The New Queens of Cocoa
Meet the women cocoa farmers growing in courage in the face of adversity in the Ivory Coast
In Côte d’Ivoire, West Africa, cocoa is king. But life is hard for many of the farmers in West Africa who grow nearly 60 percent of the world’s supply. They’re poorly paid for what they grow. In late 2016, the price of cocoa crashed. Extreme poverty is rife. It’s even harder for the women who work in the fields, and at home, but often see little of the profit. But a new crop of women cocoa farmers are growing in courage and standing tall with men. Together, they’re asking a simple question: don’t we deserve more?
It's 5am and Généviève Yapipko is already awake. She sweeps the front yard of her house, prepares breakfast for her family then takes up a machete to tend to her waiting cocoa trees. Généviève isn’t your usual farmer. In fact, in a country where one in six people depend on cocoa for a living, to meet a woman who owns and runs her farm is slightly unusual.
‘If you’re not courageous then you cannot own a cocoa farm,’ Généviève says. And she’s not wrong. It’s not just the physical demands of running a farm and a family that require that particular brand of strength. Or, for women at least, traversing the well-worn furrows ploughed deep in communities traditionally dominated by men.
Perhaps most of all, to be a cocoa farmer is to brave a volatile cocoa market that, in Côte d’Ivoire, is leaving the average farmer living on around 74p a day.
It's women who carry the heaviest burden, often with fewer rights than men.
Much of the work women do in cocoa farming families is invisible – at least from an economic point of view.
In Côte d'Ivoire women make up just over two thirds of the cocoa labour force, but only own a quarter of cocoa farms. The land many women work is held in their husbands’ names.
As the neighbours who help Généviève bring in her crop know only too well, a woman may play a vital role in harvesting but it's traditionally the men who take the sacks of cocoa beans to the buyer. And that means collecting the cash for the crop.
There's no guarantee they’ll share what they’re paid fairly with their family – if at all. And while there obviously are men who do support their families financially, everyone here can tell stories of those who have used cocoa money to buy things for themselves or even spent it on a mistress. Women can be left with nothing.
Women only earn around 21 percent of the income generated from cocoa production. As it's women who traditionally look after the household in Côte d'Ivoire, it means the whole family suffers when they are denied spending power.
On top of their farm work, women cook, clean, carry water, care for children and elderly relatives, and often tend a vegetable plot. It’s all unpaid, and adds up to a heavy workload.
‘The women wake up early in the morning before the whole family, they start at 6am, sometimes before 6. Around 4/4.30am they are awake. Then cook food for the whole family, send children to school. Take their machete and stuff to the farm. Work hard on the farm. Come in their house. Cook the dinner for the whole family. And they’re the last person to go to bed.’
And the work on the farm is hard. On Généviève’s land, it’s harvest time. Once the cocoa pods have been cut down from the tree, a group of women from the local village strike them with sticks to break them open. They use their fingers to scoop out beans covered in sticky pulp. It's hot and physical work, not made any easier by the colonies of biting ants and scorpions that live on the farm. One woman works with a baby strapped to her back.
The women then carry the woven baskets of beans on their heads to a clearing where they will ferment for up to a week before being dried and put into sacks. Then they are loaded onto a truck and taken to the co-operative warehouse to be sold.
Généviève goes to collect her earnings for the harvest. Her cocoa is first weighed and calculated by an accountant. ‘My only preoccupation is the weight,’ she says. Généviève then takes her receipt and goes to the back of the room to sit at a small hatch. Five notes are fed through a slit, which Généviève carefully counts and folds. ‘This is where it ends. I take my money and I go home.’
For Généviève, it was circumstance that threw her into being the head of a cocoa farming household. When her first husband died in 2006, she was left to look after the children and the farm. Généviève remarried and now scrapes a modest living. She has lodgers. Her house is big but furniture sparse. Paint peels from all the walls. It needs the kind of attention only money can buy, but that takes time.
‘I put all my trust and effort into this work,’ she says. ‘I worked and worked and worked and today I don’t regret being a cocoa farmer, despite my age, I’m proud. It’s because of cocoa money that I could send my children to school (…) If today I can express myself, it’s thanks to the cocoa farm, because it’s thanks to the farm that my parents were able to send me to school.’
It would be easy to focus on the gender imbalance at play in some cocoa growing communities – particularly against the backdrop of the movement in the UK calling for equal pay and respect for women. But there’s a wider issue that needs to be addressed, one that’s closer to home.
It may be hard to swallow but many of the people (both men and women) behind our most-loved chocolate treats live in extreme poverty. And that’s because the collective sweet tooth of cocoa-consuming nations is driving an industry notorious for paying farmers next to nothing for their product. Child labour is a major concern, and prices unstable. Gender inequality, deforestation, climate change and low productivity of cocoa farms due to lack of resources threaten the future of chocolate as we know it. But let’s go back to the beans.
Once the hard-won cocoa beans of farmers like Généviève have found their way into our chocolate, truffles and cakes, their hard work isn’t always valued as you might think. Cocoa farmers are likely to receive less than seven percent of the price of a tonne of cocoa beans.
