Purple Cocoa Pods Help Women Farmers Crack Ban on Land Ownership

Marie Odie strokes a purple cocoa pod, sizing it up, before she walks on through the trees on her plantation in central western Ivory Coast. After four years of hard work, she’s about to pick her first harvest.

“When I look at my farm, it makes me so happy,” said Odie, 55, her hair covered in a violet cloth and a wrapper serving as a skirt around her hips. “Now I can hold my own. I can buy my clothes and help my nephews or my husband.”

Odie is one of a growing group of women moving from working on the farms to running their plantations in the world’s largest cocoa grower, challenging a rural custom that women can’t own land. Thanks to a determined women’s activist, aided by Nestle SA, women farmers in Ivory Coast, among the world’s worst countries for gender equality, are getting a chance to control their lives.

It’s another sign of the influence women have gained in the former French colony, said Rodrigue Kone, a university sociologist in Daloa, Ivory Coast, who has lectured on human rights. Expanding from traditional food crops such as rice and cassava into cash crops is a means to empowerment, he said.

“Having a cocoa or coffee plantation means effectively establishing real ownership,” Kone said. “It’s also a first step to inheritance. Women are acquiring this power.”

There are an estimated 800,000 cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast and about 8 million people make their living directly or indirectly from the beans, the key ingredient in chocolate. Cocoa contributes to about 15 percent of Ivory Coast’s $31-billion gross domestic product and 40 percent of export revenue.

No Owning

It’s almost entirely a man’s crop. While Ivory Coast law gives women and men equal land ownership rights, custom prevails in rural areas and women are often excluded.

Fewer than 10 percent of Ivory Coast’s members of parliament and 5 percent of city mayors are women. The country ranked 143rd among 152 countries in the United Nations Development Programme’s 2013 gender inequality index. More than 36 percent of women between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subject to genital mutilation, according to UNICEF.

Only in October did Ivory Coast initiate its first prosecution for child marriage. According to Agence France-Presse, a father was sentenced to 12 months of jail in Bouake, the country’s second-biggest city, and fined the equivalent of $681 for arranging the forced marriage of his daughter -- who was 11.

“Women are being held back from fully participating in the cocoa sector due to inequitable civil rights and cultural norms,” Geraldine Fraser Moleketi, special envoy on gender at the African Development Bank, said in an interview in Abidjan, the commercial capital.

Production Stages

Nestle has determined that only 4 percent of all producers in the 45 cocoa cooperatives it works with in Ivory Coast are women, said Nathan Bello, project manager for Nestle’s Cocoa Plan in Ivory Coast.

Women are far more likely to be workers than leaders. They take part in 12 of the 19 key stages of cocoa production, such as soil preparation and bean extraction, according to a 2009 report by Solidaridad, a nonprofit civil society group, and UTZ Certified, which sets standards for responsible sourcing and production.

“Men take responsibility for collecting payment for the cocoa, meaning that a woman’s compensation for her labors often depends on her relationship with a man,” the Fair Labor Association, a nonprofit workers-rights group, said in a 2014 report commissioned by Nestle, the world’s biggest food company.

In Marie Odie’s case, her brother agreed to give her a portion of his land. She got the idea from Agathe Vanie, head of one of the few female-headed cocoa cooperatives in the country.

Seven Hectares

Vanie, 50, transformed herself from an illiterate maid in Abidjan to an entrepreneur running a sewing workshop, a hairdressing salon and a restaurant. She later bought and sold rice. Now she has seven hectares (17.3 acres) of cocoa farms in three separate plantations.

It was while she worked in the rice trade that she decided to create an association of women plantation owners to increase the presence of women in cash crops. Her father gave her her first piece of land.

“The misery of women in rural areas made me fight to help them get access to land,” Vanie said, sitting outside a house that serves as a seat of the association in Kperedi, a village in the central west. Vanie and local women are planning to build a nursery next door to care for children while their mothers are at the plantations.

Vanie’s cooperative in Divo, 200 kilometers (124 miles) northwest of Abidjan, comprises about 200 members, of whom half are women. The association of female cocoa growers that she founded about 11 years ago has 600 members, up from 120 in the days following its creation.

Opening Eyes

Along the way, she said, she faced resistance from men. “I was told I wanted to turn women away from their husbands, that I wanted to open their eyes and that if women are independent, they will no longer respect their husbands,” she said.

Two months ago, Vanie, wearing sandals, blue jeans and long shorts, returned to Marie Odie’s village of Brabore, where she has already rallied as many as 50 women to her project. Her goal: talk to families and convince husbands, fathers and brothers to give women a piece of land.

In the community hall, dozens of women dressed in their best clothes sat in front of her while men settled on the sides and in the back of the room.

“You, men, help your wives!” cried Vanie, switching a few times between French and Dioula, a West African language. “Your wives live with you, they cook for you, they do everything, but when the harvest comes, the expenses overwhelm you. Give them land. We are not asking much. With one hectare, even half a hectare, they can cope.”

Truck Financing

Vanie is trying to give a new impetus to her cooperative, whose operations stalled for four years because it didn’t have a truck to transport the crop. A loan last year from Nestle financed the purchase; Vanie expects the cooperative to sell about 500 metric tons of beans in the 2014-2015 cocoa season.

Nestle and other chocolate makers, including Mondelez International Inc. and Mars Inc., need to do more to improve gender equality in their cocoa-supply chain, an independent report commissioned by Oxfam said in October. Those three companies together buy about 30 percent of the world’s cocoa.

Nestle started a pilot phase of an education program on gender issues in four cooperatives in August. As many as 20 cooperatives will be trained next year, Bello said.

Crisis Easing

Ivory Coast’s economy, once a locomotive for West Africa, is bouncing back. Output is forecast by the government to grow 10 percent this year and next, after a decade of political crisis. Violence reached a peak in 2011 after former President Laurent Gbagbo refused to acknowledge electoral defeat by Alassane Ouattara. At least 3,000 people were killed. Gbagbo was arrested and sent to the Hague-based International Criminal Court, where he is still detained.

Back in Brabore, Monique N’drin, 40, says she first heard about Vanie’s initiative on local radio a few years ago, and started to plant trees after Vanie visited the village in 2012. She owns a land parcel her husband, Aristide, gave her after he inherited it from his father.

“We had to ask our wives for help because alone we couldn’t cope any more,” said Aristide as he wielded a machete to help his wife weed the plantation.

Giving Monique land to grow cocoa also helps secure a future for her and their two children, Aristide N’drin said: “Everyone knows this is her farm, the place I gave her to take care of my children if I die.”