Women Organizing for Fair Trade


Trading Our Way Up - The story of a women's economic empowerment project in fair trade

An action research project examined the experiences of women producers in collective enterprises in seven countries between 2009 – 2011. Part of the Women's Economic Empowerment project, the study highlighted the economic and social benefits of engaging in groups with links to Fair Trade. Trading Our Way Up: Women Organizing for Fair Trade captures details of the research. 

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“The group has enabled me to face the challenges as I feel more self-confident ... when you are in the team you learn from others and are inspired to do better. I appeal to women to come out of the shell and become bold ... Joining the group will consolidate their efforts to fight poverty. 

~ Mpaji Ali Nahoda, Tusife Moyo, Tanzania

Where globalization has widened the gap between rich and poor, it is often women and children who are negatively affected the most. The global economic recession also had a massive impact on poor producers. as uncertainties in  global markets caused a downturn in demand from Fair Trade buyers, some of whom have gone out of business. At the same time, climate change has brought devastation -- drought in East Africa, floods in Asia and elsewhere.

The Women Organizing for Fair Trade action-research project involved women producers and their organizations in seven countries, and was conducted from 2009-2011 under the direction of WIEGO's Global Trade Programme. The project demonstrated that when women organize in groups for market access, they are more effective in achieving positive change in their economic and social situation. It also revealed a need to help women develop the skills to assume leadership positions.Women producers were involved in all stages of the project. 

Case studies examined different organizational forms of producer groups and fair trade associations. In doing so, they highlight key success factors in the strategies adopted to engage with fair trade markets, and consider what support producer organizations receive from their affiliation with associations and country networks. The case studies were collected through a process of action research that enables informal workers to tell their stories through photo journals, murals, film, songs, embroidery and words.

Given the low literacy level of many of the women producers, it was important to complement the narrative of the women’s stories though photo journals, which also convey the women’s lives. Many of the local facilitators were given digital cameras to capture the reality of the women at work and as they participated in their organizations, as well as in  project activities such as workshops.

In some courtries, groups commissioned professional documentaries. Others developed songs, murals and basketry to tell the women’s stories.

 Visit our project blog to view the videos and read more.

This research showed that participating in collective forms of enterprise and linking to Fair Trade markets can foster significant progress in meeting economic and social goals. The findings of the project are detailed in the publication Trading Our Way Up: Women Organizing for Fair Trade

Project Goals

  1. to strengthen membership-based organizations of the working poor to address issues of organizing, market access, networking, policy influence and policy change
  2. to support women informal workers in articulating their needs and concerns to policymakers at all levels (e.g. municipal, national, regional, global)
  3. to improve the quality of information available to both informal workers and policymakers re: the identified needs and concerns of the working poor
  4. to achieve positive policy changes to improve the lives of women informal workers
  5. to share key success factors where women informal workers have improved their livelihoods to achieve a multiplier effect through the movement of the working poor


The case studies show that informal workers have organized themselves for production and trade, learned new skills, understood quality requirements, developed new products, and exported to international markets. Through involvement in their associations and cooperatives, women have been successful in accessing markets while at the same time having opportunities to discuss and solve problems, learn from each other and provide mutual support and protection in difficult times. They grow in confidence, earn incomes to help meet their families’ needs, win the respect of husbands and other men in their communities, and begin to participate in community decision-making.

Documentation and dissemination are helping to share good practice examples of fair trade across regions. Lessons learned were documented for future sharing with other women collectives, as well as with donors and partners.

At the project’s initiation workshop in Kathmandu in May 2009, participating groups determined that sharing their case studies more widely and demonstrating the positive impact for women of working collectively may prove to be an added incentive to Fair Trade buyers.

In earlyf 2011, sharing, learning and dissemination workshops were held in communities in Mexico and Nicaragua. The final dissemination and learning event of the project took place in Mombasa in May 2011 with representatives from partners in India, Kenya, Nepal, Tanzania and Uganda. There, sharing of information was particularly important in helping women see similarities across countries and share fair trade strategies.

