Things we learned this year: The common ground between cocoa farmers in Ghana and a British ‘would-be’ gardener


    After 6 years at Olam and reporting on sustainability efforts, I finally really understood why you can’t just train smallholder farmers on improved agricultural practices and expect automatic take up. For something as seemingly simple as pruning, there’s an emotional chasm that needs to be bridged…

    According to, I should be doing various pruning jobs in my garden this December. Prune the pear tree into a goblet shape to encourage fruiting, clip back the red currents and sort out the clematis. All of this would give me a mounting sense of anxiety were it not for Dave, friend and gardener, who will do it for me because I’m pathetically doubtful of my own abilities to make the right cut despite watching the programmes.

    In Ghana this year, I learned this anxiety crosses cultures, but with far more serious implications. Here, the origin of much of the world’s cocoa, thousands of smallholder cocoa farmers are receiving training and support from Olam and other organisations to help improve yields and quality, and lift them out of often deep poverty.

    Just like my pear tree, left unchecked, ageing branches on cocoa trees will take valuable nutrients reducing the number of pods produced. Equally pruning is essential for removing disease and allowing in sunlight to aid growth and pollination. Maximising yields from the cocoa tree is essential not just for the farmer’s livelihood but also for preventing deforestation – farmers can move into forest to grow more cocoa.

    At Olam, we work with over 36,000 smallholders in Ghana. The lives they lead are, as you might expect, very different to mine. Too many still live in simple huts, many struggle to read or write.

    Two such farmers I met, Paul Namuch and his wife, Martha Annor, own two cocoa farms of around 10 acres each.

    They told me about their hesitation and nervousness when it came to pruning. Even though they have been to the training or seen Olam Cocoa’s demo plots they still didn’t feel they had the confidence to make those all-important cuts: the risk of getting it wrong and losing all of the cocoa pods overcomes the faith that the branch will produce more in the future. Remember each pod for a cocoa farmer means money for his family.

    Peer pressure also plays a part. The farmers are community focused so the scepticism of pruning spreads from farm to farm, if your neighbour tells you not to do it – you are less likely to give it a go.

    It’s for exactly these reasons that with customer Mondelez we launched One Farmer One Acre.

    Originally the idea of one of the farmer groups, this project sees ‘pruning teams’ of strong 18 year olds helping their farming communities by pruning one corner (an acre) of the cocoa farm with these labour costs covered by Olam and Mondelez.

    But even allowing that one corner to be pruned requires a leap of faith – in this case taken by Martha. (Women are more likely to have faith and take the risk apparently, plus she and Paul have the back up of both farms).

    So the One Acre team arrived and set to work. And Martha explains that the contrast in the pruned versus unpruned trees is admittedly very stark and troubling. Another farmer told us that when he returned and saw the acre of trees cut right back he was in a state of shock. He felt he had literally chopped off his income lifeline. For three months he regretted his decision until the trees began to flourish. Now he’s a pruning advocate.

    As for Martha’s crop, she saw an increase of 100% - from five bags to 10 bags of cocoa beans. Unsurprisingly, Paul and Martha no longer need convincing of the benefits.

    Paula and Martha aren’t alone. Most of the farmers we spoke to understand that pruning is good for their farm but they don’t trust themselves to get it right. Having an ‘expert’ show them the way on their own farm makes it a lot easier to take that final step. Martha was still a bit cautious about pruning the rest of the farm herself (and it’s tough work too) so she paid the pruning team to complete it for her. Other farmers choose this option too which means that the programme is also supporting rural youth employment and encouraging the next generation of cocoa farmers. We’re now scaling the programme in Ghana and will also launch in Côte d’Ivoire.

    In the sustainability world, we often talk about ‘capacity building’ among the smallholders – a key part of being able to re-imagine global agriculture for the better is equipping farmers in emerging markets with skills and knowledge.

    But the providers of training and the international observers also need the emotional capacity to understand the deep underlying reasons as to why improvements don’t happen as quickly as we would like. Even with the One Acre team we still need to earn the trust of farmers to even access the farm, and that certainly can’t happen overnight. The dedication of the Olam field officers for cocoa and other crops like cashew, coffee and cotton often amazes me. They live in and around the farming communities all year talking to them, getting to them as individuals, hearing their views.

    So, if you are enjoying a slice of Chocolate Yule Log by your Christmas tree in the coming weeks, think of the cocoa farmers like Martha and Paul and our field officers like Isaac who are having very different conversations about trees and branches.

    Read more about how Olam is championing cocoa sustainability.

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