Cocoa, coffee and the impact on PoP communities

Christopher Stanfill
Senior Director, Learning & Evaluation
August 6, 2019

Production of coffee and cocoa around the world is highly centralized in a handful of countries, which provide these valued commodities to high volume trade partners, primarily in North America and Europe. Given the climate needed to grow coffee and cocoa, agricultural hubs for these products are in tropical climates near the equator and exist within local economies that rely heavily on these crops. Moreover, growth regions within these countries are often categorized as some of the poorest and most vulnerable areas. With the combination of finite production limits, climate change, local economies that provide minimal support to farming communities and eroding effects of corruption in trade, families that produce coffee and cocoa are strained. Unfortunately, this strain ends up impacting primary school students, and directly impacts the communities where Pencils of Promise (PoP) operates.

That said, within the depths of challenges that come with the demands of these particular markets, communities remain resilient and actively pursue solutions that will yield financial support for families, while ensuring that all family members, especially children, are protected and cared for. PoP’s broad level of support for partner communities is committed to this outlook, as access to a quality education serves as the foundation for enabling children to reach their full potential and grow to be supporters and advocates of their own communities.

Ghana is the world’s second highest producer of cocoa, accounting for just under a sixth of the country’s GDP and Guatemala is the 10th highest producer of coffee, at 204,000 metric tons in 2016. While Laos is not at the same level of production as Ghana and Guatemala, the country has a growing coffee market with an estimated output of nearly 140,000 metric tons in 2018. PoP supports schools that are in the heart of cocoa and coffee growing regions of Ghana and Guatemala, respectively, and the agricultural demands of these communities must always be kept in mind when implementing successful programs.

Cocoa in Ghana

More than 40% of the world’s cocoa is produced in Ghana’s western neighbor: Côte d’Ivoire. Due to a highly regulated trade market, a depreciating currency and stabilized product price in Ghana, cocoa produced in the country is often smuggled into Côte d’Ivoire as purchasing price there is upwards of 50% more in value. This black market trading system places already strained farming communities at high risk and puts people in danger. The market demands create an evergrowing problem with child labor in cocoa producing communities. As the Cocoa Barometer outlines in the most recent report, child labor on cocoa farms is viewed as an “economic necessity” by parents in order to maintain production demands and generate enough income to sustain basic needs.

Photo description: A young person in Ghana carries a large container of cracked cocoa pods, with thousands of cocoa pods present in the background.
Photo credit: (24 June 2019)

Edwin Asare, PoP’s Learning & Evaluation (L&E) Manager in Ghana, shared his personal perspective on the topic and said, “In Ghana, it is expensive for parents to hire laborers to work on their farms and thus, they resort to using their children: it is also for this reason why parents in cocoa farming communities tend to have many children so that they increase the labor force within the family. This phenomenon predates many years and most parents who are culprits see nothing wrong with it, since they maintain that it is a form of training for children.” Asare adds that positive efforts are being made within Ghana to create policies that eliminate child labor and incentivize parents to keep their children off of the farms. What is being promoted to generate change? Education.

Yet, challenges remain even with an understanding that keeping students in school yields a reduction in child labor. “Few classrooms are being constructed, and even if some are built, they tend to lack basic things like furniture. Additionally, teachers tend to decline postings to cocoa growing communities, because they are not easily accessible due to the terrible nature of the roads,” says Asare. These are challenges that PoP is actively overcoming through the development of safe and healthy learning environments, full of well-trained and supported teachers, in cocoa producing communities throughout the Volta, Oti and Eastern regions of Ghana. Teachers in PoP supported schools hold a 90% attendance rate and these schools are provided with quality resources, such as e-readers, paper books, desks, teaching materials, handwashing stations and private bathrooms, all of which create an optimal environment for children to succeed in the classroom.

Coffee in Guatemala

Coffee production was introduced to Guatemala in the mid-19th century through Spanish colonization as a means to provide an export that replaced the declining indigo market (Guatemala’s primary export in prior decades) and in the early 21st century, Guatemala was the largest producer of coffee in Central America. As colonizers overtook the land of Mayan communities to plant coffee trees, indigenous people were forced to work these new coffee plantations, and the remnants of colonization have had a lasting impact. Regions of Guatemala that are dense with Mayan communities continue to be the primary production areas for coffee throughout the country and the majority of families in these communities rely on coffee trade as their primary source of income.

Photo description: A young person in Guatemala kneels down to water a small coffee tree using a plastic bottle.
Photo credit: The Toronto Star (12 June 2017)

Vivi Perez, PoP’s L&E Manager in Guatemala and former Executive Director of Federación Comercializadora de Café Especial de Guatemala (FECCEG), a cooperative that represents nearly 2,000 coffee farmers in the Western Highlands of Guatemala, explains, “[The reliance on coffee trade as income for families] means that all family members have to get involved in the work. Therefore, in order to involve every member of the family, children do not enroll in school, drop off, and/or do not attend classes for an extended period of time. In my experience, the last two scenarios happen the most. The beginning and end of harvest time depends on the region; some might start in July and others in September. Whenever it starts, most harvesting happens during the school year (January – September).” Perez goes on to explain that there are several entities and systems in place to eradicate child labor in these communities an get students in the classroom.

One program is the the Fairtrade Certification, which promotes higher incomes for families and places significant penalties on use of child labor. “The way this works is if a producer or seller is certified, then the price of the coffee is higher than the price set in the market. This allows a higher income for families that can be invested in production or family needs. In order for a producer or seller to be certified, they have to meet different requirements. One of them is having and implementing a policy against child labor,” explains Perez. PoP’s mission to provide high-quality learning environments for primary students compliments the efforts of child labor reduction programs, such as the Fairtrade Certification, through the establishment of safe and energetic schools where students can thrive and feel supported.

Photo description: A group of students participate in an activity inside a PoP built classroom in Guatemala.
Photo credit: Nick Onken

Going beyond the classroom

PoP’s commitment to partner communities is embodied within the schools, teachers and students supported, though the impact of PoP’s work goes far beyond the four walls of a classroom. The teachers PoP supports and the students that benefit from a high-quality learning environment generate institutional change within communities and draw more and more attention to the benefits of early education. PoP has always recognized that the global issues and challenges that go beyond education have influence on decisions made within communities. With this recognition comes the understanding that all of the world’s problems cannot be solved at once. However, there is a resounding belief that the strong walls of a classroom, the solid roof on a school, the committed teacher in front of the classroom and the supported and encouraged student all serve as the foundation for a hopeful future.

Photo description: A group of young students participate in an activity inside a PoP supported classroom in Ghana.
Photo credit: Timmy Shivers

It is not within PoP’s mission to eradicate child labor or create fair trade practices in the coffee and cocoa industries. But it is in PoP’s mission to serve and create a global community that is committed to expanding access to a quality education. Education is the answer to lasting change and PoP is providing a space for children in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos to reach their full potential.