In other stages of the journey from bean to bar, processors and brands receive around 35 percent and manufacturers about 44 percent.
And yet cocoa farmers – men and women – typically work gruelling days, but don’t earn enough to provide the basics for their families or fund opportunities for their children. Farmers, who often live in rural areas, cannot easily switch to another crop or even another profession. With income too low to accrue savings and without access to credit, farmers are left with no choice but to continue farming a crop that yields little reward. That means whole generations lose out on the chance to improve their chances in life, and break out of the cycle of poverty.
‘The cacao prices are disastrous. When a farmer gets up in the morning, he is always worried: how will he be able to feed and take care of his family? A child is entitled to have access to education, health, protection and food. But to ensure that with the money we earn is impossible.’
Cocoa farming families in Côte d'Ivoire typically have around four children. Even a few years of state primary education costs money. And in a country where seeing a doctor or going to hospital is not free, an ill family member might mean the rest of the household has to go without a meal. There’s simply no chance to save, nothing left over to put by for emergencies, or hopes and dreams like repairing the leaky roof.
Women in cocoa production deserve better conditions when they’re ready to give birth. There’s no roads, the roads are very bad. And when a woman is in labour and has to be carried on a motorbike from a village to the next community it’s too hard, she deserves a better condition than this.
Ebrottié Tanoh Florentin, a cocoa farmer and member of CEAA co-operative, has first-hand experience of how difficult managing a cocoa farm can be when you have six children to feed, clothe and send to school.
‘Farmers’ children do not have access to higher education,’ he says. ‘They just go to school to learn basic knowledge and some notions of French but after they go back on the street because of the lack of money.’
He says the costs of sending children to university, paying for food and transport adds up to a sum that’s out of reach for most farmers.
And on top of an already desperate situation, the international price of cocoa plummeted in 2016, making farmers even poorer than they were before.
The price of cocoa is among the most volatile of commodities. In Côte d’Ivoire, the price a farmer is paid is set by the government and can be influenced by the world price set in New York and London.
Price crashes are nothing new for farmers but this one was particularly crushing. During the price drop, from late 2016 to early 2017, many farmers were unable to find buyers for their cocoa, leaving them without income. The feelings of frustration as farmers watched truckloads of cocoa left to rot in warehouses across the country must have been overwhelming. Lorries full of cocoa were waiting outside of the port for months while the cocoa inside became unsellable.
The crash was caused in part by the second largest cocoa production surplus ever recorded. Ivorian cocoa production in 2016/17 was 40 percent higher than three years before. After several years of bad weather, caused partly by El Niño, exceptionally good weather in 2016/17 resulted in an increased harvest. A sector-wide focus on improving productivity plus an increase in planting cocoa trees contributed to a booming year for cocoa. Instead of celebrating a good harvest, farmers already struggling with poverty, faced a decline in their cocoa income by as much as 30 to 40 percent. As prices plummeted and the situation became increasingly uncertain, the human cost was all but hidden.
Anne-Marie Yao, affectionately known as Mama Cocoa by the farmers she works with, is Fairtrade’s Regional Cocoa Manager for Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. She understands how low cocoa prices affect families.
‘The cocoa price is a catastrophe. The lives of millions of people are affected because of the price drop... People have to look for loans to send their children to school and those who don’t get loans can’t ensure an education for their children. There are health and nutrition implications. At co-operative level they stop in development and they won’t invest any more in the cocoa farm if they don’t have the minimum to buy food. Cocoa quality and production will be affected. If we can’t increase the price we at least need the minimum to cover production.’
Farmers bear all the risks during a crisis. While companies can hedge cocoa at the stock exchange to reduce their risk, farmers, who lack savings to fall back on, are left without a lifeline.
Two years on from the crash, the memory is still raw. The price of cocoa has partially recovered but even now, cocoa farmers can barely make ends meet. Farmers – both men and women – deserve more.
Our global appetite for cocoa has grown in recent years, a development fuelled by the popularity of chocolate in China and India.
As Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana account for nearly 60 percent of the world's cocoa, it would only seem fair that farmers from these countries would receive a decent percentage of the industry's profits.
Awa Bamba, Director of CAYAT Co-operative
Awa Bamba, Director of CAYAT Co-operative
Fairtrade is working towards a living income for men and women cocoa farmers. In Côte d’Ivoire, that’s around £1.86 a day, so that farmers can provide a decent standard of living for themselves and their families.
Globally, around 4 million tonnes of cocoa are produced each year. Fairtrade certified production represents just a fraction of this amount. In Côte d'Ivoire, it’s just eight percent.
But with confectionery companies making major commitments to sourcing their cocoa sustainably, there’s significant potential for more sales and greater positive change for Fairtrade farmers.
After all, it’s what growing numbers of consumers want. In a climate of shoppers asking more questions about where products come from, and how the people involved were treated and paid, responsible companies recognise that treating people fairly is not only right but good for business.
