Cocoa and the global goals: accelerating women’s empowerment

Ulrike Joras Food & livelihoods, General, Private sector, Women's Economic Empowerment

How can business build gender equality into supply chains? Oxfam’s Ulrike Joras and Gaël Lescornec of the World Cocoa Foundation, share lessons from the cocoa industry and introduce a new shared initiative.

From South Africa to Somalia, we have both spent over a decade working on issues related to poverty and inequality. While this work has often generated more questions than answers, we have undeniably learned at least one thing: gender equality unlocks sustainable development. We can only achieve all 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if gender equality – captured under SDG5 – is an integral part of every one of the SDGs.

One of the questions we have been asking ourselves in our current positions is how can business facilitate gender equality in their supply chains? At both the World Cocoa Foundation (WCF) and Oxfam, we focus on this question because it is a development priority, a question of justice and a business imperative.

Why is gender equality in supply chains a business imperative?

Investing in gender equality makes business sense. In addition, there are roles that companies can play in achieving gender equality which other actors cannot (WCF Women’s Empowerment Research Analysis, 2017). Women play a critical role in contributing to livelihoods and vibrant communities, which often form the foundation for sustainable business practices. This is particularly true in rural West Africa, where women are responsible for 80% of the labour associated with food production and are more likely to reinvest household income in expenses related to education, health and food security. The income from selling food crops is vital for improved livelihoods and can help address critical issues like child labour. Families with higher incomes are less dependent on work performed by children and are able to invest more in education.

closing the gender gap among cocoa producers can generate significantly higher yields and improve the quality of cocoa beans because women are involved in almost all stages of cocoa production
It has also been argued that closing the gender gap among cocoa producers can generate significantly higher yields and improve the quality of cocoa beans because women are involved in almost all stages of cocoa production (World Bank, 2012). This is particularly important in the male-dominated cocoa supply chain in West Africa, where 70% of the world’s supply of cocoa is produced. While women provide an estimated 50% of the labour force, they represent only about 5% of farmer cooperative members. It is not surprising that the African Development Bank has identified cocoa as one of three top exports that provide concrete opportunities for improving women’s economic empowerment across the continent.

What is the cocoa industry doing?

Food crop diversification

Under WCF’s Cocoa and Livelihoods Program (CLP), an estimated 200,000 smallholder farmers in West Africa have benefited from training and services to improve food crop diversification and generate alternative income by women. An important resource consolidating learnings from this experience is the Gender and Cocoa Livelihoods Toolbox developed by WCF in collaboration with KIT.


Several companies are providing microfinance opportunities to women in cocoa producing communities through Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLAs). These allow women to come together to generate small loans to start or strengthen their income generating activities. An important element of VSLAs is the opportunity to facilitate women’s access to banking services. Learnings from this experience are best captured in the PROCOCO case study, a joint project between CARE and Cargill.


Cocoa and chocolate companies support activities providing women with literacy and business skills in cooperatives and communities. An example of this is the collaboration between Solidaridad and Touton’s Rural Service Centers in Ghana that has created entrepreneurship opportunities, providing extension services to farmers, including young men and women in cocoa growing communities.

Building deeper impact and scale

To foster more transformational change and empower women in cocoa producing communities we need to bring together government, industry and civil society to work together on the systemic barriers to gender equality. This includes addressing: (i) the fact that women often lack available time as they usually juggle multiple responsibilities; (ii) the very weak representation of women in available data and in formal agricultural institutions; and (iii) the barriers women face gaining access to resources and finance.

This is the philosophy behind the new System Innovation for Women’s Economic Empowerment (SIWEE) initiative convened by Oxfam in partnership with WCF and its members. SIWEE is setting up action-focused ‘laboratories’ that bring stakeholders together to jointly explore interventions that tackle structural barriers. The first lab will be established in Ghana this year with an initial focus on improving access to finance and strengthening alternative income generating activities.

Achieving SDG5 requires stronger and broader partnerships like SIWEE. But we also need to use global advocacy platforms such as the UN High Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment – made up of leaders from different constituencies including the business community – to lead the way in closing the gender gap. We should also use existing platforms specific to the cocoa sector, including WCF’s Global Conference on Women in Cocoa (GloCo) and the Women in Cocoa and Chocolate Network (WINCC), to create the opportunities needed to transform the cocoa supply chain into a gender equitable one.

Women’s empowerment is a business imperative, not only for international and local companies, but also for the thousands of potentially thriving smallholder family businesses led by women and men in cocoa farming communities.

Read more about Oxfam’s work on women’s economic empowerment

Amy Hill


Chloe Safier