What happens when cocoa-producing communities decide their own criteria for sustainability and success?

by 27th May 2015
A cocoa farmer from Sikaboutou community A cocoa farmer from Sikaboutou community

How can we make sure that in a developing country that is economically and socially dependent on a single commodity, this becomes a development driver rather than a curse?

That’s the question I had in mind while heading to Cote d’Ivoire – also known as ‘Cocoa Coast’ to some, because of the fact that it is – proudly – the largest cocoa producer in the world, mainly thanks to smallholders owning 1-3 ha of land each and producing 95% of the cocoa. [1]

The challenge is not trivial, because smallholders normally do not earn sufficient income from their cocoa gardens to permanently emerge from poverty and their business is intrinsically fragile to price shocks and climatic events. Child labour and deforestation can also be other important undesirable effects when the business is not properly managed. Over a fifth (21%) of the population of Cote d’Ivoire are under-nourished [2]; an estimated 820,000 children aged 5 to 17 worked in the cocoa sector in the harvest season 2008-2009 [3]; and the country has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, driven by international trade in commodities such as cocoa and rubber, and domestic demand for staple crops. [4]

It is also building upon social structures ruined by years of civil unrest (mainly motivated by land conflicts in the cocoa-producing areas) and limited government presence. From CARE’s perspective, this means that our support to the cocoa industry carries the risk of having little or no positive effect on poverty and resilience in the longer term.

Promoting sustainable cocoa production

CARE is one of the implementing partners of the Cocoa Life programme, a large multi-stakeholder $100 million commitment funded by Mondelez International to benefit 75,000 people in cocoa-farming communities in Cote d’Ivoire. Its objective is to create empowered and thriving cocoa-farming communities in a way that is ethical, environmentally sustainable, and beneficial for the smallholder producers and their families in the long term. Women’s empowerment is a cross-cutting theme within the overall strategy. CARE has reached out to 11 cocoa-producing communities to help nearly 4,000 farmers boost their cocoa-growing productivity and improve the livelihoods of nearly 40,000 community members. We will reach more than 150 other communities during the next three years, playing an important role through facilitating and implementing actions at community level and particularly with the women and youth.

I had an example of this way of working when we arrived in Sikaboutou village and I was presented with the Community Action Plan (CAP). I had a chance to talk about it with the local producers and with the members of the Community Development Committee (CDCOM), and after some discussions it became clear that this mechanism is at the heart of CARE’s and Cocoa Life’s approach.

A community meeting at Sikaboutou

Photo above: A community meeting in Sikaboutou

Community-driven local development

The CAP is designed by the CDCOM and it contains details of all the objectives that people would like to achieve during the following three years including, for instance, improvements in access to health and education, better roads, community infrastructure, and vocational training. The plan is designed and managed by women (half of the CDCOM’s management structure are women), men and youth, and monitored using the Community Score Card process: the CDCOM regularly meets with the community members, they check the progress against each of their objectives through a simple scoring system, and they review their plans if necessary. This is a very easy-to-use planning tool with the additional benefit of helping to promote a more transparent and accountable governance system, mutual trust and collaboration – critical assets to prevent conflicts.

Considering the past conflicts, one interesting fact is that different religious and ethnic groups are working together within this platform toward the common goal of improving their livelihoods. This was one of the explicit aims of the CDCOM approach from the outset, following the finding, from an analysis of conflict sensitivity at the beginning of the programme, that 73% of the cocoa farmers are not originally from the areas where they farm.

Financial independence

One important aspect of the approach is that, after the initial training and follow-up, neither CARE nor Mondelez are offering direct financial support to implement all the activities contained in the CAP. Instead, with the aim of fostering long-term financial sustainability, the community will partner with the local government, cocoa traders and cooperatives, without needing NGO funding.

Improved income from cocoa is an important source of social investment. Cocoa Life aims to improve producer incomes through higher productivity, training in entrepreneurship and better terms of trade, including premium prices. In turn communities can seek match funding from other public or private sources. According to the Sikaboutou CDCOM representatives, two years after setting up the committee, around 70% of their action plan has been completed; as an example, they mention the fact that the local government is starting to build a new school in the village. Of course the CAPs do not increase the overall amount of public funding available in the country, but they can at least make distribution and spending mechanisms more transparent and inclusive for low-income groups.

