Women's School of Leadership group photo

New graduates of the Women’s School of Leadership in Côte d’Ivoire forge a new path for women cocoa farmers

In Côte d’Ivoire, women and men are working together to break down gender stereotypes in cocoa farming communities, and building up a new model of women as entrepreneurs and leaders.

While equality for women is a sustainable development goal – and is a part of the Fairtrade Standards – there are often social norms and structural barriers that prevent women from being able to make their voices heard in large numbers in their communities. 

Women cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire traditionally have limited roles in decision-making in their homes and communities. Land is typically inherited and owned by men – just 25 percent of Ivorian women cocoa farmers own their land. Women are therefore also less likely to be members of cocoa co-operatives, which in many farming communities have considerable influence. At the same time, women do just as much farming work as their husbands – if not more. Even if they do have land to farm, women usually have less access to information, credit, and agricultural inputs like fertiliser.        

‘We have many ‘invisible’ women in the community,’ said Nomel Jean Yves Meledje, the gender manager of the Fairtrade cocoa co-operative SCAANIAS in Abengourou. ‘It’s very difficult for them to express themselves and be heard.’

Individual transformation, community benefit

While standards can set a new framework for non-discrimination, bringing about a shift in the broader culture to truly envision women as leaders often requires change within individuals. Given the opportunity to have a stronger voice in their families, co-operatives and communities, women are in a better position to take up leadership roles and contribute to the economy and society – and realise their own value.

That is the idea behind the Women’s School of Leadership in Côte d’Ivoire, developed by Fairtrade Africa in 2017 and funded by Co-op and Compass Group UK & Ireland. The innovative programme brings women cocoa farmers together for a year of training and mentorship on topics of human rights and gender equality, as well as financial management, negotiation and income diversification project development.

This week, thirty women from seven different Fairtrade certified cocoa co-operatives are graduating from the programme, following in the footsteps of 22 participants who completed the programme in 2018. Ten men also participated in this year’s programme, and are prepared to serve as allies and advocates within their communities and households.

The graduation was held in four different locations connected by video conference, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Health and safety precautions included no more than 22 people gathered in one location, same-day transportation provided to all participants to avoid use of public transport, social distancing and mask usage required, sanitisation of venues, handwashing stations and hygiene kits provided to staff and participants. The participants, along with Fairtrade Africa staff, government representatives and the programme funders, were able to join together virtually to celebrate the progress over the past year.

The cycle of learning and leading

For some of the women in the programme, this graduation was the first they had ever had.

‘My parents made me stop school at the primary level,’ said Ouattara Fatou, member of a co-operative that is part of Fairtrade certified cocoa union ECOOKIM. ‘According to them, girls don’t need to go far in school.’

But participants soon gained confidence. Starting with the basics of human rights and rights of women and children, Fairtrade Africa trainers encouraged the participants to reflect on how women and men can be different, but equal under the law as well as in the Fairtrade Standards.

With trainings convened about once every month, the participants learned together and built a spirit of cooperation as they gained knowledge in leadership skills, budgeting and accounting, saving, and investing in new opportunities. In between sessions, participants went back to their co-operatives and held discussions about things like the co-op’s gender policy, or raised awareness of women’s rights within their communities.

The programme also built in a process of developing a proposal for an income generating activity per co-operative that participants presented during the graduation ceremony. The co-operatives have committed to support the projects financially and technically to get off the ground.

Participants from the first cohort of graduates played a key role in this year’s programme, serving as co-trainers and mentors, sharing their experiences. In turn, this year’s participants are already sharing what they have learned with other women in their communities, and seeing the effects.

‘We’ve managed to convince men in our community to give cocoa farmland to women,’ said Yao Affoué Anne Pélagie, a member of SOCOOPEM co-operative in southwestern Côte d’Ivoire.

‘I now draw on that power’: the impact of training continues to grow

Participants in the Women’s School of Leadership continue to carry the effect with them for many years.

Since 2018, members of the first group of graduates have continued to develop their businesses and their self-confidence. In addition to the actual participants, the programme reached more than 1,160 people – about 80 percent of them women – through training and discussions that participants led in 21 communities. 

‘The two most important things I’ve learned are self-confidence and budget management,’ said Diakite Salimata, a member of SCAANIAS. ‘But everything else was important too. I apply all these learnings to everything I do. I saw women’s roles in the community differently. Women used to be buried in the past, we didn’t know we had potential, we didn’t know we had value.’

Today, says Salimata, she feels more confident, and also sees an economic change. Training in good agricultural practices helped improve the methods of harvesting and fermentation used by women in her co-operative, increasing the quality of their beans. They also learned how to reduce plant disease and take better care of their trees. Her co-operative’s women’s association has started processing cassava, a local cash crop. ‘The improvement we’ve seen in our income was from nothing, to a little bit extra. Now we are saving money. We hope to use a portion to help our husbands with caring for the whole family,’ as well as contributing to farm investments.

Diakite Salimata, member of SCAANIAS with other women in her co-operative

Diakite Salimata, member of SCAANIAS

Kouame Ehui Edith, a single mother and member of the co-operative SCAEK COOP-CA in Kotobi, has also found that her new skills and confidence have led to greater financial security. Once she started tracking her farming income and expenses, she was able to set goals, save money and expand into a small beverage business, as well as purchase two motorcycle taxis. The women in her co-operative have a community field where they grow aubergines, okra, tomatoes, and peanuts to supplement their incomes. The women process the peanuts into butter to sell on the local market – the project that was developed during their year with the Women’s School of Leadership. It brings in about €500 euros in additional income for the women during the off season when they don’t earn money from cocoa production.

‘I used to be very shy, [but now] I can confidently talk in front of an audience. I realised I have something hidden within myself and I now draw on that power. I used to be impatient, but now I master my mind and I manage my household with patience and understanding.’

Kouame Ehui Edith, member of SCAEK COOP-CA, cocoa farmer in Ivory Coast

Kouame Ehui Edith, member of SCAEK COOP-CA

Women’s Associations at each co-operative are flourishing, and provide things like interest-free loans and problem-solving to address pressing needs. In terms of impact within their households, many women have reported that they make joint decisions with their husbands, who now share financial information and appreciate their wives’ contributions.

‘Contrary to what we men may think, our wives can better manage resources and reduce expenses when they know our incomes. I’ve tried it and it works!’ said Amoikon Kpanguin, one of the men from the first cohort.

Portrait of Amoikon Kpanguin

Amoikon Kpanguin, member of COOPAME cocoa co-operative and one of the three men who graduated from the first Women’s School of Leadership in 2018

Looking ahead

Anne-Marie Yao, the regional cocoa manager of Fairtrade Africa’s West Africa Network, looks forward to seeing what’s in store for the recent graduates of the Women’s School of Leadership, both as individuals as well as within their co-operatives and communities.

Despite the current challenges of COVID-19, Fairtrade Africa plans to continue supporting the first two cohorts from the programme.

‘This graduation is not the end,’ said Yao. ‘On the contrary, it is for us the beginning of another phase of the training, a practical phase. We remain convinced that this project will contribute to improving the image of women at the co-operative level so that their voices are increasingly heard.’

Next steps

Fairtrade is campaigning for a living income to become a reality for cocoa farmers in West Africa.

Read more about the fight for living incomes

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