Banking on innovation and sustainability in the cocoa value chain
Juliette Kouassi founded the cocoa cooperative ABOUd'CAO to support female producers and to not "throw anything away in the cocoa value chain, by rendering value to everything.”
“Cocoa is Côte d’Ivoire’s main national product. I am convinced it has a future in the market here,” says Juliette Kouassi as she discusses the future of the ABOUd'CAO cocoa cooperative she runs and manages in the village of Aboudé. A former bank employee in the capital Abidjan and daughter of a cocoa farmer, Kouassi is convinced smallholders in Côte d’Ivoire should process their agricultural produce themselves – to generate a proper living income from sustainable market opportunities. Two years ago, she gave up her job in finance and started the cooperative. The name ABOUd'CAO is no coincidence and translates to “where help is needed,” a direct reference to Kouassi’s life motto, “Why wait for help when you can solve the problem by yourself?”
The cocoa farming industry in Côte d’Ivoire currently faces two major challenges. Income is low due to a drop in prices on the global market. Second, the value women can bring to agriculture is neglected. First, Juliette Kouassi explains, “Cocoa plantations are old, and orchards need to be renewed every 30-40 years. Productivity is already on the decrease, and recently sales have gone down, due to lack of international demand caused by COVID19.” As Kouassi describes, producers do not really have an alternative to cocoa. The country needs to take more advantage of the value chain domestically. “When incomes increase through local processing, farmers can better finance renewing their orchards."
My goal is that we don't throw anything away in the cocoa value chain, by rendering value to everything
Juliette calls it an integral transformation. Her approach is a shift in an industry that caters mainly for the global market. For producing chocolate from cocoa, the right technology and expertise are lacking. Hence, the cooperative markets and processes cocoa beans as dried fruit, unheard of until now in Côte d'Ivoire. The idea is to increase awareness, demand and value for cocoa in the local market. ABOUd'CAO has brought together 40 female farmers to process and sell their cocoa and a wide range of innovative products, such as coated cocoa beans with different local flavors (lemon or ginger), cocoa-husk tea, and even seasoning made out of fermented cocoa juice – with medicinal properties and benefits. “That's how we created an own niche. Not only do we do not have competitors, we are also financially independent of the global market as we are only operating for the local market. In future, to transform more, we need to convince producers that local processing is profitable.”
The cocoa sector also needs some other convincing. Juliette wants women to follow their own path and become entrepreneurs. Like in many other parts of the world, tradition makes it hard for women to pave their way independently of men. “It is still very difficult for women. We feel lonely,” she says. That is why the enterprise is designed around and together with the women from her home village. With her support, the cooperative has introduced a wholly sustainable approach and innovation to the cocoa value chain. Not only are all parts of the cocoa pod processed for further consumption. The work is done by women and earning them leadership, respect, a living income and independence in a male-dominated business. The cooperative is empowering its female members to become key players in the value chain, proving that women can be responsible for their own success – and men’s. “With demand for raw cocoa on the international market sinking,” she concludes, “Other producers, including men, are asking us to buy their cocoa. We are not quite there yet, but as long as demand continues to grow and producers see that we can provide stable incomes, we are on the right track.”
Meet the cocoa cooperative
In 2019, journalists from Deutsche Welle visited and portrayed Juliette Kouassi and her cocoa cooperative in Côte d'Ivoire for the SEWOH Advisory Board's program "Meet the People driving rural transformation".
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