“We Are Suffering”: Can Price Increases Alone Save Cocoa Farmers?

My name is Gesina and I work at Fair Trade USA as a Senior Manager developing Brand Partnerships in Packaged Goods with a strong focus on cocoa. This means I am working with companies to help them source Fair Trade Certified™ ingredients and gain the right to place the Fair Trade Certified seal on their products—products that you can then trust were made with care for people and planet. On my recent trip to Côte d’Ivoire, I was lucky to meet several fair trade cocoa farmers, members of their cooperatives, and Fair Trade USA® staff who work full-time in that country. I want to share the stories of two inspiring women I met there: Kakou Micheline and Awa Kabore.

From left to right: Fair Trade USA's Gesina Beckert and Sadie Morgan listen as Zaté Virginie, Kakou Micheline, and Kooyone Affia, three fair trade cocoa producers and COOPATESA cooperative committee members, share about the challenges of cocoa farming.

It’s Sunday in Côte d’Ivoire, which is normally a church day for Kakou Micheline and her friends, but today is special. Today, she got up early and arranged for a motorcycle to pick her up to travel the three-hour journey on bumpy roads to her cooperative. She has been invited to share her experiences with the changes brought about by fair trade certification.

Kakou has been with her cooperative since it went through the process of earning fair trade certification five years ago and has seen it change. Previously, she was not taking part in trainings or discussions and had no say in the cooperative’s structure and spending. When fair trade was introduced, she was skeptical at first. The standard that it required was difficult to implement because it required changes. The cooperative said the audit was expensive, which made her think that this money could better be paid to the farmers directly. But, she says, “With the standard in place now, I can see that things are much more organized. After speaking to my female farmer friends, they want to join the cooperative too, so they can benefit from the governance, stability, and hope.” There are rules about the protective gear to wear in the field, how to label, and which fertilizer to use. Child labor is strictly prohibited. Over time, Kakou realized that this certification is not just an expensive piece of paper—it is a system that changes the way she works and the way she can participate—just like today, as she has the opportunity to share her feedback.

Hope has been scarce these last few years in Côte d’Ivoire (her home country), which produces 40 percent of the world’s cocoa. In the 2016/17 cocoa harvesting season, the market price for cocoa dropped by more than 30 percent from $1.36 to now $0.86 per pound.

“Before it decreased, I was able to pay school fees for my children, could sometimes buy meat from the market, and was able to invest Fair Trade Community Development Funds in projects like schools and water pumps,” Kakou says. Community Development Funds are additional funds that her cooperative earns for every pound of cocoa they sell on fair trade terms. “Since the drop, my community has had to use those funds to cover production costs and basic needs like food.”

School starts in September in Côte d’Ivoire, but Kakou doesn’t know if she will have the money to send her children to school this year.

“We are suffering,” she says. “We need money to send our children to school but we need to wait for the next cocoa harvest to be paid again. Now, our children sit at home.” The money from the last harvest that she received in April is nearly gone, spent on food, work equipment, pay for the temporary workers that helped her harvest, and the medication she needed for one of her children. She will receive money with the next harvest in October, but until then she needs to prioritize feeding her family above school fees. She is hopeful that the cooperative can pay her cash for the first cocoa beans that she delivers to them in October. In previous years, this was possible thanks to a pre-payment agreement they have with their first buyer and is one of the benefits of selling to this Fair Trade Certified cooperative. Other farmers that are not part of such an organized cooperative will have to sell their cocoa to “pisteurs,” or buyers that visit plantations to buy cocoa directly from workers in cash, well below the already-low market price.

“We are suffering,” she says. “We need money to send our children to school but we need to wait for the next cocoa harvest to be paid again. Now, our children sit at home.”

Kakou Micheline (right) shares her experiences with a translator about the changes fair trade has brought about in her cooperative.

This type of payment structure is unheard of for many of us outside the farming industry. Imagine that instead of being paid every two weeks, you were paid just a few times a year and that the amount was unknown in the beginning of the year. You would go to work every day without knowing the value of your work and without the confidence of knowing you will be able to provide for your family.

In the last General Assembly—a yearly meeting where all fair trade farmers in a given cooperative come together to vote on the spending of the Fair Trade Community Development Funds—Kakou’s community asked to increase the cash payout because they needed money to make up for their lost income from the falling price of cocoa beans. She has learned in trainings from Fair Trade USA that the additional funds she receives for her Fair Trade Certified cocoa beans should be spent on community projects. She would prefer to get a better price for her cocoa so she doesn’t need to use the Community Development Funds for her basic needs, because she likes the idea that the money can benefit her community rather than just her household. Kakou says it makes her proud to be able to support several families with her cocoa beans.