CARE is not directly involved in providing technical training to increase cocoa productivity and quality, as that is a responsibility of cocoa traders like ECOM and Cargill, who clearly have the business motivation and capability to conduct this activity in a financially sustainable manner.

Increased resilience

Cocoa is a seasonal crop, therefore income is concentrated over specific periods of the year, and the ability to save during the main harvest season and to carefully plan finances for the rest of the year is a fundamental skill for smallholder families. CARE is helping to build these skills through Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs), 45 of which have been set up in the 11 communities. Mainly composed of women, VSLAs promote a savings culture, teach financial literacy, and allow women to improve their voice around budget decisions inside their family. The resulting savings can be used for a variety of purposes including for family emergencies, and for investing into existing businesses or new ones – therefore allowing families to diversify their incomes and to increase their resilience to shocks such as loss of harvests or a drop in cocoa prices.

Beyond basic market-based approaches and social compliance?

The project in Côte d’Ivoire has just completed its pilot phase with the 11 communities and it represents an evolution from basic market-based approaches and from the compliance approach typical of certifications. While certifications still represent an important way to ensure that social and environmental sustainability principles are being respected, the Community Score Cards are an effective process to assess the communities’ achievement based on what they have determined as their own development pathway. Of course, there is also a strong business case from the private sector perspective: wealthy, resilient, self-sufficient communities are more likely to ensure the continuation of cocoa production and to maximise outputs.

Women at a community meeting in Sikaboutou

Photo above: Women at a community meeting in Sikaboutou

The way forward

Cocoa Life’s rationale is that by increasing the communities’ capacity to decide and plan for their own development in a democratic and inclusive way, it will have a clear positive effect both on social development and on the cocoa business. Mondelez is making a substantial financial commitment to achieve these aims through Cocoa Life. It is a very practical example of Mondelez’s concept of ‘well-being’ – that the well-being of people, their communities and the environment are inextricably linked.

The main challenge in moving forward with this approach will be measuring and monitoring our impact, considering the variety of changes that might happen in the community following the implementation of the CAPs. These might include shifts in behaviour, in relations at household level, in the power balance between women and men, in social cohesion and trust, in the way people work together effectively, in the amount of public funds invested in the community and in the percentage of their plans that are completed. Cocoa Life’s capacity to scale up this approach and to change the way the cocoa industry works in Côte d’Ivoire will depend on our ability to demonstrate the difference that we are making both in the communities and in the cocoa business, and in our ability to partner with other key industry stakeholders like traders and the government.

Notes:1. Cocoa provides employment to more than 600,000 farmers, and a livelihood to more than 6 million people, approximately one-third of the country’s total population. (Hewitt and Millard, 2010, 2010)
2. World Bank http://donnees.banquemondiale.org/indicateur/SN.ITK.DEFC.ZS
3. According to a report by Tulane University that assessed data collected during the 2008-2009 harvest season http://www.dol.gov/ilab/reports/child-labor/cote_divoire.htm
4. EU REDD Facility Côte d'Ivoire

Gianluca Nardi

Gianluca worked in the Private Sector Engagement team and then the Women's Economic Empowerment team at CARE International UK from 2005 to 2017. Gianluca's main areas of expertise are market facilitation, women’s empowerment, micro-enterprise development, rural development, private sector engagement and working with extractive industries.

He has over 15 years experience working in various management and consultancy roles in Brazil, Nicaragua, Angola, Cambodia and Italy, in both the private sector and NGOs. He holds a Masters in International Development from the University of Ferrara, an ILO Diploma on Inclusive Market Facilitation, a diploma in Extractive Industries and Sustainable Development from the Catholic University of Lima, and a certificate from the Advanced Social Management Programme from the University of Cambridge and the University of Queensland CSRM.

One good thing I’ve read

Changing your company from the inside out: A guide for social intrapreneurs, by Gerald Davis and Christopher White. An inspiring guide to making big changes and a social impact by transforming large companies from the inside. It is fascinating to see the many similarities between social movements generating big societal changes and inspiring individuals doing the same in their own organizations.

Twitter: @gianlucabrasil