Stories from the farm
Women working in cocoa
Therese believes her children deserve more. So that’s her priority – doing everything she can to offer them better chances in life. In her words ‘to leave them higher’.
Perhaps the single most important thing that happened to Therese – or didn’t happen – was that she didn’t go to school. ‘This was devastating to me.’ She knows the opportunities that education can offer, the choices it can open up. And it’s left her determined to do whatever she can to make sure her children have those chances.
As an Ivorian cocoa farmer and a woman at that, Therese is one of the fortunate ones. Both she and her husband own their own cocoa farms. She belongs to a group of farmers who have a market for their beans through Fairtrade. Most importantly, this means that she has a safety net in the form of a minimum price for her crop. This is vital, as prices for cocoa are some of the most volatile on the market and frequently plunge to levels that leave farmers like Therese hungry and out of pocket.
It’s this security that allows Therese and her husband to support their children. The oldest is at university in Côte d’Ivoire’s capital city, Abidjan. The others study in the biggest nearby town, which is still a bumpy two-hour drive away. They stay there, which means not only that she must pay for their fees and books, but that she must find a place for them to stay and pay for their food. Most of her money goes on their education but there’s no question that the sacrifices she makes are worth it. ‘I am suffering at the moment for my kids to have a good job in cities so that they will not come back here and suffer again like me.’ She and her husband supplement their income with other crops, because the money from cocoa only comes in a couple of times a year and more often than not, doesn’t last that long. ‘When there is no more cocoa at all I do peanut farming. I do bean farming, I do chilli farming, I do okra farming, to earn money, additional revenue than what I have from my cocoa farm.’
‘At the moment life is very hard around here. My husband is making money from cocoa himself. I am making money as well. I am here to support my husband with the money I earn so that we can leave the children high in their studies.’
As is so often case across the world, the responsibilities of cooking, washing and cleaning the house also fall to Therese. Collectively, the co-operative she belongs to earns extra money through Fairtrade, called the Fairtrade Premium. Together they decide what they should spend it on for the most benefit to their community. For Therese, one of the biggest changes brought about by this is the water pump. The village she lives in has seen an improvement in child health: ‘In the past the water we used to have to drink, even if people were asking you to do their washing in it, you would have refused because it [the water] was unclean, but we used to boil that water before drinking. Thanks to the co-op CAVA, today we can have clean water in our village to drink. In the past when we used to drink the dirty water from wells and rivers the children were getting sick all the time, but today, because of the water coming from the pump, children are feeling well, healthier, and everybody is happy about that.’
For Therese, the price she gets now for her cocoa is better than before. She illustrates how powerless the cocoa farmers are in the supply chain. They were at the mercy of whatever anyone would pay them: ‘Thanks to co-operative CAVA, we can say that CAVA is respecting the government’s price, but before the co-op we used to have here, private buyers, that were hiding to come and buy, who would not respect or enforce the price. Now CAVA is respecting the price and our revenues are increasing.’
It’s not all about the Fairtrade price though. Therese is keen to highlight the other benefits of being part of Fairtrade. It’s not just the Premium that farmers like Therese value. It’s the way the co-op is organised, and how it ensures health and safety and other rights at work are upheld.
‘When I am selling through CAVA co-op, the price is respected. In addition, the co-op is in charge of the treatment, they provide pesticides, they provide boots, they provide machetes, they even provide cash money to the farmers so that they can handle the farms, this is called the Premium and I really appreciate that.’
Therese deserves Fairtrade.
When Edith talks about harvesting tomatoes, you can see her smiling behind her eyes. She loves the simple act of picking a ripe tomato from a plant, the satisfaction of knowing her hard work has come to fruition. Life has thrown up some challenges for Edith, but she has not let them set her back. She deserves all these chances to grow.
Edith’s life hasn’t been easy, but her experiences have inspired her to change things for the better for herself, her family and her community. Edith has faced several tragedies in recent years. She’s overcome them to build an incredible community of women, determined to build secure futures for their families, all supporting each other.
Edith lives in a small town in Côte d’Ivoire. She lives in a household of seven, including her son, and her brothers and sisters. She hasn’t always lived here. She moved to the capital, Abidjan, to get married, and had her son there. But, when she divorced her husband, she brought her son back to her homeland, to live with her family.
Edith’s mother owns a cocoa farm, and together they tend the trees and harvest the cocoa. But even as part of a Fairtrade co-operative, the cocoa trees alone don’t bring in enough money. Edith is determined that she will earn enough money to take care of herself and her son into the future, whatever that might bring. This is what feeds her entrepreneurial spirit. She’s bought two motorbike taxis, and employed two local men as drivers to ferry people back and forth from their houses to their farms which are often a few kilometres out of town. She’s also started a business hiring out crockery for parties, alongside farming and raising her son.
Like many people in Côte d’Ivoire, cocoa is Edith’s passion. As she worked the farm with her mother, she dreamed of ways to do better with what they had. Not just for her, but her friends too.
Edith and her friend jumped at the chance to blaze a trail in the first group of women to take part in the Women’s School of Leadership, a Fairtrade project to bring out confidence and skills in the women of the cocoa farming communities. During her training, her son’s father suddenly died. She decided now that she alone was supporting her son, she would make sure she would always have money coming in.
The two women came back from their training brimming with ideas and excited to get started. They made some plans to help not just themselves but women from their community to earn money all year round, and have their own money. They shared their ideas with their friends and neighbours and started to bring them into their exciting plans.
