“It is cocoa that sustains us” but future generations “will not be farmers”

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Cocoa Diaries N’Guessan Michel

Cocoa Farmer
Oreskrobou, Côte d’Ivoire

N’Guessan Michel is a cocoa farmer on the rise. His 5.22-hectare plot increased its cocoa yield by more than 70% after he underwent productivity training two years ago with the COOPAA cooperative in Oreskrobou in Southeastern Côte d’Ivoire. Additional coaching on life skills — family issues, raising kids, managing money — benefits his family of six. But ask him if he wants his four children to someday take over his plantation, and the answer is immediate and emphatic. “No, we will not be farmers,” he said, shaking his head. “God must help us move out of that.” He explains: “I want them to become managers, teachers, professors — and even president.”

It’s a common sentiment in cocoa-rich Côte d’Ivoire, even with the spread of modern technology and approaches in an industry long mired in economic and social hardship for farmers such as unsteady income, poor access to education, and child labor. For Michel and his wife, education is the next generation’s ticket to greater opportunity. Instead of sending their three older children to the local public school, Michel pays 160,000 CFA a year — a significant sum in the cocoa belt economy — for them to attend a private school. “It’s expensive,” he said in his matter-of-fact manner. But “I preferred to put my children in a private school.”

The support of the cooperative and the cocoa and chocolate industry made such dreams possible. Michel started farming eight years ago, producing about two tons of beans a year. Then he joined the cooperative two years ago and learned better ways to farm. He planted more shade trees to bolster the canopy that protects his cocoa from the equatorial sun, improved on cleaning out weeds and debris, and became better at pruning the cocoa trees for better growth. “We were also told to ferment the cocoa for six days and then dry them for six days,” Michel explained. A year later, the results showed immediate progress. The plot of lush shade trees towering over the cocoa trees produced 3.44 tons of cocoa last year, compared to two tons in previous years.

At the same time, Michel attended another kind of training about family life and issues. Discussions focused on investing in children, with an emphasis on parenting, budgeting, childhood development and other practical matters facing the farmers. His wife, Eleonore, attended with him some times, and when she couldn’t make it, he would discuss what happened with her when he got home, helping her assert her family role to the point that she convinced Michel of their need to start saving money.

Now they work toward a future in which their children are well-educated, with better jobs and opportunities than they would have on the farm. They knew they had made the right choice when they saw other village kids who never attended school or were behind in the public school get excited about the opening of a local “bridge” school that would help them catch up.

Michel’s day begins with an early breakfast, and then hours of work on his plot cleaning away everything but the cocoa trees and the shade trees that protect them. He also prunes the cocoa trees so they don’t grow too thick or high, which would hamper productivity and make harvesting more difficult. The long hours of labor help secure his family’s goals, and that is fine, Michel said, adding: “It is cocoa that sustains us, and I ask my brothers to be brave to continue planting cocoa.”