Why gender matters in the cocoa value chain

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When world leaders meet at the United Nations in New York next September for a Special Summit on Sustainable Development, their minds won’t necessarily be on chocolate. Their task will be to agree on new Sustainable Development Goals to replace the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) whose deadline expires this year.


But if the world wants to ensure a sustainable supply of quality chocolate bars, it needs to do more to support cocoa farmers in developing countries, and particularly women cocoa farmers. No. 3 of the MDGs is to “Promote gender equality and empower women”. That is just as urgent in cocoa farming as it is in other agricultural sectors.


On average, women make up 43% of the agricultural labour force in developing countries and in sub-Saharan Africa 54% of women and 60% of men are employed in agriculture. In cocoa, women often play a key role in managing the planting and nurturing of seedlings and in the harvesting and fermentation processes.

Women farmer drying cocoa beans

But in cocoa, as in other crops that have a commercial return, such as coffee, tobacco and cotton, men largely control the decision-making and marketing processes. For a host of reasons linked to local customs and social contexts, women frequently find themselves vulnerable and less well placed to make a decent living from cocoa. Women farmers

Recognition of the contribution of women and the need for their incorporation into agricultural value chains is important for economic and social development. Studies show that women are more likely than men to spend income and resources on household needs, child nutrition, health and education. Bridging the gender gap, according to the FAO and the World Bank, could significantly help to combat hunger and boost economic growth. Oxfam's behind the brands scorecard

Two years ago, Oxfam launched its “Behind the Brands” campaign for consumer pressure to push big multinationals to do more to promote development and protect the environment. Included in its list of companies falling short in the fight against gender inequalities were some of the world´s largest chocolate manufacturers. Some, since then, have improved their ratings. But more needs to be done. Discrimination against women, Oxfam argues, is still a major factor keeping rural populations in developing countries in poverty.

So where should chocolate manufacturers start, if they want to do more to empower women in the cocoa value chain? One obvious place would be in the training programmes for farmers provided by intervention schemes in developing countries backed by some of the companies cited in Oxfam’s campaign, Nestlé, Mars and Mondelez International. However, one should also not forget the brands’ suppliers, for example, Barry Callebaut, Cargill and  Armajaro, who are also responsible for sourcing and buying cocoa beans. Each of these companies have their own sustainability programmes to support cocoa farming communities.

FarmerFieldSchool_1_with cr

FarmerFieldSchool_3_with cr

Cocoa buyers and chocolate manufacturers work in one way or another in developing countries with certification bodies whose role is to set and monitor the implementation of specific standards of social and environmental practice in cocoa production. As I was able to witness in Ghana, however, the sustainability programmes don’t always take account of the needs of women farmers.

Women cocoa farmers, Juabeso

Ghanaian cocoa farmer - Western region

Ghana is the world’s second largest cocoa producing country and an estimated 25% of its cocoa farmers are women. During field work for my MSc course in Ghana’s Western Region, however, I saw that most of the cocoa farmers participating in training programmes led by Rainforest Alliance and Mondelez International were male. The structure and organization of the training programmes reflected widespread attitudes among supply chain actors to cocoa as a “male” cash crop .

The facilitators and trainers were all men, as were most of the extension agents. Female cocoa farmers participating in the trainings were generally older than their male counterparts and had smaller landholdings. They tended to be either widowed or single, and many commented that it was difficult for them to attend the training sessions because of household obligations. In addition to farm labour, women are responsible for household maintenance, social reproduction, the preparation of traditional food, fetching water, and sales of surplus food crops in local markets. It is often said that women in developing countries spend 10 times as much time on unpaid care work than men.

Ghanaian women preparing gari from cassava

Almost all said they faced physically difficulties in applying recommended agricultural practices in particular pruning and mistletoe removal, which require reaching higher parts of the trees, and spraying against pests and diseases with the use of spraying knapsacks. Many also commented that they faced problems in hiring helpers because local youths were more attracted to other, more remunerative activities such as illegal gold mining and rubber contract farming.Rubber plantations, Western region, GhanaYouth involved in illegal mining

Despite such concerns, the organisers did little to adapt their programmes to the women’s overburdened timetables. In effect, women were discouraged from participating in the trainings.

women cocoa farmers, Juabeso, Ghana

Addressing the unequal power relations between women and men in cocoa farming is not something that can be achieved overnight. It requires challenging deeply entrenched social-cultural norms that favour male domination and put women in a subordinate role.

Land ownership is one critical area. In many developing countries, women tend to be deprived of land rights by inheritance laws favouring male land-ownership. This, in turn, deprives women from access to loans and credits, technical assistance and modern agricultural inputs, contract farming and cooperative benefits.

Women also tend to have inferior access to education, which means that illiteracy levels amongst women are generally higher. This ultimately weakens their economic and social power, denying them agricultural knowledge and benefits from financial information. 

These are issues for governments, rather than for companies. But a start in the right direction can be made if, in both the public and private sectors, the people working in extension services and scientific research departments understand the importance of gender issues in designing and implementing development projects.

In the cocoa value chain, commercial strategies to increase productivity need to take a sensitive approach to local contexts and avoid reinforcing the socio-economic norms and disparities that stand in the way of women’s empowerment. For firms like Nestlé, Mars and Mondelez International, that means going out of their way to ensure that women cocoa farmers can benefit equally with their male counterparts from agricultural training and technological innovation.


  1. While I do agree that more sensitivity should be given to women under some situations, I disagree that the agencies and private corporations should actively participate in spreading western views and values especially on society and the social systems in place. I also disagree that outsiders should be deliberately running an agenda to transform the power dynamics in societies which do not resemble western cultures. This is the kind of interference radicals use as a premise to gain support by the way. Let us help them but allow their societies to evolve naturally.

  2. Interesting to see that mostly men are cultivating the cacao farms. It is the opposite here. In my farm, it is difficult to get male helpers. My helpers are all women. They were the ones who dug the holes and planted the seedlings. I asked them where are the men? And they said they are away, at work. Not that the work is a higher paying job!

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