Before there was the plant nursery she manages with other local women, and the rice they grow to supplement their incomes from cocoa farming, Kouassi Yaoua N’Guessan led a simpler existence. “I sold my cocoa ordinarily,” she said of her farming life as an independent farmer six years ago near Soubré in central Côte d’Ivoire. Though married with three children, when it came to nurturing the cocoa trees of her 1.47-hectare plot, “I was doing it alone.”
That started to change in 2013 when she joined the Cooperative des Producteurs de Sofoci Louhiri (CPSL). 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.
Today, Yaoua’s round face and wide-set eyes soften to a smile as she describes how — through the cooperative — she learned to be a more productive farmer and led other community women to have a say when plans emerged to build a new area school for their children.
Then, when a CPSL pilot project started a nursery to grow shade trees for the cocoa farms that dominate the area, Yaoua headed a team of 15 local women to manage it. “We started with eggplants,” she recalled. “The cooperative told us it’s a good year, so we are sending you seeds.” Once a week, they gathered to plant and prune and clean the plants provided by the cooperative, including saplings in rows segregated by species. As they worked, doing the “maintenance, weeding and watering,” Yaoua said, the woman would talk to each other about their families and health and lives. From those discussions, a community formed. If one of them had problems at home, they all listened and tried to help.
Soon more women started showing up, and now there are 61 who participate each Wednesday to help manage the nursery and enjoy the communal support. They have learned to grow rice that helps feed their families and gets sold to create another income source beyond the cocoa. For Yaoua, the cooperative has provided a path to greater empowerment for women historically held back by male-dominated tradition.
“I want our group to evolve and that every woman be independent. That is our wish,” she said, sitting in the Green Project nursery, which has a capacity of 85,000 plants.
Her experience shows the value of the training that she and others have received through the cooperative. They now plant taller shade trees at their farms to protect the cocoa trees from the sun and insects, which has increased cocoa production. For the past two years, the cocoa farmers have received their income by bank transfer rather than cash, which “keeps you safe from stealing and aggression,” she said.
While Yaoua and her husband discuss how to manage the money coming in, she made clear that she decides how to farm her land, which is separate from his plot. “It’s my field, it’s my farm — I make the decisions,” she said with a laugh. “He can make the decisions for his farm. “
Other benefits were less direct, but just as important. Yaoua and other women were able to provide input three years ago when the cooperative teamed with partners including the government to build the new school. For the first time, the women could explain challenges they faced in ensuring an education for their children that they believed would lead to more opportunities in their lives. “The children are the ones who put pressure on us to go to school,” Yaoua said, exclaiming “No!” when asked if they should follow in her footsteps to become cocoa farmers. “I want them to become managers,” she said, then added after a brief consideration, “If it’s modernized farming, okay, but in our current state, I do not want them to.” Others share her hope for greater opportunity for youth. Talking to just about anyone in the area, the discussion always comes back to a question asked of every visitor: “Have you seen the school?”
Still, Yaoua and her colleagues know their lives are tied to cocoa farming.
“It is a good thing, because we did not go to school, so that’s what we can do,” she said, offering a message to the people worldwide eating chocolate made from the cocoa produced in the Soubré region. “It is the elderly people who work in the farms,” she said, calling for an increase in cocoa prices to help farmers. “We also want funding to invest in our project.”
Then she thought of one more thing: “When you make chocolate out of cocoa, you should send us some, because we really like chocolate.”