the workers.
Every project will work like this. We also have a scholarship program, computer and internet lesson projects that will greatly impact our people. At the beginning of our company, we didn’t have the resources to do a lot of projects and could only invest in these smaller scale ones. Now that Fairtrade sales have started to grow, we have the capability of investing in larger projects and were recently able to buy a large piece of land where we have begun to build a housing project with help from the premium funds.
Tyler: Yea, so some of these programs have a huge impact on the community, like the dental care extending beyond the workers. Offering computer and internet lessons when some of the workers may not have that privilege available to them are already pretty huge and admirable programs. Then taking it a step further to buying land to actually build housing is amazing to me. I have had the privilege of seeing that project in action, and it was very moving.
The housing project is essentially giving loans and the opportunity for workers and their families to buy homes. Can you tell me about the project’s size, where it is today, and the impact it has had on your farm and workers?
Diego: It’s hard to explain what the project means; I really think you have to visit the project to understand the size and its importance. For many of these workers, we must assume that they do not have access to the financial bank system, making it almost impossible to purchase a house. Fairtrade has changed that as it gives the workers a way to access the financial bank system to get a loan and purchase a home. The workers now have the opportunity to purchase fully serviced houses, when before Fairtrade, they wouldn’t have had such a privilege. Again, just having access to a bank, a loan, and the ability to purchase a new house is amazing. We almost thought that it was not possible in the beginning, but with the Fairtrade money, anything seems possible.
The size of the project’s first phase will be about 100 houses, and we recently bought a second piece of land in the city of mataachi to start a second phase. In the first phase, we have about thirty-two families living in the housing project, and we are doing 100 percent of the work needed to build the rest of the homes. We have completed most of the sidewalks, streets, electricity and water treatment infrastructure and now have to invest in building the rest of the homes themselves. After we complete 100 percent of the infrastructure, we will be able to get the permits needed to build them. We need the permits to get access to loans because everything has been done with the Fairtrade money until now. Once we get money to finance the rest, it will be easier for us to finish the project.
I want to say a little more about the housing project. Not only is it a housing project, but also a really nice neighbourhood with lots of excellent services that are not common in other Ecuadorian cities. For instance, there are laundry and drying services for clothes and a nursery for the kids, so the parents have somewhere to take their kids while they work. There’s is a non-profit grocery store that distributes food to the community at a 15 percent discount. We also have green areas and electricity cables that are in the ground, which is something I do not enjoy in the city where I live. There is a water treatment plant to separate the rainwater from dirty water, which doesn’t happen in other areas. In these neighbourhoods it really nice because we are thinking about the environment and the people.
Tyler: Of course, it is well worth the visit. I’ll just elaborate a little bit for our viewers who may not understand the scope. Modern appliances such as washing machines and dryers are not very accessible in your country for those earning a low salary. This is a huge thing for families to be able to stay connected, stay within their home and not worry about where they are going to do their laundry. When I got the opportunity to see the modern stoves, fridges, and even the electricity being buried underground for a beautiful neighbourhood is very different for some of these small cities in Ecuador. It has made a huge impact, and you must be very proud to see that. Coming up on twenty years of Fairtrade is a pretty major accomplishment, congratulations. I’m super happy to see that it is expanding, and I can’t wait to see the growth of those neighbourhoods.
That brings me to a situation where a Fairtrade option is presented to a consumer, and they decide not to purchase it because they feel the price is not worth it. Is there something you could say for why it is worth it?
Diego: I can tell you that if they choose a Fairtrade product, they will really help the people who need it most. Honestly, it does not really cost that much more and is probably something most people won’t feel. But when many individuals buy Fairtrade, the money accumulates and allows for the creation of incredible projects that greatly impact workers and less fortunate people. It really makes a difference, and I really suggest buying Fairtrade because you will help the people who need it the most, that is for sure.
Tyler: With that in mind, what is your favourite type of flower?
Diego: In roses, my favourite type is one of our new varieties called white shimmer. It’s a perfect white-cream rose, with a nice opening, huge head size and shape. I like this rose very much. We are the only company in the world growing this rose because it comes from a mutation that happened at our farm, in the shimmer variety. We are very lucky and proud to offer this rose.
Besides roses, I think I’m in love with ranunculus. They are just gorgeous, and I like them very much.
Tyler: Yea, Ranunculus happens to be my favourite flower as well! And White Shimmer, we will have to get connected on that variety very soon so you can find it at Florists Supply and in Fairtrade, of course. Is there anything you would like to say or add?
Diego: Yes, although Fairtrade is an excellent system and the most serious label, there are still some challenges. In my opinion, the biggest challenge is how can we open the market for Fairtrade – how can we convince the big players, like the big supermarkets, to sell more Fairtrade products to give us more opportunity. If more of these big players could get on board, It would really make a difference, give us opportunities, and foster long-term relationships. I know you are working really hard on Fairtrade, and I appreciate it very much, Tyler. I still think we are missing opportunities from big players like the supermarkets.
Tyler: I agree, and I think it starts with consumers. Educating them that this option is available and getting people to advertise that to consumers so they can make that choice. That’s what we are hoping to provide by doing some of these interviews and asking experts such as yourself. Hopefully, by putting this out where consumers can see it, they will start asking florists and bigger players about Fairtrade options and change some of their buying habits.
I really appreciate you taking the time today Diego, it always a pleasure talking to you. Hopefully, this will start and continue some great things in Fairtrade.
Learn more by visiting our Fairtrade page under the Fresh Flowers tab on our website and keep an eye out for more interviews coming up! #FSliving #everystemmatters