The Mombasa workshop was held on the eve of the biennial global conference of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). At the conference, WIEGO organizers presented on the project and ran two workshops. Documentaries made as part of the project in India were played (these had previously been screened in India and Central America). The films stimulated discussion about the project and questions about the lives of poor women workers and the role of fair trade. Significantly, the involvement of the partners in Women Organizing for Fair Trade led, for the first time, to the WFTO's inclusion of gender on its agenda.

This created the impetus to develop a gender strategy for WFTO. Elaine Jones, Director of WIEGO's Global Trade Programme, was asked to chair a working group to craft this strategy and redraft Fair Trade Principle 6 (on gender discrimination). She worked with partners from Women Organizing for Fair Trade project, many of whom continue to partner with WIEGO in the new Securing Economic Rights Fair Trade project. The resulting gender strategy was approved at the WFTO biennial conference in May 2013 in Rio de Janeiro, where researcher Carol Wills and Elaine Jones also ran a workshop on women's economic empowerment. 

Countries of Activity and Partner Organizations

Fact Sheets on Fair Trade

Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in Kenya
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in India
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in Tanzania
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in Nepal
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in Uganda
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in Nicaragua
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade in Mexico
Fact Sheet on Fair Trade and WIEGO
Fair Trade for Women Producers


India - Fair Trade Forum
Kenya - Kenya Federation for Alternative Trade (KEFAT)
Mexico - Ya ’Muntsi Behña
Nepal - Fair Trade Group
Nicaragua - Promotora de Desarrollo Cooperativo de Las Segovias SA (PRODECOOP)
Tanzania - Tanzania Fair Trade Network (TAFAT)
Uganda - National Association of Women’s Organizations of Uganda (NAWOU)


Fair Trade in a larger map

The Process

WIEGO's initial focus for Women Organizing for Fair Trade was to work with each of the lead organizations in order to identify the appropriate grassroots self-organizing women's groups, coordination, selection and training of local facilitators. An initiation workshop was held in Kathmandu, Nepal in May 2009 with participants from Nepal, India, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Cambodia. Introductory workshops were subsequently carried out in India, Nepal, Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya. Selected women’s groups were initiated to work with the local facilitators through the development of case studies and a photographic journal. All groups held workshops to agree on their in-country methodologies and introduce the project to producers at the village level. An estimated 4,000 women were involved in the project through the country partners. Training workshops, based on needs assessments in each country, aimed to improve the skills of the groups and strengthening the organizations.

Shared Challenges

Across all countries, similar challenges emerged. Many of the women producers are subsistence farmers, but the income from their crafts sales are an essential or even the primary source of income. Yet handicraft production is often not recognized as work and goes undocumented in statistics.
Because of the global economic recession, many producers have suffered a reduction in demand for their goods.

The drop in demand for handicrafts in many Northern countries poses a serious challenge to the sustainability of the sector; dependency on key relationships is often a weakness in the Fair Trade system. Where government support programmes exist, they are often directed at formal enterprises, excluding a large percentage of the working population. However, it appears being organized in groups gives producers a better chance of weathering crisis as they often have credit and savings schemes to fall back on.

Moving Forward

Producer organizations need continuous support to innovate in product development, diversify markets, upgrade their skills, learn business skills and access fair finance. The specific work plans of each group include training to informal producers and their leaders so they can share their learning with the wider group and beyond.

The training provided to informal women producers – and the skills and knowledge acquired by field assistants in implementing this project – have become part of the community assets, ensuring dividends will accrue into the future.

The unexpected benefit of getting gender onto the WFTO agenda in 2011 -- and subsequently developing a gender strategy for the WFTO, approved in May 2013, could have wide-reaching positive outcomes. The Gender Working Group will continue to work with the WFTO regions to support them in the implementation of the Gender Policy.

See the project Fact Sheet: Fair Trade for Women Producers.