Fairtrade and the invisible women of the cocoa industry

‘The average female cocoa farmer earns 23p a day. How is there not as much outrage about this, as there is for the fast fashion industry?’

This year the Fairtrade Foundation released a report on the invisible women in the cocoa sector. It showed that while the UK chocolate industry is worth at least £4bn each year, in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana (where most of the world’s cocoa beans are grown by approximately two million smallholder farmers), a typical cocoa farmer earns under 75p a day.

“That figure is often much lower for women,” says Catherine David, “even though, on top of all of their caring, cleaning, cooking and childcare
responsibilities, women are working on average 30% more hours a day than men. But they don’t receive the benefits of the sales and most are not
landowners themselves.”

Ms David, who is head of commercial partnerships at the Fairtrade Foundation, was introducing a webinar exploring gender and racial inequality in trade – and what individuals and businesses can do about it. She was joined by Anne-Marie Yao (known as Mama Cocoa by the farmers she works with as Fairtrade Africa’s cocoa lead) and Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu, a leading activist and thinker on anti-racism, feminism and intersectionality.

The barriers that face women in the industry are not just down to low
income. “In West Africa, cocoa production is characterised by a very high share of smallholder farms, with an ageing population and complex social and traditional norms,” says Ms Yao. “Because of this, there is a lot of pressure for women to take over the cocoa production, but women don’t have access to land in our region, they can’t own cocoa plantations, which prevents them from being part of these co-operatives of smallholders.

“The role of women needs more visibility, recognition and value. Gender equity is important to social sustainability, that is referenced in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

She acknowledges that co-operatives are an entry point positive change. They promote women’s involvement and hold activities that can develop skills around ownership and economic development, but this is hampered by low literacy among women (leading to a lack of information), and low access to finance. “For rural women, it’s very difficult to have a say or be part of the decision making.”

Dr Shola Mos-Shogbamimu sees this as systemic inequality at a macro level and micro level. “At the macro level, the cultural and legal systems are steeped in patriarchy, in the sense that female cocoa farmers do not have access to land rights, finance or have collateral, even though they are primary caregivers and the primary providers.

“At the micro level imagine how suffocating that must be, having to
juggle multiple inequalities right on the doorstep. Imagine how much more they would achieve if the educational and financial systems were equal.”

She adds: “The average female cocoa farmer earns 23p a day. How is there not as much outrage about this, as there is for the fast fashion industry? People are forgetting the women who actually sustain the chocolate industry.” 

The responsibilities for enacting change lies with different groups, says Dr Mos-Shogbamimu. “There is a moral responsibility which every single one of us bears. There’s a responsibility that the women themselves have, which we can already see them delivering on. There are corporations, governments, NGOs, as well as private funding. But all of these changes need to be happening in parallel.”

Co-operatives are very common in cocoa farm communities in West Africa – but are they actually part of the solution, or do they make the lack of female
ownership worse?

Ms Yao believes that co-operatives could be part of the solution if women own funds. “Unfortunately, most of them don’t own funds, but the few who are part of the co-op need to also understand that they have a role, as women, to back other women in the industry. 

She adds that it’s one thing to be part of the co-operative, and another to be part of the decision making. “We don’t want women to be like flowers in their co-operative, that are just there to make the board look better. We want them to be at the table, taking decisions and influencing. If women are in this kind of position, that will positively affect the number of women that will become members of the co-operative. 

Generally, co-operatives understand this and are open to it. This is where men have a role to play too. We need to make those men who sit on the boards of all the co-operatives understand the business, social and economic case for making women visible. 

You can watch a recording of the webinar here