UTZ Certified, Mars and several other companies are truly committed to making a difference in the lives of the farmers here in Côte d’Ivoire. What I have been most impressed with is the approach. Rather than just donating money to the region, they are investing in the farmers. They are providing them with tools and knowledge that help them increase the yields and productivity of their farms. For example, there are farmer field schools, conducted in real cocoa farms, where local farmers can actually see how to take better care of their farms. Some of the techniques include: pruning the trees, removing the weeds that steal nutrients from the cocoa trees and properly utilizing pesticides.Pesticides is a big one. The training on pesticides includes training on using the pesticides that have the least impact on the environment and the importance of wearing protective equipment. Prior to certification programs, many farmers were having their children spray the pesticides without any protection. Now, for the most part, the children are in school and many villages have “spray teams” with special training from the pesticide companies that are responsible for spraying. They wear the proper equipment and dispose of the pesticide containers properly. I have heard of numerous stories where pesticide containers were used to store food and water in the villages. Thankfully, I have not see that at all.UTZ Certified has worked with the supply chain (cocoa buyers – e.g. Cargill and manufactures e.g. Mars) to establish a premium for certified cocoa. Think of it as a bonus with strings attached. The cooperatives and farmers must use the premium to meet the code standards (social programs, pesticide use, minimize environmental impact, etc.). I have heard a lot about the premium because it’s a separate payment and comes outside of the harvest season when the money is flowing. But, in my opinion, what’s really making a difference is the training and investment in the farmers skillset. That is the gift that keeps giving. I have heard several stories of farmers doubling their yield and profits and that makes a bigger difference in their lives than the premium.
The social programs will change the future for these farmers and their families. I have seen schools and health centers that have been built, ambulances purchased to keep women from walking miles to the health center when their water breaks, trucks purchased to help cocoa farmers bring their product to market. And these people are sooo proud that their children are going to school. Simply amazing. I take so much for granted.
I also had the pleasure of seeing the Mars Vision 4 Change project in Soubre. Two big challenges facing the farmers here are diseases and farms that are becoming too old to be productive. People that are much smarter than me are doing genetic research, not to modify the genes, but identify the genetic traits of the best trees and breed those naturally. To help with farms that are 30 years old and older, Mars has developed grafting techniques where you cut a hole in the trunk of the old tree and stick a young branch in the hole that can start bearing fruit in less than a year. Compared with the hard labor of planting new trees it’s much better and farmers can harvest pods from the grafted trees about two years faster than planting a new farm. The farmers involved in the program were very excited about it!