Last week, key players in the cocoa industry came together at the first-ever World Cocoa Conference in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire. The Rainforest Alliance sent a delegation, including Christian Mensah, manager of sustainable landscapes in West Africa, Mercedes Tallo, international director of sustainable value chains, and Sarah Fadika Khanu, cocoa program associate. Here, Sarah shares a dispatch from the milestone event.
On November 17 I left London for Abidjan, a city known as the Perle des Lagunes (Pearl of the Lagoons), to attend the World Cocoa Conference. Even at the airport, I could feel the excitement surrounding the conference and the pride locals felt about hosting such a landmark event.
The World Cocoa Conference was an extraordinary occasion, bringing together an incredible array of important players in the cocoa industry including growers, traders, buyers, nonprofits and major chocolate manufacturers. Ivorians, who lead the world in the production and export of cocoa, hadn’t been this excited about cocoa since the “Ivorian Miracle” of the 1970s – 1980s, a time when favorable prices on the international cocoa markets fortuitously coincided with a stable political environment.
The whole country mobilized to host the conference, which they hoped would revive an economy in crisis — and a country in turmoil — since 2010. Held at the “Hotel Ivoire,” a fitting symbol of the country’s past glory, the World Cocoa Conference provided one of the industry’s greatest platforms since the 2008 International Cocoa Organisation (ICCO) conference in Trinidad and Tobago. Experts and industry representatives from around the world attended, and I was able to put faces to the names of many people with whom I’d corresponded over email.
For the people of Cote d’Ivoire, the conference provided an opportunity to discuss increasing cocoa productivity, addressing the difficult problem of child labor, improving the image of Ivorian cocoa and, most importantly, bettering the livelihood of cocoa farmers.
Increasingly, the perspectives of Ivorian authorities are coming in line with those of the global cocoa industry. Both are focused on rewarding good production practices and highlighting the importance of sustainability and certification. We all want to bring the cocoa sector beyond certification to conserve biodiversity, improve livelihoods and ensure ethical trading.
For the Rainforest Alliance team, the opportunity to build even more support for these principles arose on the second day of the conference. The panel on certification was the most highly attended and one of the most controversial. Against this background, Christian brilliantly demonstrated that the Rainforest Alliance certification program has always focused on achieving sustainability and working in the best interest of farmers, the environment and their communities.
He explained that the Rainforest Alliance is unique — especially when compared with other certification bodies — because we are so much more than a certification body. We have technical teams in agriculture, forestry, climate, education, and monitoring and evaluation that work at the field level.
The biggest sustainability challenges for the cocoa industry are in the areas of productivity improvement, yield increase, biodiversity protection and overall improvement of farmer’s livelihoods. Emotions ran high at the session when the audience heard from cocoa farmers, who expressed their disappointment about the current cocoa system in Cote d’Ivoire and explained how they felt cheated by the global market.
The conference highlighted the fact that farmers, their children and the protection of the environment must remain key priorities in the industry. We left feeling humbled yet optimistic about the future of our work in cocoa and the direction the industry is headed as a whole.