Stage 1 - The manufacturer: Ma’s Foods

The tin of Amaizin coconut milk that you will find in the Dutch Ekoplaza supermarkets, starts its journey in the middle of Sri Lanka. The company that makes it, Ma's Foods, is a village of its own: houses, a number of factories, a launderette and a restaurant. This is where Mario de Alwis and his wife produce organic spices, curries and coconut milk. During the week, their 600 employees can spend the night and eat there, so that they will have more of their wages left over to save. The company runs social projects, which includes providing (financial) support during and after pregnancy and enabling employees’ children to go to school. The farmers that supply the company are also being well taken care of. De Alwis has, for instance, supported them to unite in a fair-trade association. The Japanese corporate philosophy is a source of inspiration, he says: “According to this philosophy, a company that focuses only on production will die as it forgets that the soul of the company rests inside its people.”

What is special about Ma's coconut milk is that part of the nut cracking process is performed manually - a craft that takes lots of practice. De Alwis had bought a machine to do this job, but decided to combine it with manual cracking, so that the craft would be kept alive and he could continue to employ the people who carry it out. After the nut has been cracked, the fibrous outer layer is buried around the coconut trees to improve the soil's water retention. The white part is pressed to extract the coconut milk, which is then diluted with coconut water until it reaches the right fat content. Only an hour after the nut was opened, the tins are filled and closed by a machine. 

Mario De Alwis, Mas Foods

Often, several months - sometimes as many as six - pass between the time that the nuts are bought and the moment that the overseas customer pays. In order to bridge that period, many producers borrow money from a local bank. Ma's Foods also does this and in addition receives funding from Hivos-Triodos Fonds. “Local banks demand collateral, such as a factory or a machine,” explains Joke van der Ven, Senior Investment Officer at Triodos Investment Management, who has been managing the relationship with Ma's Foods for many years. But that has its limitations: “Businesses will reach a point where they no longer have anything to offer as collateral. We are not afraid to provide trade finance without ‘hard’ collateral, because we work with producers and buyers that we have a long-term relationship with. Each year, we pre-finance the export contracts and the buyer is required to make his payments through us, to enable us to monitor the incoming payments on a weekly basis.”

That is what provides us with security. And because life in Sri Lanka can be stormy, with terrorist attacks and flooding, the relationship that De Alwis has with his farmers as well as his long-term relationships with international buyers such as DO-IT in the Netherlands, are all the more valuable. Van der Ven: “Many companies in the agricultural chains, including those for cocoa and coffee, opt to pay the farmer less if something goes wrong. For instance, in case of a problem during transport, a disappointing harvest or the impact of a climatological event or a terrorist attack. But a business such as Ma's has an honest attitude towards farmers.”

Stage 2 - The importer: DO-IT

Around 25 years ago, former farmer Poppe Braam visited Mario de Alwis’ company. He was looking for suppliers for his own company DO-IT (Dutch Organic International Trade). “At the time, Ma's was still a small operation, but Mario had plenty of ideas,” says Patricia van Heffen, brand manager at DO-IT. The company supports farmers all around the world in making the transition to more sustainable growing methods that are better for our climate and our planet. “For many farmers it is not easy to make that transition on their own; it requires money and expertise.”

DO-IT has been importing Ma's coconut milk and curries in the Netherlands for several years now, under the brand name of Amaizin. The products are transported by ship - whenever possible on ships running on low-sulphur fuel oil. After the ship arrives in the port of Rotterdam, the containers are, if possible, moved to the town of Nijmegen by river barge. Lorries are used only for the last 60 kilometres to Barneveld, where DO-IT is based.

DO-IT is active in twenty countries and requires all its products to be Skal and EKO certified, but also has a number of additional requirements, for instance regarding transparency. “Especially if the product comes from far away. Because we are in direct contact with the supplier, that is not so difficult to achieve.” Other importers often use middlemen. Because of its direct contact with suppliers, DO-IT does not always aim for a fair-trade hallmark - representatives from the company itself visit suppliers several times a year to see how things are going and to check on issues such as toilet and education facilities. They also engage directly with the farmers about their needs.

Ultimately, a tin of fairly priced organic coconut milk from Amaizin will sell at around two euros. In some supermarkets you will also find tins priced at one euro, but in that case, there are only two options says DO-IT: “Either the milk has been diluted, or the farmer is being underpaid.”

Stage 3 - The wholesaler: Udea

From DO-IT's warehouse in Barneveld, pallets with Amaizin coconut milk and other products are frequently shipped to organic wholesaler Udea, who then takes them to Ekoplaza stores and other outlets. “Our owner-director recently travelled to Sri Lanka to see for himself how Ma's coconut milk is made,” says Steven IJzerman, quality manager at Udea. “They are very open about this. Their attitude is very much ‘Come and see for yourself’.“ Udea chooses to source its coconut milk from DO-IT, because DO-IT knows the organic market. “Like us, they are 100 percent organic. We believe that also includes fair cooperation and taking care of each other and we look for companies that hold the same view. DO-IT is one of them.”

Udea, too, aims for long-term relationships. “For instance, we don't issue tenders, which is something that many supermarket chains choose to do. Tendering involves setting requirements and asking around who would be able to meet those requirements. New tenders are sometimes issued as often as once every six months. But we don't go out and search for new suppliers every six months: who else is producing coconut milk?”

Stage 4 - The shop:  Ekoplaza

At the end of the journey, the coconut milk ends up at Ekoplaza. This chain of organic supermarkets only sells organic products and tries to make organic food more accessible by selling products under its own distinctive label. The Amaizin tins share a shelf with Ekoplaza's similarly priced own-label coconut milk and a slightly more expensive - due to its higher fat content - type of coconut milk.

There are several seas between the tinned coconut in your cupboard and the tree on which it grew, but according to Mario de Alwin the love with which his people made the coconut milk has simply travelled with the milk. “Fairness and satisfaction within the chain ensure better quality. I believe that happy people make better products.”

The fair chain

Engagement through your savings and investments

Triodos Bank and Triodos Investment Management stand for a fair chain with organic products. This means an honest price for the farmer and healthy and organic products in the shops. Triodos is involved in this tin of Amaizin coconut milk on several levels. Ma's receives trade finance from Hivos-Triodos Fonds. And DO-IT is included in the investment portfolio of Triodos Organic Growth Fund. This fund participates in the equity capital of European pioneers in organic food. Both funds are managed by Triodos Investment Management. Finally, Triodos Bank itself provides funding to all Ekoplaza supermarkets in the Netherlands. The Ekoplaza brand is owned by organic wholesaler Udea.

This is a translation of an article published earlier in De Kleur van Geld, written by Leonie Hosselet.

Read more about Ma's Foods and Mario De Alwis in this interview.