We have all faced unimaginable challenges over the past year. As Shared Interest supports over 200 fair trade businesses in 51 countries, we have seen firsthand the impact the pandemic across a wide range of sectors, particularly agriculture and handcrafted goods.
The producers we support are not only facing the challenges of the pandemic but also the increasing effects of climate change. Covid-19 has severely hindered trade routes due to border closures and port restrictions, in addition to changing consumer buying patterns. This is has been further compounded by unusual weather conditions which have affected harvests. In Kenya, agricultural production accounts for about 33% of GDP and yet erratic rainfall patterns are already affecting yields. If this continues, there is a much greater risk of food insecurity and loss of income for those in greatest need. Last year, communities in Uganda were hit by severe flooding and in Honduras, hurricanes destroyed housing, infrastructure and crops.
Despite this, we have also seen how a time of disruption can be an opportunity to implement change, including creative use of technology. With a team spread across six different countries and a membership of over 10,000, here in the UK, we have always embraced virtual methods of communication but never at the level experienced recently. We have maintained, and in many instances become closer to the customers who receive our finance. A new virtual due diligence framework was developed to ensure we could evaluate new customers and assess their needs remotely. Staff engagement has been maintained as the team have generated interesting ways to support each other, overcoming cultural, language and time differences, including weekly exercise challenges, quizzes and a focus on mental wellbeing.
Holding face-to-face events has always been an important part of our stakeholder engagement, allowing us to share stories of our impact across thousands of communities. Unfortunately, the impact of Covid-19 meant that our 30th Anniversary event in March 2020 was cancelled, and as a result, we could not formally receive our third Queens Award for Enterprise in the Sustainable Development category from the Lord Lieutenant, as planned. I am, however, very proud of the way our team have maintained a high level of engagement and we remain encouraged by the steadfast loyalty of our supporters. Investment levels continue to rise and we should soon reach a combined pool of £48 million in Share Capital. Like many individuals, our members have embraced technology to keep in touch with family and friends and as a result, almost half of our membership now manages their investment online, a 35% increase from last year. We also held our first virtual member event in November and the response was overwhelmingly positive, with the majority of attendees not having joined a member event previously.
As I write this, we are approaching two key events in our diary – Fairtrade Fortnight and our AGM. Under normal circumstances, we would be looking forward to welcoming our colleagues from Africa and Latin America to our Newcastle head office, and coordinating visits from fair trade businesses supported by our finance. This year looks very different but there is still a great deal to celebrate. Our AGM will take place online for the first time, followed by a series of virtual workshops. We have already managed to reach a much broader cohort of members with the number of participants expected to be the highest in our history.
When we start to make the transition to a post-Covid world, we - like many other businesses - will approach stakeholder engagement in a different way, in order to give our membership alternative ways to contribute, challenge, and understand the impact of their investment. So, as we mark this year’s Fairtrade Fortnight, it is in a very different world to the one we experienced last year. In some ways, the pandemic has brought us closer as a team as we share experiences, support colleagues and look for innovative and collaborative ways to tackle challenges. Technology also enables us to feel more connected with farmers and workers in the developing world, although some of our business challenges are very different. Perhaps that makes this year’s message all the more poignant: Choose the world you want. The pandemic has brought global interconnectivity and it is clear that we all must play our part in making a difference to drive long-term change.