Poverty is widespread amongst cocoa farmers, a hurting reality I witnessed during my last trip to Ivory Coast. The larger part of the sector consists of smallholder farmers who struggle to make a living from their mostly unproductive plots. This has led to farmers abandoning cocoa farms and focusing on rubber or palm oil instead, because those seem to be more profitable to them. At the same time, we are all aware that demand for cocoa is predicted to rise 30% by 2020.
Clearly, the future of the cocoa sector cannot be built on current unsustainable business practices and poverty of farmers. We cannot have a chocolate industry valued in billions of dollars and a farmer going to bed with an empty belly.
Certification works, but more is needed
Over the last few years, action has been taken to make the sector sustainable by the industry, NGOs, certification programs and local governments. Today, everyone involved in the cocoa industry can be proud that over 20% of cocoa production is certified as sustainable.
Certification programs have been shown to result in improving environmental protection, increasing access to education and obtaining higher yield per hectare. But certification is not the silver bullet to bring prosperity to cocoa farmers. Still, the majority of cocoa smallholders are trapped in poverty. More needs to be done to increase prosperity at farmer level.
There are several factors that need to be addressed.
Firstly, productivity per hectare needs to be increased while maintaining soil quality and using water efficiently. Secondly, the farmer should be helped to diversify production, even at the risk of reducing the total cocoa production: since farmers with no alternative will sell at any price, alternatives can help to better manage the future incomes and spread risks. Finally, sustainable practices have to be fairly rewarded by the industry; certified production deserves a better price for the farmer over unsustainable products.
A clear role for governments
But governments must take up their roles for a sustainable sector as well: national plans in origin countries can be the glue to bring together the efforts of all the players. They are of vital importance to enhance political stability, improve infrastructure, set environmental policies and establish health and education services. These are things the communities and industry need, but cannot provide, so governments need to come on board.
Cocoa governments: let’s work together to bring greater prosperity to farmers
International certification standards can help by sharing experience and continuing to train farmers on sustainable good agricultural practices, boosting the discussion on living wages and continuing to stimulating international markets to buy certified sustainable cocoa.
In the years after the great depression the United States president Herbert Hoover told the American people: “Prosperity is just around the corner.” But it wasn’t. Perhaps Hoover was misinformed about the crisis. Nowadays, we are better informed about the challenges ahead than before. The unsustainable production and striking poverty in the cocoa sector requires taking action. Although it will not be an easy process, we are ready to help.
Han de Groot, Executive Director at UTZ Certified