Focusing on people and the planet this Easter

While Easter celebrations will almost certainly be different for many of us this year, it will still be synonymous with chocolate. Cocoa production worldwide hit a record high of 4.85 million tonnes last year and shows little sign of slowing down as, in the face of the pandemic, consumers reach for familiar comforts like chocolate.

Focusing on people and the planet this Easter

Whatever the long-term impacts of the current crisis, one thing won’t change: our responsibility to source cocoa in a way that is sustainable and takes care of the key people in the supply chain, as well as the environment. 

Considerable progress has been made in recent years, but the cocoa industry still faces significant challenges. The smallholder farmers who grow cocoa in West Africa, South America and South East Asia tend to own a relatively small amount of land, and yields are often not high enough to generate a living income to support their families. 

Many farmers cannot pay for labour to help on their farms, meaning child labour can occur as children are required to stay home to work the land, rather than attend school. Low yields also mean that many farmers resort to clearing more land to plant additional crops, leading to deforestation and a loss of biodiversity. These challenges can also be seen across many product supply chains and there are learnings for us all.

These are complex issues with no quick fix and addressing them has historically proved difficult, especially when farmers tend to live in very remote areas. But technology is increasingly playing a crucial role, by both helping business understand the issues at hand and providing farmers with the help and assistance they need to create a more transparent, environmentally positive supply chain. 

Increasing a farmer’s income starts with quite literally understanding the lay of the land. Using the Olam and Farmers Information System (OFIS), we have recorded the training activities and agricultural practices of individual farms, as well as GPS map data like farm size and distance to vital social infrastructure. From here we are able to create personalised Farm Development Plans for each farmer to help them make the most of their land, with tailored advice and recommendations ranging from how much fertiliser to use, to when to prune, to when they should replace their ageing trees. This empowers farmers to make data-driven decisions that will increase their yields and improve their income.

Harnessing this data also allows unprecedented visibility of the supply chain, right down to individual farms. This type of visibility and understanding is becoming increasingly important for businesses trying to grapple with the environmental footprint of their wider business impact.

By GPS mapping the data, for example, businesses can identify hotspots for issues like deforestation and act quickly, working with the farming cooperatives concerned to introduce agroforestry techniques where farmers plant forest and fruit trees alongside cocoa. For us, this not only restores lost tree cover; it also improves cocoa productivity for farmers and provides them with an additional source of income.

It is key that businesses do not just keep this data to themselves, but also put it in the hands of those closest to the communities we work with. We recently launched a new app to help tackle child labour. Community leads will be trained up and given a smartphone so they can use the app to capture vital data about individual farmers and their children, making it possible to identify children who are at high risk and act much more quickly.

Systems like this have previously been paper-based and restricted to countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. But to be most effective, we need to use them to spot the early warning signs, not just deal with existing cases. This is why we decided to roll out child labour monitoring across all our cocoa origins, including launching the programme in Cameroon last month. 

Technology alone will not be enough to solve the complex challenges that the cocoa industry and many others face. But it is a vital part of the puzzle that allows businesses to gain a clear view of the most pressing issues, and the most effective ways to tackle them.

The more we can understand about our supply chain, the closer we are to the farmers and communities we work with. Through sharing insights with them, we can build trusted relationships that will make all the difference in enabling long term change. All while making sure that consumers can continue to celebrate with chocolate at Easter in the knowledge that cocoa farmer livelihoods are improving.

Andrew Brooks is Head of Sustainability at Olam Cocoa

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