11 Nov 2022

Sankofa: Improving incomes and building climate resilience through dynamic agroforestry

Fairtrade Africa Sankofa Project 2022 demonstration 870
Bismark Kpabitey demonstrates dynamic agroforestry techniques such as mulching, using banana trunk at the base of the cocoa plant to provide extra irrigation, and other pruned plant material to prevent moisture loss and provide nutrients to the soil. Dynamic agroforestry plots include banana trees, fruit trees, timber and biomass plants alongside cocoa trees. People from left to right: Bismark Kpabitey, Emelia Debrah, John Kwabena Narh, and John’s son Nicholas Amponsah
Fairtrade Africa / Nipah Dennis

How Fairtrade cocoa farmers in Ghana are scaling up a programme to combat climate change and secure their livelihoods

When it comes to the effects of climate change, cocoa farmers in West Africa are facing an uncertain future.

Hotter temperatures and drought have threatened crops, opening the door for the spread of plant disease and pests that no longer respond as well to traditional farming methods. Our analysis last year predicted that in addition, more days of extreme rainfall will also add significant risk to West African cocoa in the coming years.

This is an added stress on farmers, who already contend with low cocoa prices, the prevalence of single crop farming, and poverty. This contributes to deforestation as lack of sufficient production and earnings lead farmers to illegally clear protected forest in desperation for more land.

Fairtrade provides a minimum price that protects certified cooperatives and their farmer members from price drops, as well as the Fairtrade Premium which is an added amount cooperatives democratically choose how to invest in their businesses and communities. Fairtrade prohibits deforestation and at the same time supports farmers to diversify into other crops or non-farm income sources.

But more is needed tackle the intertwined issues of low incomes and the existential threat of climate change for farmers’ livelihoods.

Enter a programme called Sankofa that is working with a group of Ghanaian cocoa farmers to scale up a multi-faceted solution.

Dynamic agroforestry: restoring forest, diversifying food and income sources

Sankofa means “to return for or retrieve” in the Twi language in Ghana, and it’s an apt name for a project that seeks to rebuild flourishing forests that are not counter to farmers’ interests, but integrated with them. The project was launched in 2019 with one of the largest Fairtrade certified cocoa union in Ghana, Kuapa Kokoo Farmers Union, which has 86,000 members across multiple smaller cooperatives. Initial funding came from both public and private partners, including the Swiss and Danish governments, the Swiss chocolate manufacturer Halba, Coop Switzerland, the International Trade Centre (ITC), and Fairtrade Max Havelaar Switzerland.

Dynamic agroforestry consists of combining crops and tree species with different life cycles and occupying different levels (or strata) of the forest, so that farming households have year-round additional crops for their own consumption, as well as additional income outside the cocoa season. Food crops, tree crops, timber trees, and other plants are combined to provide shade, enhance the soil, increase biodiversity, and avoid deforestation. Old and poorly producing cocoa trees are also replaced as part of rehabilitation.

The Sankofa project aims to have 400 farmers each farming at least 1 hectare of land using dynamic agroforestry practices by 2025, and to start another 1,000 farmers using these practices as well. The project is also scaling up other diversified food systems (not including other trees at this point) with a broader base of farmers, aiming for at least 2,500 households.

Bismark Kpabitey, a cocoa farmer and member of Kuapa Kokoo, has found that through dynamic agroforestry his cocoa does better, and at the same time he is not reliant on just one crop anymore.

Bismark Kpabitey now plants crops like cowpea, mucuna, cocoyam, as well as yam and cassava. Dynamic agroforestry also incorporates different kinds of trees alongside cocoa: mango, avocado, orange, citrus, and timber which offsets carbon.

“Initially we planted only cocoa, that is the mono-cropping. Whenever there were prolonged periods of no rainfall, initially, we experienced a huge mortality rate of cocoa seedlings,” reflected Kpabitey, adding that up to 70 to 80 percent of new seedlings could be lost by the end of each season. “But since this system was introduced to us, we realised it has really reduced the mortality rate.”

