Politics of Poverty

New ways to sweeten the deal for women cocoa farmers

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Felicia Adebowale, a cocoa farmer, sits next to harvested cocoa beans inside her farm in Ayetoro-Ijesa village, Nigeria. Photo: George Osodi / Panos for Oxfam America.

Major chocolate companies take steps to implement their commitments to women’s empowerment.

By Frank Mechielsen, policy advisor and private sector lobbyist at Oxfam Novib, and Jon Jacoby, policy and campaigns manager in the private sector department of Oxfam America

Will chocolate be an expensive product for the elite in 20 years’ time, as it was 200 years ago? How can we keep the next generation of cocoa farmers motivated to grow cocoa and not to leave to the city or move to other commodities such as rubber or palm oil? These were some of the burning questions during two major “choco-centric” gatherings in the last week or so: the second World Cocoa Conference in the Netherlands and the second ChocoVision conference in Switzerland.

In Amsterdam, more than 1,000 participants from chocolate companies, governments, NGOs, and farmer cooperatives discussed the most important issues related to cocoa production. They identified low income for cocoa farmers as one of the key challenges. Women cocoa farmers receive even lower wages than their male counterparts, although they provide almost half of the labor on cocoa farms. In addition, they receive less training, have scarce access to land ownership, and are underrepresented in farmer cooperatives.

Oxfam presented the the results of our Behind the Brands campaign to support women cocoa farmers. More than 100,000 supporters persuaded the 10 biggest food companies – and especially the big chocolate companies Nestlé, Mondelez, and Mars – to improve the position of women farmers and farmworkers in their supply chains.

To begin to implement their new company commitments, Mars and Mondelez have recently published  third-party impact assessments that provide a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges that  women face in the cocoa supply chain. Within a few weeks, Nestlé will publish its own impact assessment, and all three companies will have announced their action plans related to women’s empowerment, which include the following actions:

  1. Engage with all supply chain partners and other stakeholders (NGOs, certification bodies, women organizations, etc) to address gender issues and to increase women’s participation.
  2. Start gender sensitization within communities and provide women-oriented training.
  3. Invest in crop and income diversification activities for women

For the first time, women’s empowerment featured prominently as a topic for many speakers from companies and governments at both events.

At both conferences, industry representatives presented CocoaAction, an industry-wide platform launched last month by 12 major chocolate companies to align sustainability efforts in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, which account for more than half the world’s supply of cocoa.

We welcome CocoaAction as an ambitious and holistic effort to address key cocoa sustainability issues. The twin pillars of productivity and community development – together with the industry commitment to establish common targets and work more closely together – are huge steps forward.

We see it as very positive that community development – consisting of child labour remediation, youth education, and women’s empowerment – is a priority, in part because it will make the cocoa sector more attractive for future generations of farmers.  At ChocoVision, Unilever CEO Paul Polman – a major buyer of chocolate for ice cream bars – pointed out the consensus that investing in women makes efficient and long-term economic sense, as they tend to provide improved nutrition and educational outcomes for the whole family.

Of course, there is still more work to be done. We challenge the key players to consider these questions:

  • What is the overlap with and – transition – from existing individual company projects and programs, many of which have encountered serious challenges in meaningfully tackling child labor?
  • As ambitious as it is to seek to benefit 300,000 farmers in these 2 developing countries by 2020, how will the industry “add a zero” to that figure by advocating alongside civil society for the national governments to invest more heavily in agricultural development, basic needs, women’s empowerment, and the like?
  • While civil society organizations – and even more importantly, farmers themselves – do not seem to have been consulted in the development of the platform, will CocoaAction set up a formal structure and process to engage key stakeholders in design, implementation, governance, and accountability to ensure its effectiveness and credibility?
  • And last but not least, where is climate change in all of this, what with increasingly unpredictable rainfall patterns already affecting cocoa farmers?

A living income for cocoa farmers, women and men alike, will ensure the future of chocolate production. Oxfam looks forward to seeing continued concrete action from Mars, Mondelez, and Nestlé to support women’s empowerment in their supply chains.

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