Interview | Conall O’Caoimh

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This month we’re taking a moment to pay tribute to one of our all-time heroes of FAIR. His name is Conall O’Caoimh and he’s the Director of Proudly Made in AfricaIf you haven’t heard of Conall and his team of radical revolutionaries yet, it’s because they’re better known for disappearing into the vast wilderness of sub-Saharan Africa for months on end in search of the next break-through products that pretty soon we won’t be able to live without.

And guess what? They’ll be made in Africa –proudly!

FAIRCHAIN: So Conall, you’re the captain at the helm of a non-profit organization that opens up trading channels for African companies to bring their products into Western markets. What’s the story here, how did it all begin?

CONALL: Well, it’s been an adventure right from the start! I initially started out as a politico campaigning for justice –namely, third world debt cancellation and fairer trade rules. This brought me face to face with the likes of the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, the United Nations, and the European Parliament. All the big boys of world trade! During this time I came to the realization that even if we were successful in making trade rules fair for developing countries, the producers in those countries still lacked the crucial access to global markets to sell their products.

This lesson really hit home for me in Mozambique in 1996 when I saw locally-grown cashew nuts being exported in 50 kilo sacks and then re-packaged in the UK into smaller 50g bags to be sold in supermarkets. The way this is done severely disadvantaged African companies since the nuts have much more value as finished products. So when struggling African producers sell their goods as wholesale commodities they are missing out on all the added value that they could otherwise be creating themselves. But even if these African producers did package their cashews into retail bags themselves, there was still no trading channels for them to get into Western supermarkets. Our global trading structures just weren’t set up for this. Instead, the only way they could sell their nuts was in bulk to commodity traders who paid extremely low prices.

So there was clearly a missing link, and I believe that this was, and still is, keeping developing countries at a disadvantage in global trade. This was the idea behind starting up Proudly Made in Africa -to create this channel into markets for African processed products.

FAIRCHAIN: Tell us about this concept of value-adding –what is ‘value’ anyway, and why does it necessarily need to be added in Africa?

CONALL:  ‘Value’ is the monetary worth of a product according to what world markets are prepared to pay for it. When we talk about ‘value-adding’, we mean the steps that go into transforming raw commodities into the lovely packaged retail products that you see sitting on supermarket shelves. Each of these steps adds value to the product.

Let me give you an example. Say you go into a shop and buy a T-shirt. Although the cotton in that T-shirt has been grown in Africa, it has probably then been sold for about ten cents to cotton traders who ship it over to China to be processed, before it is sent to Bangladesh to be sewn together. These production steps contribute about three Euros to the retail price. Then there are import and sales taxes which contribute another two Euros. Finally, the retailers add their own profit margins, so that the T-shirt ends up being sold to you in Europe for ten Euros. Now, that’s a lot of value that has been added to the cotton along the way, and the problem is that African producers only get a tiny fraction of the final price that was for that T-shirt. But imagine if those African companies could perform all of these value-adding steps themselves?! They would be able to add value to their own products themselves, earn higher salaries and eventually free themselves from reliance on government aid!

FAIRCHAIN: Of course, one of the reasons you’re our hero Conall is because Moyee Coffee is also a value-adding company –roasting our coffee in Ethiopia to increase its value in the country of origin. But apart from coffee, what other value-adding products do you help to enter the European market? 

CONALL: Proudly Made in Africa supports a large range of products that are 100% produced in Africa, have a real chance in Western markets and can be produced with consistently high quality. Our two main categories of raw materials are foodstuffs and cotton, both of which lead to high value-adding products. So we carry a lot of teas, coffees, beers, chocolates, jams, sauces, beer, nuts, honeys, spices, and tinned fruits. But we are also open to new product ranges that are produced using local ingredients and processed in Africa.

FAIRCHAIN: Can you give us an example of an African company that you’ve worked with to illustrate your role from beginning to end?

CONALL: Meru Herbs is a great example, we started to work with them in 2010. They produce sauces and herbal teas through a co-op of about 600 farmers in rural Kenya. At that time, their products were produced 100% in Africa and the products had strong potential to be commercially viable. However, we found that their packaging needed to be improved to ensure that it lived up to the high quality of the products they contained. We gave them this constructive feedback and helped them to develop their packaging so that it was more attractive and also helped them to register for European certification labels which would help the products to sell well in Western markets.

We then began the real work to find their first buyer in Europe. This is where Proudly Made in Africa can really work its magic! We have a strong network of retail distributors whom we connect up with African companies like Meru Herbs these buyers and sellers who otherwise would not have come into contact. Our first success came when we were able to find a wholesaler in Scotland that was willing to purchase a container. Once we had our foot in the door, we worked extremely hard to establish the brand’s reputation in Ireland so that they could then expand further into Europe -and just this week a I’m pleased to announce that a UK buyer has put in their first order for a shipment! Meru Herbs is also the first company to carry our own Proudly Made in Africa label on their products. So it would be fair to say that we’re the best thing that’s ever happened to Meru Herbs, but they’re also the best thing that’s ever happened to us!

To Conall and the rest of the team at Value Added in Africa, we salute you for your radically noble efforts in pushing those boundaries further than anyone thought they could go!

Vive la révolution!