Cathi Pawson – Zaytoun. Soil Association Interview

hi-res-logoZaytoun is the UK social enterprise which launched Fairtrade organic olive oil from Palestine to British customers in 2009. Having started as a grassroots initiative to support Palestinian farmers who had lost overseas markets, back in 2004, the company has grown steadily to achieve sales of over £1 million, with an office in central London.

How did Zaytoun begin/get started?

The initiative for trading olive oil as a means for supporting Palestinian farmers came from the founders’ trips to Palestine in 2003. International borders had just reopened after the intifada, but in the meantime the export market for olive oil had been lost to Jordanian producers. The harvest of 2003 was a bumper one, and having tasted the beautiful oil I and my co-founders Heather, Atif and Sal determined to try and sell some of it in the UK. I was working for then MEP Caroline Lucas at the time, and to highlight her trip to Palestine we had been selling the olive oil at street stalls. I knew it created a talking point, and a tangible way for people in Britain to connect with, and support Palestinian farming communities. Good food is a universal connector of peoples, a reason to get together, a way of talking about each other’s lives that, in the case of Palestinian olive oil, wasn’t head-on about the confrontations and violence of the occupation.

As a company, we owe much of our success to a vigorous network of distributors and supporters around the country, who are passionate about good food, Fairtrade and supporting Palestinian family farmers through trade.  From the very beginning people have volunteered to hold stalls, visit Palestine with us, offer talks and even invest in our company. We remain a very ‘human-scale’ company – relatively small, though we hope our impact is large, and still very much connected to our customers as well as to the farmer cooperatives who have grown with us through the years.

Why organic?

Supporting those farmers to achieve organic certification for their olive oil was an easy choice to make, as they also prepared for Fairtrade certification and brought traceability and best practice into their operations. Most small farmers in Palestine already grow organically, relying on low-tech local solutions to manage pests and boost the productivity of their crops as the import of chemicals is banned under the occupation. In this way, skills and traditions that have been passed down for generations in Palestinian families are now increasingly important as their overseas customers are choosing high-quality, organically grown products. In a land where access to clean water and fertile land is made scarce, these resources become even more precious. Along with the farmers who grow our products, we see organic growing as a foundation for resilient livelihoods and environmental sustainability.

What role does the Soil Association play for you?

Working with the Soil Association has been very supportive, increasing the profile of our own organic products but also for the farmers who grow them, and for whom the certification process was entirely new when they began, several years ago.

What’s next for you and Zaytoun?

We are constantly innovating, looking for new products to add to our range so that we can support more farming communities and delight more customers. We are reaching out to new customers through the resurgence of interest in fine foods and cuisine from around the world. It is exciting to be increasingly working in partnership with other Fairtrade and organic brands as well as well-known chefs and food writers to bring the rich heritage of Palestinian food culture to more British customers.




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