Politics of Poverty

Behind the Brands: Can cocoa companies do more for women?

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Why women are being excluded from more profitable aspects of agriculture in Cote d’Ivoire

My colleagues and I were surrounded by women dressed in their best. Their colorful, patterned pagnes, or cloth wraps, were everywhere I turned in the village of Kouadioyaokro, Cote d’Ivoire (Ivory Coast). I was in West Africa in January to listen to women cocoa farmers about their roles in the supply chains that result in my favorite chocolate treats.

Etchi Avla on her cocoa farm in Botende, Ivory Coast in January. Photo: Peter DiCampo / Oxfam America

Cote d’Ivoire is the world’s top cocoa exporter, producing about 40 percent of the world’s crop, and used to make the mass-produced foods like candy bars and chocolate milk you find at your neighborhood grocery story. The United States imports more than half of its cocoa beans from the West African country—three times more than from the runner up, Ecuador. The vast majority of cocoa production comes from small farms of less than 5 hectares in size. These farms are, for the most part, owned and operatedby men.

It seemed every woman that lived in the village showed up to our meeting in Kouadioyaokro. These women were ready to be heard and to be recognized! While women play essential roles in farming cocoa, their work traditionally has been undervalued, ignored, and often underpaid.

Through our discussions, we found little evidence on the ground that the international food and beverage industry are doing its part to uplift the livelihoods of female smallholder farmers in the cocoa industry. Extraordinary profits from cocoa are built on the labor of millions of women (and men) living in poverty like those whom I encountered in Cote d’Ivoire.


Oxfam last week released its Behind the Brands report. The report contains a Scorecard that ranks the top 10 food companies on seven themes: workers, farmers, women, land, water, climate and transparency. one key area where companies were failing—women.

Women represent at least half of the workforce in agriculture and women’s work in agriculture is often not visible, or simply not valued, despite the immense physical and inner strength required by the women with whom I met in Cote d’Ivoire. Complex and long-standing gender divisions result in women being excluded from more profitable aspects of agricultural enterprises. Women have limited access to resources such as land, credit, technical agricultural support, social security, and other services. They do unpaid work at home, face high levels of illiteracy, and lack bargaining power. They often face discrimination and unequal treatment on commercial farms, limiting their access to resources, equal wages, training, and leadership positions.

The greatest paradox is that women are often the key to food security for their own families. For this reason, Oxfam would like companies to begin the race by improving their policies and practices that affect female smallholder farmers.

Companies can begin by engaging with people like Olga Rosine Adou, the founder and president of the cooperative, COOPASA, in southeastern Cote d’Ivoire. When we met, Olga told us that cocoa companies could help her and other women cocoa farmers in her community.

“We want these conditions to get better. We want men to understand that women can do what men do. With international pressure, things will start to change.”

Oxfam is calling specifically on the three largest cocoa sourcing companies in the world—Mars, Mondelez and Nestle—to do more for women cocoa farmers. These companies must:

#1 Look: ‘Know and show’ that women are treated fairly by assessing and reporting on the economic and social status of women in cocoa supply chains.

#2 Listen: Respond to the demands of women in cocoa supply chains and make public commitments to protecting women’s rights and ensuring opportunities for female smallholder farmers.

#3 Act: Take concrete steps to redress gender inequities in the company’s cocoa supply chains and influence others to do so as well.

This International Women’s Day—March 8, 2013, let’s take a stand for women who work on cocoa farms, and those facing inequalities around the world.


This post by Irit Tamir is part of a Behind the Brands blog series on Politics of Poverty that examines the seven issues relating to poverty and big food companies’ supply chains. Read more on landfarmerstransparencywaterworkers, and climate change!

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