On Ghana’s cocoa farms, Fairtrade is not yet working for women

(This blog was oringially posted at – The Guardian)

By Roy Maconachie

Fairtrade Fortnight brings us some inspirational images of smiling farmers in Africa. Smiling female farmers. But although European cocoa consumption contributes €9.8m (£7.6m) to the Fairtrade premium received by farmers, women are yet to reap the rewards.


A woman in Ghana lights a fire for cooking while carrying a child on her back. Women’s demands can limit their participation in farming cash crops. Photograph by Roy Maconachie/University of Bath.

In recent years, ethical consumption and production initiatives implemented under the Fairtrade umbrella have become increasingly significant in the export and marketing of agricultural products in sub-Saharan Africa.

Although Fairtrade has been instrumental in empowering many farmers who are vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations and the social and environmental problems exacerbated by conventional global markets, recent critiques have raised important questions about the different impacts of certification practices in producer communities.

Follow this link to view a short film on ‘Gender and Fairtrade – The stories of women cocoa farmers in Ghana’.

Although women carry out an estimated 70% of agricultural work in sub-Saharan Africa, only 24% of the farmers in Fairtrade-certified small producer organisations are women. It is these very small-scale farming operations that produce cocoa.

Focusing on Ghana, the world’s second largest cocoa producer, we explored the lives of women engaged in Fairtrade cocoa production. Although Fairtrade certification initiatives were not initially designed to address gender inequality, or the specific concerns that women face in cocoa production, gender equity has now become one of the key principles of Fairtrade.

Yet in Ghana, our research suggests that social norms and the gendered division of labour in agriculture are not fully acknowledged constraints on women’s ability to participate in Fairtrade. Although a co-operative cannot be certified if its membership criteria is discriminatory, cultural barriers constrain women’s ability not only to participate in such co-operatives, but also to benefit from Fairtrade to the same extent as men.

Land is predominantly owned and inherited by men, and access to farmland can often be challenging for women. Co-operatives may require their members to own the land they farm. Although this may not be overtly discriminatory, it could be so in effect. For the poorest women who are landless and without support, Fairtrade certification may be unobtainable.

Perhaps more significantly, women bear a disproportionate work burden that can result in “time poverty”. Women in rural areas in particular are caught up in what has been referred to as a “triple work burden” across productive, reproductive and social spheres. Not only are rural women responsible for time- and labour-intensive domestic activities – including collecting and carrying firewood and water (often for long distances), food preparation, cleaning and washing clothes – but they must also simultaneously look after their children and work on their farms. In the poorest households where there is very limited access to assets or additional labour, a woman’s time poverty can have a considerable impact on the entire family, having implications for nutrition and health.

Cocoa production involves many different farming activities, some of which are arduous, and many of which involve heavy physical work. Women must undertake this workload on top of their other burdens. Fairtrade’s demand that there must be no child labour on the farms means that it falls upon the women to undertake tasks previously carried out by children.

While there is now a realisation that gender parity in the governance structures of farming associations is important to address the unequal playing field that women face, to actively participate in leadership roles requires time, which many women do not have. Consequently, decisions on how to use Fairtrade premiums, or which projects should be funded within Fairtrade development plans (pdf), which all co-operatives are required to come up with, are unlikely to be made with the participation of women.

Cocoa farming in Ghana is undertaken in a context of extreme poverty and those farmers who are members of Fairtrade co-operatives are luckier than most. But without explicitly recognising the unequal nature of cultural norms, which in many cases exclude women from truly benefiting from certified operations, Fairtrade is failing to reach out to those who are most disadvantaged.

Dr Roy Maconachie is senior lecturer in international development at the University of Bath and Dr Elizabeth Fortin is senior research associate at the University of Bristol

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