Young cocoa farmers in Central America aiming to lead Central America's cocoa sector

Young cocoa farmers in Central America aiming to lead Central America's cocoa sector

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Selene Casanova
Selene Casanova
International communications

Nayeli dreamt of participating in one of the training courses on cocoa production under agroforestry systems, organised every year at the CURLA university in Honduras. Since opportunities for young people to pursue a professional career in her community are few, she was over the moon when she found out last year that she could participate. In the course, she learned about so much more than good crop management. Find out how Rikolto and Colruyt Group through the Collibri Foundation became part of her dream.

"I was eager to be selected to participate in the diploma courses", says Nayeli, a 21-year-old cocoa farmer in the community of Rancho Grande in the northern region of Nicaragua.

Cocoa is the main source of income for her family, which is why she and 366 other producers have been involved with the farmers' organisation Ríos de Agua Viva, which has been commercialising cocoa, basic grains and honey for 16 years.

In Nicaragua, the effects of climate change are clear.

In 2020, when hurricanes Eta and Iota of category 4 hit the country in the same month, they caused losses in all sectors. In the cocoa sector, this resulted in a 50% decrease in production volume. In the same year, the price of cocoa on international markets increased by 45%.

A price increase that did not benefit Nayeli's family, who, like most small-scale farmers, suffer disproportionately from the social, economic and environmental inequalities that are now exacerbated by the climate crisis.

In order to change this situation and turn cocoa cultivation into an opportunity for rural youth, Rikolto developed a partnership in 2017 with the Belgian retailer Colruyt Group.

The initiative, in alliance with the Nicaraguan cocoa organisations La Campesina and Ríos de Agua Viva, and the cocoa producers' association of Olancho - APROSACAO - from Honduras, aimed to generate job opportunities for rural youth by motivating the adoption of innovative and sustainable cocoa production practices.

The organisations worked with two strategies:

  • to establish a contract for the supply of cocoa produced by young people,
  • and secondly, through the Collibri foundation to fund training courses to grow cocoa under agroforestry systems with young farmers.

Listen to this episode of Rikolto's podcast, in 7 minutes you will learn what agroforestry systems are all about, why their application in cocoa production could contribute to reducing the impact on the environment, and the effects suffered by cocoa-producing families due to climate change.

Play it now

Between 2017 and 2021, four cocoa agroforestry production systems courses were organised involving directly over 100 young cocoa farmers from four countries in Central America.

Due to Covid-19, Nayeli had to wait a whole year to attend the international youth exchange.

Finally, it was in October 2021 that her dream came true of joining the 30 young people from El Salvador, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Honduras gathered at CURLA, located in La Ceiba in the Caribbean region of Honduras.

Those of us who grow cocoa are often unaware of its value

"From the first day of the course, what surprised me the most was how important cocoa is globally. How many countries are recognised as chocolate producers without cultivating it? I thought it was a simple subject, but no...", says Nayeli.

During the three-week course, the participants learned about (1) the current situation and the botanical and agroecological value chain of cocoa, (2) cocoa genetics and propagation, (3) the design and establishment of improved cocoa agroforestry systems, (4) applied cocoa research in agroforestry systems, (5) farm management and cocoa marketing, and (6) handling, post-harvest and certification.

"In this fourth edition, we were concerned that the young people should have access to more diverse information about the sector, not only about field practice but also about the value of cocoa worldwide, to give them more perspectives on the business model,"

Lourdes Zamora Project coordinador of Rikolto in Honduras

Another highlight for Nayeli was to share with other young people from Central America, to get to know how they feel about the crop.

"When they talked about agroforestry systems, for example, I heard them express themselves as if they were talking about a beautiful garden".

A future-proof value chain means involving young farmers

Rikolto has been collaborating with Colruyt in the development of different value chains, applying inclusive business models around the world.

The common goal is to learn more about establishing value chains with long-term perspectives, sharing risks and generating value for everyone in the chain. And to nobody's surprise, creating opportunities and support for young people is the key to moving these changes forward!

"When we started the project in Nicaragua with ‘La Campesina’, for example, there were few young people interested in cocoa. It is a crop that takes four years to generate income, which is not attractive to young people. At the beginning of the contract, the cocoa came from farmers between 35 and 55 years old, and by the end of the project we were able to achieve close to 100 per cent cocoa from young producers," says Karen Janssen, sustainability manager of the Colruyt Group.

It is not easy to increase the number of young people cultivating cocoa, it is necessary to work together with the farmer organisation to improve the environment for the young people. Also, to provide the tools for them so that cocoa production can be profitable and sustainable.

Rikolto is doing this through projects integrating young people into the management of the cooperative, exploring with them the needed changes in mindset and governance of the cooperative, among other organisation-building activities.

And a supply chain where everyone knows each other is stronger

"In times of crisis, for example, when demand is high and food supply is low, there is a greater capacity to solve problems, and ultimately to resolve crises and make a better deal for everyone,"
Karen Janssen Sustainability manager of the Colruyt Group.

According to Karen Janssen, there are two ways in which companies can benefit from establishing an inclusive business.

First, sustainability barometers show that consumers in Belgium are increasingly considering the purchase of their products from a holistic point of view. That is to say, they are environmentally sustainable and socially responsible.

The second aspect that Karen mentions, considering the Covid-19 crisis, is that as long as the actors in the value chain know each other and there is more trust between them, the value chain becomes more resilient.

Last year Rikolto launched a project together with Colruyt in Ivory Coast that aimed at creating decent, fulfilling jobs and business opportunities for young people and women in the cocoa value chain in the cocoa-producing communities in the San-Pedro region.

Soon we will be hearing more experiences like Nayeli's, in the search for more learning to make more sustainable, resilient and inclusive value chains a reality.

Find out more about our partnership with Colruyt Group for more inclusive value chains