Fairtrade is also supporting more women cocoa farmers to take the reins and stand tall alongside men. Among all the other benefits of Fairtrade, Fairtrade Standards make sure that women have a voice in the community, are represented in decision-making and benefit from the increased value generated by Fairtrade sales.
Anne-Marie wants more women to take the lead. ‘It’s crucial for us to include women in the living income process because we realise in the production countries and especially Côte d’Ivoire, that women are taking care of the family, they provide food for the family. (…) the interests of their children and their family come first. So if this woman knows exactly that they have a role to play, if we give them the power, the skills and the capacity, we are sure that they can influence.’
Women, from Anne-Marie’s experience, are excellent money-savers. Any little amount they do earn, often through growing and selling vegetables, they will put a bit aside for emergencies. Often the men in the family will come to the women for financial help when times are hard, when pests damage crops or the rains come too soon.
Years of studies have shown that directing more independent income into the hands of women quickens the rate of development for the whole community.
In Côte d'Ivoire, traditional gender roles are slowly changing. Awa Traoré is the Director of CAYAT, a cocoa and coffee farming co-operative with over 2,300 members.
She knows first-hand the challenges of being a pioneer for women’s equality in the workplace.
‘In the world of cocoa, it’s much more dominated by men and so that means women are seen badly. To be boss of a co-operative, it’s inconceivable to men… So it was difficult, really difficult to work’.
Dynamic leaders like Awa can make a huge difference to overcoming barriers to achieve gender equality. Through her excellent leadership, men in her co-operative are now proud to have a woman as their director.
Awa is part of a wave of women bringing change to their communities. Along with Généviève, she was among the first proud graduates of a unique educational institution – the Women’s School of Leadership.
‘We can’t talk about development and forget women, because it’s women who are the heart of development. If we want to change things, we must think about the situation of women.’
The Women’s School of Leadership was set up in 2017 as a joint-funded project between Fairtrade, the Co-op and catering group Compass.
It aims to empower women cocoa farmers in West Africa to become business owners, members of farming groups and leaders in their communities. The training lasts a year and covers a range of topics, including women’s rights, and supports farmers to develop their self-confidence, self-esteem and resilience. Alongside the women, three male students were trained to advocate for gender issues in the community.
Inspired by their experience, two students from CAYAT went on to form a Women’s Society. The 400-strong group runs a series of projects designed to supplement women’s income.
Rosine Bekoin, General Secretary of the Society, takes us to the farm where the women grow aubergine, cassava, chillies and a nursery of young cocoa saplings. In the sweltering heat under the canopy of cocoa trees, Rosine shares her vision for the women of CAYAT.
‘Today, many women still do not understand what empowerment and taking the lead means. They think they cannot do it, that everything has to go through their husbands first. You too, a woman, are head of the family. If you have some savings, you can also be the head of the family. Why are you stepping back, put yourself in front. Women taking the lead, men standing behind them: this is the picture us women of CAYAT strive to achieve.’
Through diversification projects, such as fertiliser production, chicken farming and growing extra vegetables, some of these women have earnt enough to send their children to school and gain a measure of food security. Since selling her cocoa as Fairtrade, Rosine plans to build a new house with the extra money she has earned.
Sylvan Beugri, a senior manager in a cocoa co-operative and student of the Women’s School of Leadership said the course had radically changed his perspective. He started doing the washing up at home. Other members of his co-operative would see him washing up when they visited his home would say, ‘you’re not made for this, this is woman’s work!’ But as Sylvain explained, ‘I asked them why men can’t do this, and they cannot explain why.’
‘And then, to have our children, girls too, to work in their offices, like as we see on the TV, the ministers, the President – why can’t a female producer be the President too? We can do it.’
But the bitter truth is that cocoa farming alone isn’t profitable enough to afford many farmers even a basic standard of living. When climate change, boom-bust cycles and politics get involved, it’s essential farmers like Généviève, Ebrottié, Rosine, and others have additional sources of income to fall back on.
We need to do more and we need a better price. Producers need to get money out of their hard labour. Growing cocoa is hard and it’s good for a human being to work hard and have a benefit of their hard working. It’s not aid, it’s just justice for their production.
And diversification projects and programmes to promote gender equality do support women in cocoa but unless the price for cocoa increases substantially, no amount of hard work will bring these courageous women the life they deserve.
A living income for all cocoa farmers, not just women, is an effective way to redress the monumental inequalities in the cocoa industry and tackle the poverty experienced by cocoa farmers, while making the industry itself more resilient.
To earn enough from your work to live on is not so much to ask – it’s what everyone deserves. And it will take courage to get there.
Fairtrade is celebrating 25 years this year. Join the Fairtrade Foundation’s campaign to make living incomes a reality for farmers like Généviève, Rosine and Ebrottié. Start by buying more Fairtrade chocolate.
You can also sign a petition to the Prime Minister, calling on the government to make sure our trade with developing countries puts poverty reduction first, delivering living incomes for all, especially women.
Authors: Sebastian Lander, Jenny Tither, Heather Nicholson
Photography: Peter Caton, Chris Terry
Editor: Heather Nicholson
Video: Peter Caton, Heather Nicholson