Going Dutch in Cocoa?
The theme of the meeting was farmer support, and the primary focus was West Africa, where the majority of cocoa is grown. Millions of smallholder farmers are reliant on cocoa, and they need help fixing the problems that keep their earnings low and make their lives hard. But who will pay the bill?
Our producer services team, working with other NGOs, completed a diagnostic of some of the cocoa farmers and cooperatives in the Ivory Coast recently, and found massive systemic deficiencies including:
• Cooperatives facing cash shortages due to lack of pre-harvest finance
• Aging trees and land use practices causing production declines
• Lack of knowledge of how on-farm and post-harvest management impact quality
• Lack of understanding of the international grading systems which measure quality
• No clear connection for growers between quality of product and price paid
There are also child labor issues, logistical challenges, and crop disease problems. On the positive side, a broad consortium including NGOs, industry, academia, government, international development agencies, and social enterprises has coalesced to work on these issues. The collaborative approach – with everyone picking up a portion of the tab – seems to be creating more funding opportunities and technical training projects in the region.
Hermente Mrema of the Uganda Coffee Development Authority pointed out that these coalitions do not always include the growers themselves. Although they don’t bring money to the table, the growers need to have a voice.
Hermente emphasized the importance of farmer empowerment, something near and dear to all of us in Fair Trade. A key to the empowerment model is strong, well-managed cooperatives. A few initiatives to strengthen cooperatives, such as the Upcocoa project, are underway which focus on grower management capacity as well as technical assistance. It's a refreshing change. When farmers operate inefficiently, there is a strong desire and commitment by industry participants to make "better farmers". But when cooperatives are found to be in an imperfect, developmental state, the reaction in some cases had been to dismiss rather than work with them – an attitude that some at this conference openly displayed. The cooperative model should not be bypassed and is absolutely at the center of the Fair Trade model for cocoa.
Our experience in coffee proves strengthening farmer-managed, cooperative institutions creates a conduit that links farmers to markets and markets to farmers, creating opportunities for higher prices, certified product sales, long-term sourcing relationships, and real farmer opportunity. Even so, this system is sometimes taken for granted in the coffee industry. It is not surprising that its potential in cocoa is underappreciated. Yet the entire industry will benefit once the conduit is strengthened. Let’s all invest in getting it there.