Some thoughts on the WCF meeting

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Photo Credit: Olam

Two weeks ago, I attended the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) partnership meeting in Abidjan.

It is the sustainable cocoa industry event, bringing together chocolate manufacturers, trading houses, NGOs, and West African governments.

The WCF is attempting to tackle the thorniest problems besetting West Africa’s cocoa industry — farmers’ poverty wages, deforestation, and child labor — through its CocoaAction program.

CocoaAction is getting everyone in the industry on the same page with regard to sustainable cocoa: what it means and how to achieve it.

Leafing through the annual CocoaAction report, you read a lot about ‘alignment’, ‘common interventions’ and establishing ‘holistic focus’ on cocoa farmers and their communities.

While the WCF’s mission is critical to the well-being – and let’s face it survival – of the region’s cocoa sector, the rhetoric can easily become saccharine. (I cringed when a speaker described the WCF as a family. This word should never be used in a corporate setting.)

A Lebanese trader friend reduced my account of the WCF’s at times excessive pomp and circumstance to one pithy word: kubaya-y.

But, I was happy to read that the WCF is advocating the adoption of a “holistic” approach towards community development.

What I take away from this buzzword is that the industry needs to shift from thinking of “cocoa farmers” to “farmers who plant cocoa.”

Because Ivorian and Ghanaian cocoa farmers do other stuff!

They farm other food crops. They also might provide informal services in their communities. They don’t just farm cocoa.

For instance, the new WCF President Richard Scobey said in this interview that cocoa productivity increases weren’t the end-all be-all (I’m paraphrasing) and that there needs to be more of a focus on crop diversification and other income generating activities in the industry.

This I can get behind.

You’re increasingly seeing more food diversification programs in outreach with cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire.

For example, my friend Michiel Hendriksz’s FarmStrong Foundation is giving tomato seedlings and agronomic trainings to farmers of whom almost two-thirds are women.

If you support the production of food crops, like cassava, yam or vegetables, cocoa farmers can save their cash (generated from cocoa farming) for big annual expenses like school fees or emergencies like a health crisis. Funerals are also a big financial drain in rural communities.

And, basic food staples have gotten really expensive, putting strain on cash-strapped farmers. The severe drought earlier this year wiped out tomatoes and cassava output. (Abidjan was rocked by skyrocketing tomato prices over the summer, shooting up from FCFA 700/kg to FCFA 2,500/kg. This price volatility was one of the reasons why I had a potential client explore a tomato farming project.)

The flip side is when the focus is too much on food crops.

Development professionals are often the perpetrators of this line of thinking.

At the WCF meeting, I was introduced to a charismatic program officer at a major NGO.

Leaning back into his overstuffed chair, he discussed the myopia of some development professionals who just concentrate on food crops, ignoring cash crops like cocoa and coffee.

He related how he liked to debunk this food crop-centric approach by asking the rhetorical question to its proponents:

“Well, would you like to be paid only in corn?'”

“When you put it in those terms, they usually get it,” he added, smiling.

I appreciated the empathy at the core of this anecdote. Perhaps herein lies the difficulty of bridging the gap between conference rhetoric and tangible action on the ground: it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of a rural farmer in West Africa.

But, at the risk of sounding too kubaya-y, the shift in thinking of the WCF is at least a step in the right direction.

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