Zaytoun

Rachel Boyd from Zaytoun CIC talks to Corporate Watch about an investment worth making

 

What is Zaytoun and how did it start?

 

Zaytoun is a UK distributor for Palestinian suppliers. It was started around ten years ago by people who had volunteered with the International Solidarity Movement in Palestine. The idea came to import olive oil to support local farmers and it grew from there.

We’re a workers’ cooperative. We don’t have shareholders so the more money we make the more gets invested in the organisation.

We started off with olive oil. We’ve now added olives, maftoul – which is a bigger grained cous cous – almonds, and lately we’ve started doing dates. The dates are aimed at the Ramadan market. A lot of Muslims buy Israeli dates for Ramadan because they’re very big and juicy, but they’re a heavily subsidised part of the [Israeli] land grab. They come from the Jordan Valley, which is vulnerable to losing land. With Ramadan it’s all about encouraging people not to buy Israeli dates and actually to have some alternative. And to have a political message to go with what they do when they break the fast. That is what Zaytoun does – we’re here as a campaigning organisation to talk about the occupation.

At the moment we’re really trying to raise money for this year’s date harvest. Zaytoun will be paying farmers at the August harvest and Ramadan falls nearly a year later, so loans are crucial for us.

 

Okay – this may not be the best place to raise money.

Every little helps! If people invest in us it means we’re paying less bank charges, which means we can serve our suppliers better.

 

Who are your suppliers?

Our main supplier is called Canaan Fair Trade. They source exclusively from co-ops and farmers’ associations. We also source from Sindyanna in order to support Palestinian citizens of Israel who face racial discrimination and a lack of market access.

 

What have the effects been since you started?

When we first started selling olive oil, many farmers were selling their oil at below the cost of production, so there wasn’t much incentive to farm.

There is some still-used Ottoman law that means after three years if land hasn’t been farmed it can be claimed by the Israeli state. So making land economically viable has meant that land can stay in Palestinian ownership and people can gain a livelihood from it. This has been especially important since the wall went up, as employment within Israel is no longer an option.

We’re part of the Palestine solidarity movement. We’re a part that’s supporting the economy and providing an income for people there.

We also provide a connection between people that support Palestine. We organise tour groups each Autumn, and we bring over a couple of farmers each Spring. They meet fair trade groups and Palestine solidarity groups. They give inspiring speeches about Palestine and help people feel a bit more passionate and connected to the campaign.

That in no way substitutes for any other part of the movement. It goes alongside all the other bits. We are a drop in the ocean in the whole aid-dependency set up, but still a drop that is looking at grassroots empowerment.

 

Do you place any limits on whose money you will accept as investment into Zaytoun?

We’ve never had any problems with this, up to now! Everyone who has invested so far has generally been an active supporter. We’ve never had anyone who we think is really dodgy, but we don’t offer great interest rates.

Almost everybody who’s invested so far has invested at 0%. We go up to 2% for short term loans or 3% for longer term loans.

 

What would you do if your investors tried to pressure Zaytoun in a way that went against the principles of the organisation?

They don’t have any right to. We would not accept terms which go against our ethos. We’d say they can have their money back. We try to vary our finance sources as much as possible so we avoid any one investor having too much power.

 

So how do people who give money to Zaytoun know that you are giving a fair deal to suppliers?

We’re audited by the Fairtrade Foundation. To have the fair trade mark there is an audit process, which involves verifying that farmers do get paid up front and all that. We are organically certified by the Soil Association too. We also produce an annual report. And people can meet the farmers on our harvest tours or when they come over to the UK.

The money has a very direct impact in Palestine. It’s not getting watered down. It makes us more profitable, which means we have more money to invest in campaigning here and also supporting that supplier chain and increasing and opening up the market here.

 

Isn’t there a risk this will change as you become bigger? Lots of organisations become less ethical as they grow.

All the workers here do Palestine campaigning work within that movement. We have a Palestinian worker in the West Bank who is there to talk to farmers about their experiences of the suppliers that we use and to have his ear to the ground about what prices people are actually getting and what their relationship is like with the suppliers.

So there’s that check as well. We pick our suppliers extremely carefully.