But tragedy struck when her dear friend died. Edith and her community were devastated. The shock and sadness of their loss left the women unable to think about the future. Edith could barely bring herself to do anything, and lost all motivation. She thought: ‘What am I going to do now as I am alone?’
With time, the grief became less raw and Edith remembered why they had started on their journey: because they wanted women in their community to be independent and have money to support themselves and their families. Edith knew that carrying on with their plans was the best way to honour her friend’s memory. Bringing the group together was her legacy.
‘We don’t want to let the name of our late sister disappear. We want to keep her memory with us because she was the leader at the beginning.’
The friends put their money together to rent some land, separate to their cocoa farms. They were able to get seeds to grow vegetables on their community farm. They have already found a buyer in Abidjan for their tomatoes. They are also growing peanuts to sell, and learning how to process them. The women spend every Wednesday and Friday there, tending their crops, singing, talking and laughing as they do it, and the rest of the time on their cocoa farms. The income they receive from these crops is becoming more and more important in keeping their households afloat, especially as the rains have become more unpredictable and the amount of cocoa they are producing has been affected by this.
Edith herself says she can see the effects of a changing climate on the crops they grow in the form of diseases. ‘I can see that leaves are drying when we have many dry days and the rain is not coming much, the leaves are getting yellow, when you see the cocoa pods they are small and the trees may die. So we are scared because the trees may die.’ On the women’s cocoa farms, pests and diseases spread more quickly, among them ‘black pod’ where cocoa pods turn dark and mouldy on the tree.
Edith and her mother see the threat of climate change and know they and their fellow farmers cannot rely solely on cocoa. It’s what makes projects like the community farm so valuable. With other ways to bring in money, they can afford to be strong when the rains don’t come. Some years, not all of their cocoa has even been sold. As small-scale farmers in West Africa, they have not been the biggest contributors to manmade climate change, yet they are already living with the reality of it.
Edith and her community of women will keep encouraging each other, to turn things around when life gets hard, to thrive and grow. We can be part of their story, and support them and countless other unbowed, ambitious women like them, by buying Fairtrade cocoa.
Edith deserves Fairtrade.
Lucia is a cocoa farmer in Sierra Leone.
She lives in a community nestled on the edge of the Gola rainforest, sharing her forest home with chimpanzees, hundreds of rare bird species and the elusive pygmy hippo, of which only 3,000 remain.
Lucia cares deeply about her forest home and wants to protect it. But it is not easy to do that when you have to make difficult choices to survive.
Farming in the rainforest is tough. The environment is hot, wet and provides ideal conditions for the rapid spread of plant disease. In the past, Lucia’s family have been left hungry because disease has riddled their cocoa farm. They simply didn’t have enough money to spare to try out growing other crops to fall back on when their cocoa was unripe or diseased. Without these options, Lucia’s family were pushed deeper into poverty and hunger.
Even when the family worked hard to grow healthy disease-free pods, challenges remained. Chimpanzees would come to the farm and wreak havoc, hollowing out the ripe, sweet cocoa beans from their pods, destroying the whole crop and leaving the farm strewn with empty shells. With their crop gone, so was the family income. Once again, Lucia and her husband, Sidie, would struggle to find the money to feed their children.
Lucia has seen many farmers harm animals out of desperation, or turn to mining, logging or rice farming as alternative sources of income. But she has also seen the destruction these activities bring to her beloved forest. Although life as a farmer has been difficult for Lucia, she is determined to improve her family’s livelihood through cocoa, while protecting their forest home.
This belief holds true for many more farmers like Lucia. Lucia and other cocoa farmers on the edge of the Gola rainforest came together to form a Fairtrade co-operative called the ‘Ngoleagorbu Cocoa Farmers Union’. Their name means ‘we who live by the forest edge’.
‘In Ngoleagorbu, cocoa is our hope. Because we work together, the quality of our cocoa has improved, and our income has increased...’
Lucia’s determination to improve her family’s livelihood shines through when she speaks about Ngoleagorbu’s formation. She is justifiably proud of the changes she and her husband have made to their farm. Lucia has worked hard with her husband to grow their cocoa according to Fairtrade Standards, both social and environmental.
Ngoleagorbu are now selling some of their cocoa on Fairtrade terms to the UK, which means they will receive the Fairtrade Minimum Price and Fairtrade Premium.
It is clear that Lucia is passionate and hopeful about what the future holds for Ngoleagorbu. Her drive for change has led her to be chairperson of the Fairtrade Premium Committee, a decision-making role that will determine the future of her co-operative.
'Women now take part in leadership roles and have key responsibilities. That would never have happened before. We feel more empowered in our community.’
Lucia is hardworking, proud and determined. She deserves to use her land in a way that earns her a decent living, but also protects her forest home.
Lucia deserves Fairtrade.
You can support farmers like Therese, Edith and Lucia by buying more Fairtrade chocolate. When you choose Fairtrade chocolate, you're making a difference to farmers’ lives and supporting a brighter future for their families.
Fairtrade is on a mission to ensure that all farmers are paid fairly for their work and are able to earn a living income, starting with cocoa farmers in West Africa. Find out how you can get involved in our living income campaign:
Photography by: Chris Terry and Dominique Fofanah
Illustrations by: Dorcas Magbadelo
Authors: Jenny Tither and Sebastian Lander