Most of us would like to make a small difference to the planet or leave the world a little bit better off than we found it.

Few of us dreamt, some years ago, that we might be able to do just that. Or that we could relieve some of the worst poverty, help build schools and provide fresh water where there was none. Nor did we guess that we could make that big a difference for just a small amount - but we can.

Fairtrade ingredients and Fairtrade products are proving a big success because the quality is good (or they do not make it to market) and the prices are, well, fair.

All the supermarkets now stock Fairtrade products. But it was back in 2003 that Napier Brown, which supplies sugar and other ingredients to the baking industry, decided to make it their mission to source Fairtrade sugar and even Fairtrade organic sugar. Their commercial and technical teams have now been sourcing and supplying these sugars from Africa and South America for the last five years with the help of local sugar companies.

Peter Hough, development director at Napier Brown, has recently travelled to find out the differences it is making to communities who grow sugar cane in Malawi and Zambia, many of whom live off their own smallholdings. That difference could mean survival.

On his latest trip, he was driven from Zambia to Mazambuka, where he saw the face of the Zambian president on almost every wall. It looked familiar. It was the man who had sat next to him on the plane from Heathrow and asked him to swap seats with his wife!

But he was not distracted for long. Hough says: "We wanted to buy sugar from African producers who had sourced cane from farmers who had organised themselves into a smallholders’ company, certified by the Fairtrade Labelling Organisation (FLO). We could then sell Fairtrade sugar and send the fixed premium back for use in the local communities."

Sugar is a stand-alone product and used in many baked goods - Viennoiserie, cakes and biscuits, for example. "Tesco and Morrisons were among the first to show an interest, but we can now supply direct to plant bakeries or to smaller bakeries via Bako," adds Hough.

So how does Fairtrade sugar work? "We send the premiums back to the farming co-operatives in Zambia and Malawi. It’s that simple" he says. "When customers buy a bag, the premiums go straight into community projects. That means local villagers can get safe, clean drinking water from a bore hole for the first time in their lives instead of having to walk to the river with a bucket and carry often contaminated water back to their dwellings.

The premiums also go to community health care and local electrical projects so villagers can use electricity for the first time. "One of the most exciting things was seeing how the money was being used to refurbish a local school, providing walls, doors, ceilings and a new roof," says Hough.

"The children come from all over and go to school in shifts. There are 600 altogether aged 7-18. They have 13 teachers and you could not have a happier bunch of kids."

What about the real nitty gritty - the premium? Hough says: "The premium is fixed at US$60 (£30) a tonne, US$80 (£40) if Organic. It goes straight into the farming cooperative bank account, there are no middlemen and it does not get lost."

The Kaleya Smallholders Company in Zambia typically comprises of 160 farmers, 90 of them women. It is well organised and gives farmers up to eight hectares each to grow products. In a year they may earn up to US$12,000, enough to feed a whole family. Life expectancy is low, so some farmers have to look after many dependents.

In adjacent Malawi, the Fairtrade Cane Growers’ Association at Kasinthula gives three to four hectares of land to 280 farmers of which 60 are female. Says Hough: "I went to a meeting and the oldest farmer said a prayer at the beginning and end. It was very moving and I felt very privileged to see where the money was going and to meet people who worked so hard. The local sugar companies give a huge amount of support to these communities. Sales have been developed not only through Napier Brown but also other sugar companies and traders in Europe, following increased awareness and interest in Fairtrade. Even buying one bag of sugar makes a difference."

The sugars available are white refined, golden granulated, golden caster or demerara and these are increasingly used in cakes, biscuits, cereal bars and desserts. Importantly, any baker or retailer who uses Fairtrade sugar can ask the Fairtrade Foundation for permission to use its logo. So it can help bakers’ sales as well as farming co-operatives.

Sounds pretty fair, doesn’t it?


=== At a glance ===

* Napier Brown supplies standard and organic Fairtrade sugar

* It is cane sugar supplied as white granulated, golden granulated, golden caster and demerara and can be used in cakes, biscuits, desserts and jams

* Usual bag size is 25kg

* Napier Brown is BRC EFSIS, and Soil Association accredited