Ediko Appo Agnes stood among her cocoa trees, a machete in one hand with heart-shaped earrings framing her face, and talked about dynamic agroforestry. “It’s a farm where you put several plants — plantain, cassava, all you need for nutrition — at the same time,” she said, wiping perspiration from her brow. She had always tried to grow multiple crops, but results were uneven. Then she joined the COOPAA cooperative in the Agboville region of southern Côte d’Ivoire and learned which crops can best be planted in the same field to avoid overtaxing the soil and nutrients. “I did it before, but it’s the cooperative that helped me later,” Agnes said. “For example, cassava, groundnut and beans go together.”
She’s learned a lot in recent years, and not only from her experience with the cooperative. A decade ago, Agnes and her husband returned to the village of Anno in southern Côte d’Ivoire with their young family and little else. Their attempt at an urban life in Abidjan, the capital more than 100 kilometers away, had fallen apart when her husband lost his job, forcing them to start over. With help, they got small plots to farm cocoa and began again. Today, Agnes epitomizes village life, tending her one-hectare plot and starting a new role as an administrator in the cooperative. When visitors arrived to talk to her about her experience, they found dozens of her friends and neighbors gathered to join in a meal of fufu and kedjenou, a traditional chicken stew, prepared and served by Agnes.
Things were different when she first returned to Anno to begin farming. Her farm produced a modest crop of cocoa beans that got sold to buyers she had to find, reflecting the uncertainty of her new life. Five years later, Agnes attended a field school operated by the cooperative, and realized there was a better way. “Before I was a member of the cooperative, I sold my produce to anyone,” she said. “What has changed is that I sell my produce to the cooperative, and I’m given receipts that I keep.” She continues going to the field school to learn new approaches and techniques for tending the cocoa trees, training she called “very useful” and a motivator to continue bettering herself. “I saw the difference, because at the beginning when I was not in the cooperative, my cocoa was not producing much and then I was not cleaning my farm often,” Agnes recalled. “There I was told to clean my farm and pluck my cocoa every 15 days and that’s what I do.” The result? Her harvest increased more than 50%, growing from 400 kilograms a year to now yielding 650 kilograms.
Her dedication and interest led to a seat on the cooperative’s supervisory committee, and now the new role as one of its administrators. “They explained to me that they chose me because I attend the meetings, I participate a lot in the activities of the cooperative and I take them serious,” Agnes said. By helping empower farmers, especially women, to increase production and have a stronger voice in their communities, the cooperatives dotting the cocoa belt of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana support higher income levels and more opportunities for traditionally impoverished families.
One sign of greater opportunity is that Agnes’ five children, now in school, don’t appear to share her passion for agriculture. She wants one son to become an agricultural engineer so he can study cocoa farming and come back to teach her even more. Despite telling him so, “he did not choose that,” she said. Her main wish is for women like herself to be able to diversify their income beyond cocoa farming, perhaps with other crops, to support their families. But even with the all hard work and challenges of making a livelihood from cocoa — cleaning the farms, pruning the trees, harvesting and fermenting the beans — Agnes appreciates what the crop means for her and her family.
“You know, I love cocoa,” she said. “This is how I look after my children and myself. [Cocoa] helps a lot.”