Palestine is home to ancient olive groves, some over 2,000 years old, and the greenish-grey trees dominate the agricultural landscape. But Palestinian producers struggle to export their olives and oil, and in 2004 Zaytoun was founded to create and develop a market for fairly traded Palestinian produce in the United Kingdom. Converted to a cooperative in 2008, the company helps farmers’ cooperatives in Palestine get organic and fair-trade certification for their products, and gives them access to the UK market.
The extra-virgin olive oil and olives, the world’s first to be certified fair trade, are sold through wholesalers to whole food stores, fair trade stores and delicatessans and through Traidcraft and Oxfam, explains Cathi Pawson, the company’s co-director and one of its founders, and through a network of volunteer regional distributors to their local communities of fair trade activists and Palestine campaigners.
Other Zaytoun products include the classic Middle Eastern seasoning za’atar, a mix of wild thyme, toasted sesame seeds and sumac, sourced from a women’s cooperative in Jenin. Also from Jenin come Om Al-Fahem almonds, which thrive on the rocky, arid terrain. Large, succulent Medjoul dates are grown around Jericho and sourced through the Palm Farmers Cooperative, providing a vital source of income in an area which has been subject to widespread land confiscations. Large-grain, wholewheat, sun-dried couscous is also made in Jericho, though Zaytoun hopes to be able to import couscous from Gaza again soon. Olive-oil soap and olive-twig baskets are also sourced from Palestine.
Zaytoun is actively supporting agricultural cooperatives in Palestine, says Cathi. “We contribute to Palestinian cooperative development, meeting new coops or coops that have new products to sell and seeing where we can help them by bringing their products to market-readiness.”
She says that Zaytoun supports producer cooperatives who work together on farm development and product development, enabling them to access economies of scale and share skills and expertise. “We find the cooperative network inspirational and encouraging for our own company development,” she says, and the company has plans to expand their membership and the involvement of producers and consumers.
“We’ve been developing plans for mutual share ownership with some of our producer cooperatives,” she continues, “so that our success and failures are also their success and failures, and vice versa. Investing in each other makes sense in terms of long-term, trusting relationship.”
She says they have not yet developed their consumer membership, though “plans are afoot to run a series of regional conferences to bring committed and passionate customers on board as members and investors in the company.”
Zaytoun already has a network of supporters around the country, including representatives of faith, fair-trade and human rights groups, who buy the products and sell them at stalls or local shops. Every year, Zaytoun organizes two trips to Palestine for its supporters and customers, timed to coincide with the olive harvest, forging even closer links betwen the Palestinian olive farmers and consumers in the UK.