The saying ‘seeing is believing’ is very true when it comes to visiting places for the first time. Maya Sermeño and Paul Zuiderbeek, from the UTZ Market Development team, travelled to Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire to experience the UTZ cocoa program in practice. What they found often turned out to be different to what they expected. They share their top 5 observations…

1. Growing cocoa is thirsty work

Maya and Paul from UTZ visiting a cocoa community in Côte d'Ivoire.

Maya and Paul visiting a cocoa community in Côte d’Ivoire.

It’s Harmattan – the dry and dusty north-easterly wind which blows from the Sahara Desert over West Africa – and everybody knows it. There won’t be any rains until April. Even though here the landscape still looks quite green, our Ghanaian colleague Kwame tells us that in other regions trees are drying out. Like us, cocoa trees need water. Normally they would have seen some showers around December-January, but not this year. The effects of climate change are clearly visible. When we visited the nursery of one group, we see that seedlings that would normally be planted now simply have to wait because in the earth they would die due to lack of water. This affects the quantity and quality of the harvest, not to mention the farmers’ income. But help is at hand…

2. You can grow a Mercedes

Nursery of 'Mercedes’ cocoa trees, in Côte d’Ivoire

Nursery of ‘Mercedes’ cocoa trees, in Côte d’Ivoire

Thanks to research institutions in Côte d’Ivoire, a new variety of seedling has been developed that is more resistant to drought and diseases and is also more productive. In Ghana the research institute has also developed a hybrid cocoa seed with same aim: to improve cocoa production. ‘Mercedes’ trees, in Côte d’Ivoire, can yield up to 3000kg per hectare under the right conditions and care by the farmer. That’s a huge amount more than the current production of 300-400 kg. Farmers often receive these seedlings from the cooperative and also learn how to set up a nursery and replant the seedlings in the farm. It’s not only certified farmers that can receive this new variety, but the training they receive is a huge additional benefit.

Oh, and why Mercedes? Because which farmer doesn’t dream of driving a Mercedes!

3. The farmers’ classroom is the field

It was so good to see just how a training, or farmer field school, works in practice. Firstly, this kind of school is not actually in a building, most of the time it’s just under the trees.

A farmer field school training session for UTZ cocoa farmers in Ghana

We had the opportunity to attend a couple of different training sessions, and we learnt a lot. The most valued learning for the farmers was the training on integrated pest management, or in simple terms, how to keep plantation healthy against disease such as black pod. The biggest threat to farmers is that they lose (part of) their harvest, so it’s very important to learn how to prevent disease along with safe handling of pesticides and storage.

Cocoa farmer Ama Fatima

Cocoa farmer Ama Fatima

We met 56 year old Ama Fatima, a cocoa farmer for 20 years. When asked about her experience she said:

“I raised all my (11) children from the income of our cocoa farm… What I learn in the training helps me to be a better farmer.”

4. Child labor is not only about cocoa

While we all realize that children must go to school, Children after school in cocoa community in Côte d’Ivoirethere is still a lot of child labor in Côte d’Ivoire. We saw that in some farming communities, people were simply not aware of the dangers of child labor, whether on cocoa farms or elsewhere. We found out that even the president of one of the cooperatives we visited worked on a cocoa farm as a child; it was simply normal. Thanks to training and awareness raising though, this is starting to change. As parents realize which activities are dangerous for their children they make sure they engage them in family farming in a way that is suitable to their age. This means children will go to school, they will be protected from hazardous working conditions and at the same time will have the opportunity to learn from their parents’ agricultural knowledge.

5. Better cocoa. Better communitiesGhana_cocoa community_water pump

Though UTZ does not specify what the UTZ premium should be spent on, we saw that the farmers not only reinvested into cocoa production but also in building schools, a crèche, water pumps, fixing roads, etc. Usually the premium is centrally managed by the cooperative or certificate holder group. For example half is kept at group level for general reinvestment and the other half is passed on to the farmers for use on an individual level. At one cooperative we learnt that in 2015 the majority of the premium was spent on education, while before it was mainly used for pesticides and fertilizers. Without this structure it would not be possible to achieve so much in terms of improved livelihoods and community investment.

James Kojo-Acquah

Cocoa farmer James Kojo-Acquah

One of our favorite quotes of the trip was by UTZ farmer James Kojo-Acquah:

“I am happy to be an UTZ farmer, it has brought me lots of benefits. I would be honored if you can share my story, let the people know about my life.”

So we did… don’t miss our follow up on James’s story!