A Talk between Beyond the Chocolate and Lady Agri’s Hilary Barry

On international women’s day, Hilary Barry, Founder and Secretary General of LadyAgri Impact Investment Hub, celebrated LadyAgri’s partnership with the “Beyond Chocolate Initiative” which increases the resilience and independence of women in the cocoa value chain. Through Hilary Barry’s interview done for the occasion, discover the challenges women are facing within the cocoa value chain, as well as the huge opportunities that come with adopting a gender inclusive approach.

Hilary Barry, Secretary General of LadyAgri

What exactly is LadyAgri and what motivated you to found this organization?

From my different professional assignments over 20 years of working in Africa, Caribbean and Pacific, it became very clear to me that even the smallest investment in women has the most far reaching and sustainable impact. However, I also observed that despite women being the backbone of agri-value chains from ‘farm to fork’ or ‘bean to bar’ in the case of cocoa, their voice is often overheard in decision-making, they rarely hold leadership roles. Gender bias and often the invisibility of women in many agri value chains means they struggle to advance due to lack of access to the necessary tools, finance, and support systems.
On the 12th October 2018, my idea became reality and we launched LadyAgri with my two co-founders Ayélé Sikavi Gabiam, Togo and Aida Bakri, Ethiopian-Swiss. LadyAgri is not an ‘all woman’ group, on the contrary the strength of our association is in our diversity of gender, culture and skilled agri-trade, finance and gender smart impact expertise all dedicated to advancing women in agri-value chains.

What does gender empowerment mean to you?

Power is often associated with those who dominate and those who are dominated or taken advantage of. We need to be very careful when using the words ‘Gender Empowerment’ as it is not always appreciated by our women in African cocoa producing countries, as associated with western ‘ideals’ that do not respect the local community dynamics or culture.

“Empowerment is enabling women and their supporters, advocates, those in ‘her corner’ to access what they need to advance to reach their goals. I stress ‘their’ goals and not ours.”At LadyAgri we are careful with our vocabulary and try to downplay the jargon effect around women empowerment and feminism by putting the emphasis on ‘more action’ and ‘less words’. We firmly believe in creating a ‘rising tide’ by investing in the people, businesses and cooperatives who can serve as champions. By working with the influencers, on the ground networks and through our local LadyAgri experts we guarantee local buy in, appropriate solutions and activities with maximum social impact. We therefore focus our support on women and men who are ‘ChangeMakers’ and facilitate opportunities for other women in their agri-business and supply chains. Empowerment is enabling women and their supporters, advocates, those in ‘her corner’ to access what they need to advance to reach their goals. I stress ‘their’ goals and not ours.

What would you see as major business opportunities for women within the cocoa supply chain?

Honestly, I think women cocoa producers are the answer and positive ‘Game Changers’ we need to increase resilience throughout the cocoa supply chain. From firsthand experience in Cameroon, Togo, Nigeria, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, Nigeria and Uganda we see women are excellent cocoa producers and they are showing keen interest to take up the relay baton from aging male farmers. Women are powerful influencers against abusive child labor, as well as promoters of good forestry management as they bear the brunt of climate change and are the guardians of food security.

LadyAgri experts have contributed to the establishment of professional cocoa training, quality improvement, food safety and agribusiness support programs since 2012. Since 2018, we are tackling the hard issues of access to affordable finance for women who want to grow their farm production and agri-businesses. It is fascinating to see how women follow good agricultural practices to the letter, they understand the issue of quality of the finished product and take great pride in their production. Yet women’s access to training is limited. Only 17 to 20% of cocoa training participants are women. When given the opportunity to learn and access information and technology they understand the importance of safe pesticide use, promotion of organic fertilisers, compost, plant protection and the risks to human health if cocoa is not well fermented, dried, stored and transported and of course fully traceable from bean to bar.

Women are active throughout the cocoa supply chain right through to creating SME’s producing cocoa-chocolate products, cocoa butter cosmetics and medicinal products for the local and regional markets. Their businesses bring added value, create jobs, promoting the virtues of cocoa in all its different facets. They are the best cocoa Ambassadors I know.

How do you look at the efforts that are currently being made by cocoa companies regarding women empowerment? What is being handled well and what are points for improvement?

Indeed, I have followed many of the cocoa sustainability programs and attended the launch of the Women in Cocoa WINCC group at the World Cocoa Conference in 2016 in Dominican Republic. There have certainly been commendable efforts to support women’s access to microfinance, literacy, strengthening village savings groups to support micro-businesses as well as local processing technology and each of the companies CSR programs have brought results to their sourcing communities. The agri-corporate sustainability programs are often led by very committed women. However, the sustainability programs appear to operate in a silo, separate from the trading departments of the same companies. As systemic change is necessary to change the dial for women, breaking these silos would increase impact, and build a better business case for the companies to make better gender smart trade and investment decisions.
Women are not given the visibility they deserve for their direct contribution all along the different steps of cocoa production from good cocoa plantation management, cocoa nurseries, tree pruning, grafting, the fermentation and drying stages of cocoa. Women are often relegated to the position of ‘wives of cocoa producers’ and not fully fledged actors in the value chain. However, women are involved in 14 of the 17 stages of cocoa production yet absent at the ‘financial transaction stage’ therefore undervalued, invisible.

I often ask myself the question 'what is a woman’s return on investment’ for staying loyal to the cocoa buying community and working in the cocoa value chain year in year out. In cocoa season the whole family is mobilized, and all other activities are secondary priorities. Is cocoa production serving her and her community well? Is cocoa a ‘catalytic commodity’ bringing real change to where she lives: electricity, good primary and secondary schools, water, roads, community centers for youth, increased access to vocational training for her sons and daughters, a favorable eco-system for spin-off businesses around the cocoa cooperative where she is a member? It is up to the Cocoa value chain stakeholders to prove that this trade partnership is a ‘win win’ for women.

Women have a long-term vision on what their community and farms need to produce and function throughout the year, not just during the cocoa season. Their tenacity pushes them to produce complementary crops like plantain, cassava, fruit and veg, citrus fruits and cereals, poultry. When given the opportunity to access leadership positions they can influence the good governance and management practices within cocoa cooperatives pushing them beyond simple collection points for buyers. Women are the first to see the potential of the cocoa cooperative as a strong community pillar for rural development and advancement.  On an individual basis woman have great entrepreneurial flair spurring them to develop small businesses from the biproducts of cocoa and from other food crops which are complementary to cocoa and in high demand on the local and regional markets. Cocoa has so much potential to serve as a leverage for local community development but needs to be firmly integrated within a sustainable livelihood and food systems approach.

What can Beyond Chocolate, as a multi-stakeholder partnership, do to increase women empowerment?

The Beyond Chocolate Partnership can enable real dialogue and encourage pre-competitive initiatives amongst the actors in the chocolate value chain. Belgian chocolate is well reputed for its quality worldwide and part of Belgium’s positive global identity. With this reputation comes ethical responsibility not just at Belgian and European level but also to fully engage with the producing countries. This engagement should provide a platform so that the ‘voice’ of women is fully heard, bringing them visibility, involving them at the decision-making table for the ‘future’ of cocoa and chocolate.
In the post-COVID context, we have an opportunity to reshuffle the cards and put actions in place driven by the Beyond Chocolate partnership members to reach SDG5 Gender Equality. This is how we can build back better and promote cocoa as part of the solution not the problem.

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