First Person

Cocoa farming and the power of one woman’s dream

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Photo: George Osodi for Panos / Oxfam America

In December, I traveled to southwestern Nigeria to talk with women cocoa farmers about their work and the conditions under which they grow the beans that become the chocolate so many of us here in the US crave—and sometimes pay plenty for. Someone’s got to be making a decent amount of money off those melt-in-your mouth truffles, don’t they?

Well, it’s not the women farmers, especially when you consider all the labor that’s required to nurture the cocoa trees, harvest the cocoa pods, extract the beans, and ferment and dry them for market. According to Oxfam’s research, less than 5 percent of the price of a typical chocolate bar goes back to cocoa farmers. And that makes me marvel even more at what women like Anna Iyiola, pictured above, are able to accomplish.

The portrait says a lot about her—the way she stands so strong, so sure. I admire the strength in her hands, the directness of her gaze. And I think about the answer she gave when I asked what she earns for a kilogram of beans:  320 Naira, or just more than $2.

“It isn’t at all a fair price,” said Iyiola.

She lives in Ayetoro-Ijesa, a small village that, until a few months ago, had no electricity and where there is no running water: People collect what they need to drink from a spring about a kilometer away.

Iyiola works on her own cocoa farm, about 1.5 acres in size. Her husband helped her get it going, but since then she has taken care of most of its operation—except for the hardest parts, like spraying to keep pests and fungus from attacking the trees and their pods. Her days are long, starting at 6 a.m. with household chores that include fetching water.

But cocoa farming and household responsibilities aren’t all that consume her time. Like many other Nigerians driven by an entrepreneurial spirit, Iyiola has more than one way of contributing to her family’s finances. She buys kola nuts and resells them at a local market that’s held weekly. Proceeds from that enterprise help fund operations on her cocoa farm.

But, perhaps, the greatest focus of her energy is her seven children and the future she is working hard to help them reach: all of them have graduated from, are in the middle of, or are waiting for admission to colleges and universities.

“My vision is to provide my children with an education so they can be empowered to be able to contribute to the progress of their own life,” said Iyiola.

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