In the latest in a series of features inspired by Middlesbrough Soroptimists' list of outstanding local women, Jan Hunter spoke to Fairtrade champion Jenny Medhurst

"FAIRTRADE is such a simple and powerful way to transform lives," says Jenny Medhurst from Carlton, Stockton, who has spent her life, since the 1970s, being a champion in this country. "It is about dignity, self esteem, empowerment – and basic human rights."

Jenny was born in Wakefield, did a chemistry degree at Sheffield University and split her PGCE between Newcastle University and teaching science and maths in Nigeria for two years. It was this life changing experience which made her become a member of the World Development Movement (WDM), which campaigns for trade justice. After two years with VSO (Voluntary Service Overseas) teaching science in Malaysia, she returned to a teaching job in Middlesbrough, becoming a member of the Ashram community, a Christian group which commits to putting faith into action.

Jenny's work abroad had a huge impact on her. " I looked at the world with new eyes," she says. "I was greeted so kindly and made so welcome in the countries I visited, by many of the people who had nothing. It makes me ashamed the way some people treat asylum seekers."

So much so that from 2002 to 2005 she helped to run an Ashram House for homeless asylum seekers in Parkfield, Stockton. After the warm hospitality she had received when she lived abroad, she was mortified by of the hostility they faced when fleeing war and persecution. She shared their heartbreaking stories, which countered the misinformation which she said many local people believed.

Earlier in 1978 when Jenny was living in the Ashram residential, Rev Konathu John from Kerala, India, visited the community there. This was a huge milestone in Jenny's life and she was inspired by Rev John's work with the Dalith community of poor, landless labourers to help them understand their rights, become more self reliant and improve their income.

One of their projects was to weave place mats from local screw pine fibre. Jenny resigned from teaching in 1979 and decided to visit the community, to see it for herself.

"After my visit, I returned home armed with place mats to sell," she says. "I knew I could share the story of what was happening in Kerala. This was at the same time that UK businessman, Richard Adams had launched Traidcraft. I became craft rep number 007."

While selling her crafts, tea and coffee, a local architect and planner arrived to buy some WDM tea. He helped her to organise a conference, and became both a great supporter of Traidcraft and her husband of 37 years. Frank and Jenny visited the WDM tea estate and Rev Konathu John on their honeymoon in 1982, where they asked friends for goats and sewing machines for the people of Kerala as their wedding presents.

Back in the UK, Jenny began selling Traidcraft through Tupperware-style parties in people's homes, but realised she didn't have enough space, so she was encouraged to look for a shop. She ran her first one for seven weeks. It had breeze block walls, no lighting, and concrete floors, but she made £10,000, which encouraged her to look for other premises. Each Christmas she ran her shop in a different location – 33 in 33 years. She still supplies church stalls, individual customers and runs stalls at community and regional events, as well as giving talks to every organisation in Teesside and beyond.

"Fairtrade can do something about injustice," says Jenny. "It is not a charity. Buying fair trade products enables other people to have a life. People who don't earn anything in these countries have nothing. People are desperate to survive. They don't have the safety nets we do. In Fairtrade farmers are paid a fair price for what they grow and an extra premium which they choose to invest in their communities and businesses, so everyone benefits."

And it is this premium, as well as a fair wage for the farmers, which changes individual lives and communities, who decide themselves where the money should be spent. This social premium is used for the needs of the community such as education, clean water, pensions, training clinics, maternity clinics, and during Covid, PPE. It gives a promise of a future for the young people in their homeland, as a fair price enables them to make a living, or continue their education.

Ndiuzayani from Malawi shared her story of how her family and community have benefitted from Fairtrade. They have improved housing, they have a primary school, and a health clinic. There are now ten water taps in the area which means general health has improved. She is now a graduate and a business studies teacher, and wants to be a role model for girls and women in Malawi.

There are many stories and examples of Fairtrade empowering women who live in predominantly male dominated societies. Many grow coffee and run businesses and factories, and have the chance to continue their education.

Jenny has made helping people in these communities her life's work. She is deeply concerned about the effect of climate change on the farmers and the way some supermarkets could do far more, but as well as being way ahead of her time as regards her work with Fairtrade and Traidcraft, she has made such a difference to people's lives.

"Traidcraft has shown that it is possible to make trade work for the poor, and be a profitable company," she says, "and it has sought to influence wider corporate behaviour by pioneering social accounting, developing tools by which bigger companies could measure their social responsibility. Its sister charity, Traidcraft Exchange successfully campaigned for a Grocery Ombudsman to tackle the unfair policies of the UK's supermarkets, and for duty free access for imports from the world's poorest countries post-Brexit. It is lobbying for the law to enforce greater accountability on companies and for prosecutions of those that cause harm overseas."

The list of Jenny's involvement in projects to help others is nothing short of astonishing.

She helped to set up the Fairtrade town/borough steering groups in Middlesbrough and Stockton, and set up and works for the Teesside One World Centre to promote global learning in schools. Her volunteering at the local Citizens' Advice Bureau helped her understand the issues affecting local people, and she also helps with the Fair Food Fund, which supports Fairtrade and local asylum seekers. She uses the money to buy rice from Malawi so the farmers get a decent wage and are able to send their children to secondary school and beyond. The rice is given to local destitute asylum seekers through the Mary Thomson Fund. Jenny helped to set up the UK charity, Cafe Direct, and, wanting to extend the range of Fairtrade customers, she helped to set up the Fairtrade Foundation and to get Fairtrade Mark products into supermarkets, massively expanding their range of products.

Sadly Jenny's husband Frank died a few years ago, but part of his legacy is the 3,000 trees they planted to improve the environment on the eight acres of land beside their house. "We are in the process of giving it to the Tees Valley Wildlife Trust," she says.

"Traidcraft was a way in for me to talk about the needs of people around the world," she adds. "Working for them and Fairtrade has enabled me, through our partnership with some of the world's poorest people, to make a direct and immediate impact on their lives which has fitted well with my long term campaigning and educational work. I will continue my work as long as I am able."

One female cocoa farmer called Rosina told Jenny: " I now realise I have some value and self esteem. Trading with Fairtrade has given me and my children hope, so that we will no longer be enslaved by poverty."