He added, “Aside from cocoa, we [now] plant crops like cowpea, mucuna [velvet bean], cocoyam [taro root]. This makes the soil moist. Apart from that, we have some annual crops like yam, cassava, any kind of crop you think can do well on the land, you are permitted to grow. You can plant about ten or more annual crops in the same piece of land. In addition to the cocoa, we plant more trees – different varieties of mango, avocado, orange, the citrus family. Also, we add timber and that offsets carbon. Each plant has its own stage which will prevent complications with nutrients and also with shading. If you go there, it’s always cool, the wind there is really comfortable, compared to the conventional system where you had to work in the full sun.”

To date, 862 plots covering 215 hectares have been converted to dynamic agroforestry with hundreds of thousands of new seedlings. An additional 1,000 hectares are now planted according to diversified food systems practices. Families can eat some of their harvest themselves, and sell the rest on the local market. So far, with the extension of the project’s version 2.0 starting in 2022, about 2,900 farmers have been trained, and are earning between 25 and 125 percent more thanks to the additional cash crops they have planted.

The cocoa trees are doing better as well, with temperatures lower and soil moisture higher, leading to a much lower mortality rate of only 10 percent. This saves money and time in replanting.

Building expertise: staffing to provide farmer support for the future

The project has also funded the development of Kuapa Kokoo staff who can train, support and expand the learnings from dynamic agroforestry to other farmers.

As an example, the project supported Kuapa Kokoo to recruit 15 full-time community-based officers to support the dynamic agroforestry plots and new practices. Additionally, the cocoa union assigned 19 of its existing extension officers to receive training in and then support climate-smart cropping systems more broadly.

Leading up to 2025, Kuapa Kokoo will gradually take over control and management of the project. Four project field officers that were employed by the regional Fairtrade producer network, Fairtrade Africa, have transitioned to Kuapa Kokoo already. More than 200 lead farmers already trained will continue to be mentored by the Kuapa Kokoo team so they can continue to pass along their knowledge and experience from farmer to farmer.

Emelia Debrah is a cocoa farmer along with her husband, together supporting a household of 14 people. She is a member of Kuapa Kokoo Farmers Union in Ghana, and has been adopting dynamic agroforestry practices as part of the Sankofa project.

Value chain development: building markets for new crops

One of the challenges with income diversification is that it requires buyers for the new crops or products in order for farmers to reap financial benefits. The Sankofa project explicitly built in commitments to source additional cocoa as well as some of the other new commodity crops such as yam.

The project has also been shared with the Swiss Platform for Sustainable Cocoa, which brings together Swiss stakeholders in the cocoa and chocolate industry, to encourage additional sourcing commitments, and especially learnings from best practices.

Importantly, the Sankofa project supports the Ghanaian government’s sustainable cocoa goals, which include rehabilitation, productivity increase, income diversification and biodiversity. In the next phase of the project, Fairtrade and Kuapa Kokoo will collaborate more intensively with the Cocoa Research Institute of Ghana, which wants to study and accompany the approach.

Carbon insetting: working within a supply chain for carbon neutrality

In contrast to carbon offsetting, in which companies or individuals invest in projects that absorb carbon elsewhere, carbon insetting involves carbon capture within a business’ own supply chain.

In dynamic agroforestry, carbon is mainly captured by planting different tree varieties. In addition, the Sankofa project is incorporating carbon credits, which raises some of the funds needed for seedlings and the technical support for the project. Through this scheme, the Coop Switzerland intends to contribute 75,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions reduction to the Ghanaian government's overall goals by 2028.

Hope for a sustainable cocoa future

John Kwabena Narh, another Kuapa Kokoo member who has been farming with dynamic agroforestry since a pilot project in 2018, now has one hectare growing cassava, fruit trees, avocado, orange, lemons, oil palm, coconut and vegetables, mixed with cocoa trees that are reaching production after the usual five year maturity period.

John Kwabena Narh, a Kuapa Kokoo Farmers Union member, has been farming with dynamic agroforestry since a pilot project in 2018.

Now, John sees changes in his farm, and has hope for the future. “If we continue with dynamic agroforestry, it’ll provide a future for our children,” he said recently. But if we go back to conventional methods there will be no future for the next generation.”

Continuing to scale up promising programmes like Sankofa requires investment and long-term commitment to sustainable sourcing – as well as a sense of urgency on everyone’s part to address climate change that is threatening the livelihoods of so many.

The COP27 climate conference going on now is a chance for farmers to be heard. Read our open letter to Member States calling for urgent action on the global climate and biodiversity crisis that includes a sustainable economic model for those producing the world’s food.