Helping Cocoa Farmers Thrive through a New Approach

Author Hervé D. Bisseleua

Director of Agricultural Productivity & Chief Party ACI II
World Cocoa Foundation

I have visited many cocoa producing regions in West Africa for many years where cocoa farmers are struggling to support their families. Each year, they work the land in the same way. They grow the same crop on the same land every year and rely heavily on pesticides and fertilizers. They turn to slash and burn and forest clearing when cocoa fails to grow on existing land.

This way of working includes many features from the Green Revolution of the 1960s. First launched in Mexico and the Indian sub-continent, these techniques later expanded to Africa. They brought massive production and productivity gains, most notably in Côte d’Ivoire, and lifted some people out of poverty.

But these farming techniques are unsustainable over the long term as they are causing huge environmental damage. Nobody wants the next generation of cocoa farmers to have to deal with issues such as soil compaction and loss of organic matter, as a result of intensive farming with only chemical fertilizer inputs.

We therefore need a big rethink of the traditional approaches to cocoa production. This needs to consider the health of the planet and the fact that Green Revolution farming techniques are simply too complex and costly for many small farmers. In addition, cocoa farmers need to diversify into other crops. There is a need to adapt the Green Revolution to the local conditions of cocoa farmers and consider ecological, social, and economic conditions.

A new approach that could revive the cocoa sector is what I call “resilient productivity”.

Resilience as a concept is increasingly forming the cornerstone for the work of governments, multilateral organizations, and financial institutions. The Africa Union Vision 2063, for instance, aims to support the resilience of livelihood systems through adapted practices to land tenure systems, poverty situations, market/financial realities, and ecological conditions.

In my use of the term resilient productivity, I draw on broadly accepted definitions of resilience and apply them to cocoa productivity in Africa. This means promoting the maximum level of agricultural productivity at which a cocoa production landscape can withstand or absorb disturbance or shocks while also delivering other ecosystem functions important to human beings. A holistic strategy including prosperous farmers, empowered communities, and a healthy planet, for example, would result in changes in production systems while considering human and natural capital. It acknowledges that such agricultural landscapes have functions beyond the production of cocoa. These landscapes must be able to withstand disturbances and shocks.

Cocoa and agricultural promotion initiatives need to team up with agronomists, agro-ecologists, social-ecologists, and the engineers to achieve a sector transformation that uses evidence-based, smart solutions. Great cities emerge from a combination of planning and organization. In a similar way, prosperous farmers in empowered communities on a healthy planet will need a combination of targeted technologies such as zero-carbon energy, climate-smart technologies, and resilient practices; forward-looking infrastructure plans and enabling environments at the local, national, and regional levels; and the usual market-based breakthroughs, and evolutions.

Transforming cocoa farming to resilient productivity means helping farmers and their families to be able to adapt to, respond to, and recover from environmental, economic, and social shocks. We therefore need a wide degree of flexibility in approaches. No one formula is right for every farmer and every situation. It is vital to build resilient cocoa farming systems that meet the farmers where they are as individuals, taking into account their families, farm realities, and farming style.

Initiatives to promote cocoa production as part of resilient productivity can identify:

  • what works for various ecologies, farmers, and local communities;
  • what seems to work over the short run and reduces risks for the long term; and
  • what the implications are for food production, livelihoods, resilience, and development.

Resilient productivity requires a new approach to agriculture for present and future needs. What is clear is that persisting with the old ways will no longer do. It will only end in declining yields and increasing poverty for cocoa farmers. Resilient productivity promises a way forward for sustainable and more prosperous future.