“It would be great if more projects around health and education could be financed,” she says. “Just recently, one of my friend’s children died from a blood disease that could have been healed if they had received proper health care.”

In order to protect farmers like Kakou from low, devastating market prices, Fair Trade USA requires companies to pay an additional amount towards the Community Development Fund for certified ingredients and at least a minimum price for some commodities, like cocoa and coffee. As of October 2019, Fair Trade USA will increase the minimum price by 20 percent to $1.09 per pound of cocoa beans, and also increase the premium paid for cocoa beans by 20 percent to 11 cents per pound. These increases aim to address extreme poverty and its consequences in cocoa-producing communities.

As of October 2019, Fair Trade USA will increase the minimum price by 20 percent to $1.09 per pound of cocoa beans, and also increase the premium paid for cocoa beans by 20 percent to 11 cents per pound.

Fair Trade Community Development Funds are used by farmers and workers to pay for important projects like this new school in Koffikro Village.

Kakou often wonders how her cocoa ends up in chocolates and stores in the United States because in the stores here in Côte d’Ivoire, there are no certified chocolates. She would also like to understand why they only receive Community Development Funds for 85 percent of their cocoa beans since she applies fair trade standards to all of her farmland. In the cooperative, they have told her that this ratio depends on how much cocoa the buyer is willing to buy on fair trade terms. This is hard for her to understand. According to the Cocoa Barometer 2018, the industry average for cocoa beans sold on fair trade terms of that which is grown on fair trade terms is even lower than that—just 50 percent.

The reason is that more fair trade cocoa is produced and available than companies are willing to buy. Brands worry that consumers would not be willing to pay more for a product, even if it’s supporting the well-being of workers and their communities.

After saying goodbye to Kakou, I travel on to meet Awa Kabore at SCAES, another Fair Trade Certified cooperative in Côte d’Ivoire. I am with her as she receives news of these big price changes ahead, and her reaction is cautiously optimistic.

“This is a reason to celebrate, but we hope that companies keep buying beans from us at this higher price,” she says.

In Awa’s case, these price increases will enable them to make even better investments into the community with the Community Development Funds because they won’t have to use them to cover their most basic needs like food, health care, and school fees.

Fair Trade USA staff provide training to cocoa farmers of SCAES cooperative.

Both Kakou and Awa understand that businesses need to be profitable. They too are entrepreneurs who need to manage their finances and make sure that expenses are not higher than the revenue.

From conversations and the news, they have seen that people in the US have so much more than their families:

  • Electricity, while there is one solar panel in Awa’s village of 100 people;
  • Running water in their homes, while there is one water pump in Kakou’s village;
  • Houses with a room for each family member, while Kakou has a small hut made of mud that sleeps eight;
  • Healthcare to protect and cure their families, while their healthcare clinics are far and rare;
  • Cars and access to public transportation, while Kakou gets around on foot and has never been to the capital of her country because that would be too expensive.

Both Kakou and Awa understand that businesses need to be profitable. They too are entrepreneurs who need to manage their finances and make sure that expenses are not higher than the revenue.

I think Kakou’s parting words to me are important for everyone to hear. “You are coming to visit us here to see how we live,” she says. “I would like to visit the United States and see how my product is sold. I would like to share with people that they can really help us if they buy Fair Trade Certified chocolate. But they need to buy more so that we can educate our children, keep them healthy, and improve our farms. Can you help us sell more?”

Awa’s parting words give similar perspective. “If you buy more Fair Trade Certified chocolate, companies will buy more Fair Trade Certified cocoa beans from our cooperative. That will bring more Community Development Funds to our communities. We will be able to build schools and members can pay for the fees of their children. We will receive trainings to become better farmers to make great cocoa for you that you can share with your friends and families.”

This was an extremely emotional and inspiring travel experience for me. While I work at Fair Trade USA and hear about these issues every day, being in the country and seeing it live has changed my perspective and motivates me even more to bring more brands on board so that people have even easier access to products with fair trade ingredients. If you’re not sure about their sourcing, tell your favorite brands that you want to know how they source their cocoa and other ingredients and tell them you care enough to buy fair trade. Brands are listening to you, and you can make a big difference for people like Kakou and Awa.

Directly support cocoa farmers like Kakou and Awa by shopping the Fair Trade Certified seal on your chocolate.