Researchers Say Fairtrade Chocolate Isn’t So Sweet for Women Farmers

Female growers in Ghana may have a more difficult time joining certified co-ops than their male counterparts.
A female cocoa farmer in Kwamang, Ghana, holds cocoa beans. (Photo: Melanie Stetson Freeman/Getty Images)
Apr 4, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

When it comes to stories of women in chocolate, Kuapa Koko (“best farmer cocoa”) in Ghana is held up as a happy one. The 85,000-member-strong cocoa cooperative, a third of whom are women, owns 45 percent of Fairtrade chocolate brand Divine and supplies cocoa to Cadbury and Starbucks. Woven into the fabric of their vision is equitable distribution of cocoa income between men and women; promoting women to leadership positions; and helping them secure credit, land rights, and information on improved growing practices. The Fairtrade premium the cooperative receives for its cocoa, an additional $200 per metric ton of cocoa, has provided clean water, schools, and mobile medical facilities.

With women holding nearly half of all agricultural jobs—the majority in parts of Asia and Africa—and subject to the same types of gender-based gaps in pay and support faced in other industries, that extra money paid per ton of cocoa would seem to present a big boost to women. But new research suggests that Kuapa Koko may be an outlier in the world of Fairtrade cocoa.

“In Ghana, our research suggests that social norms and the gendered division of labour in agriculture are not fully acknowledged constraints on women’s ability to participate in Fairtrade,” researchers Roy Maconachie and Elizabeth Fortin wrote of their findings in The Guardian. “Cultural barriers constrain women’s ability not only to participate in such co-operatives, but also to benefit from Fairtrade to the same extent as men.”

Take the issue of land rights. Despite being 70 percent of the agricultural workforce, women in sub-Saharan Africa hold an estimated 18 percent of land titles, according to the Social Institutions and Gender Index. Ghana is one of five countries in the region that retains discriminatory land laws, and the land is predominantly inherited and owned by men. Some cooperatives, as the researchers noted, require their members to own the land they farm.

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“There is no reason why Fairtrade can’t work with the co-operatives in tackling these issues right at the outset, particularly in terms of membership rules that, I would argue, must allow landless farmers (usually women) membership of such co-operatives,” Fortin wrote to TakePart.

According to the standards required by Fairtrade International, one of the major accrediting groups, member organizations “must not discriminate on the basis of gender or marital status,” and “rules that determine who can become a member must not be discriminatory.” Additionally, the standards require social programs that benefit women, such as maternity leave.

Rodney North, director of marketing and external relations for Fairtrade America, wrote in an email to TakePart that the Guardian story was part of a larger pattern in which “progressive-minded researchers study problem X and progressive initiative Y (could be Fairtrade, or organic farming, or voluntarism, etc.) and then report to the public, ‘Surprise findings: Y doesn’t solve X. Sometimes it might make it worse,’ etc. etc.”

To the contrary, he wrote, during Fairtrade’s 30-plus years in existence, the certification program has helped organize and empower smallholder farmers growing for export around the world “and to improve their economic, social, and political power.” Furthermore, Fairtrade “has also added programs to support sustainable and organic farming, to strengthen the hand of farm workers, to prevent forced child labor and to address entrenched gender inequality. While Fairtrade alone cannot undo centuries of sexism and the like, today there is no other ethical certification that does more to right this wrong.”

Kristy Leissle, a professor at University of Washington Bothell whose research is focused on Ghana’s cocoa trade, agrees that Fairtrade cannot be expected to solve all agriculture’s problems. But she thinks the research highlights problems that the organization can address.

“Here, we have a clear challenge that Fairtrade can act upon,” Leissle wrote in an email to TakePart. “With this evidence that women are disenfranchised as land owners, Fairtrade can and should allow women to participate without the land ownership requirement. I recognize that, given the structure of Fairtrade, which certifies cooperatives and not individuals, this would be an administrative challenge, but it is one that I feel confident Fairtrade could meet.”

More intractable is the issue of time poverty, the “double workday” required when women must perform duties in the home—such as cooking, cleaning, caring for children, and procuring water—in addition to their agricultural labor. Women in cocoa-producing communities work an average of 20 hours a week more than men, according to Oxfam. Participation in cooperative leadership, which determines how Fairtrade premiums should be used to fund Fairtrade development plans, requires additional time women may not have.

Leissle noted that the research “paints a clear picture of pervasive gender oppression.” But she also wrote that the research reveals the challenges Fairtrade faces in its efforts to assist women who work in farming in developing nations. “For me, that is the key point: that the challenges go both ways.”

Those challenges are immense. Ghana is the world’s second-largest cocoa producer for a global chocolate market worth an estimated $98.3 billion by the end of this year. Yet the majority of chocolate farm laborers have never tasted chocolate, sell a 141-pound bag of cacao for approximately $109, and live on less than $2 per day.

Some think direct trade can be more beneficial to women cocoa farmers, and the rise in artisan bean-to-bar chocolate saw companies like Taza, Askinosie, and Rogue Chocolatier follow the path cut by coffee producers, sourcing beans directly from farmers—sometimes even featuring their stories on the packaging. Without any middlemen, payment stays in the pockets of cocoa farmers. Do we need certified women-grown chocolate as much as we need women-grown coffee?

No certification can correct a problem that extends far beyond Fairtrade, and in March, Oxfam issued a best practices report to leading chocolate companies Mars, Mondelez, and Nestlé as part of their “Behind the Brands” campaign to support women cocoa farmers.

“No initiative is yet ‘doing enough,’ because the challenges of gender oppression are intractable, immense, and deeply intertwined with other limiting institutions and social structures,” Leissle pointed out. “I also don’t know that it is ‘fair’ to demand that any trade initiative, by itself, equalize gender relations.”

Something like that will require consumer demand and significant strides from chocolate companies.

“If Western consumers are more knowledgeable about the conditions in which poor farmers in poor countries are producing products, they might also find out more about why such farmers are still so poor [and] what our Western markets are doing in contributing to this unfair state,” Fortin concluded. “Some might just change their lifestyles, but others might even lobby for change.”