11 Mar 2021

Fairtrade Women’s Voice in Cocoa

By Anne Marie Yao, Cocoa Programme Manager, Fairtrade Africa

When women have opportunity, they change the world. Or as we say in French, lorsque les femmes ont des opportunités, elles font bouger le monde.

Fairtrade was started to challenge the power imbalances of global trade, which also meant addressing gender inequities. When women earn their own income and have a voice, they can make decisions that benefit their families, workplaces and communities.

I know this from personal experience: I am a cocoa farmer, I am a mother, I am the Cocoa Programme Manager for Fairtrade Africa, and I play a role in the community as a woman.

This is why we started the Fairtrade Women’s School of Leadership in Côte d’Ivoire, back in 2017, based on a programme that the Fairtrade producer network in Latin America had developed. We launched it with 19 women and 3 men in seven cocoa cooperatives, thanks to funding from the Co-op UK and Compass Group UK & Ireland, who have funded the programme since the beginning. Fairtrade Africa’s leadership team, composed of mostly women leaders, provided vision and personal engagement for gender equality.

The year-long programme includes modules on topics including human rights, personal development, entrepreneurship and financial management. The men serve as allies and advocates within their communities and households.

Last year, another 32 women and 8 men from another seven cooperatives graduated as the school’s second cohort, benefitting from training and mentorship from the first graduates as part of the curriculum.

Cohort 2 graduation ECAM SOCOOPEM
Part of the second cohort at the graduation ceremony of the Women School of Leadership

Here are just some of our learnings about what has really made a difference for the women and cooperatives that have blazed the trail in this programme.

Women pass along what they learn. We are still measuring the ripple effect from the school, but even during the year-long programme, women are encouraged to bring back what they learn to other women in their communities. In 2019-2020, the second cohort of 40 graduates reached out to about 2,600 other people, about 80% of them women, through awareness sessions in their communities (before COVID put a stop to group gatherings for a while). That’s a sixty-five-fold multiplier effect.

Self-confidence is essential. It’s intangible, and certainly not sufficient by itself, but without it, many women can’t step forward. The power within! This is where everything starts.

The Women’s School of Leadership spends time building women’s confidence, both in skills such as farming practices and finance, as well as in public speaking and negotiation. There’s a positive cycle as the women go back to their communities after each training. They share their knowledge, which builds their confidence further, and enables them to support other women in the community even more.

Here’s what graduates have said in their own words:

“If I hadn’t done the training, I would have stayed in my corner and not woken up. I used to be in a pit and now I’m free.’ -- Diakete Salimata

‘I was a shy woman who couldn’t speak up, but today I am very powerful. Now when I can’t make a meeting, they cancel it. I am training other women every week through community groups to share the knowledge I was empowered with.’ -- Kouao Amah

Cohort 2 Workshop 3 Role plays bring lessons to life during the group training sessions
Exercises which include role play bring lessons to life during the group training sessions

New income-generating projects need investment and buy-in to be sustained. An important part of the school is that participants come up with ideas for women-led micro-enterprise activities that they pitch to their cooperatives for co-investment, including concept notes and monitoring and evaluation plans. Technical advisory groups are set up within each coop to support the projects, and Fairtrade Africa staff check on the progress and provide additional support quarterly. Projects include a cassava cultivation and processing into attiéke (a local dish), maize farming, local peanut butter production, and restoration of school canteens supplied by other food crop production.

The most successful projects are those that have commitment from the cooperative leadership, and strong project leaders to keep the newly established women’s associations working together. The experiences of the first cohort have also provided valuable learnings to subsequent cohorts, such as considerations about choosing less time-intensive crops or activities especially that coincide with cocoa harvest seasons.

Workshops women school of leadership
Workshops at the Women School of Leadership

So what’s next?

In Côte d’Ivoire, with the support of Max Havelaar France we have just launched the scaling-up phase and the next cohort of the programme, co-funded by ÉQUITÉ 2, a programme financed by the French national development agency (AFD) and the French Facility for Global Environment (FFEM) to support the environmental and social sustainability of fair trade production in West Africa. Private sector donations from the Co-op UK and Compass Group UK & Ireland, and PLUS in the Netherlands, are joined by contributions from national Fairtrade organizations in Belgium and Germany.

We have also integrated some of the Women’s School of Leadership learnings into the trainings we deliver through our West Africa Cocoa Programme in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. This programme has supported cooperatives to develop their gender policies, and create a clear action plan to promote women’s empowerment.

What’s important at the end of the day is not just that women walk around with greater confidence, and that’s it.

These women cocoa farmers now have the confidence, as well as the knowledge, skills, and support of their fellow farmers and families to envision new possibilities, and act on them. They are developing additional incomes streams for their households, and supporting other women in their communities to do the same. They are also modelling what a successful cocoa farmer looks like for the next generation. There will still be challenges ahead, but we can see how far we have come on the path to change.