Sweet, But Bitter: A Foundation Puts Up a Fortune to Help Poor Cocoa Farmers

The first cocoa product bearing the fair trade stamp made its debut over 20 years ago. While the fair trade movement has helped to secure increased wages, fair labor standards, and economic growth in cocoa-producing regions, problems such as a poverty and a lack of education persist—especially in large cocoa-producing regions like Ivory Coast.

Cocoa beans are Ivory Coast’s largest export and the country supplies over one-third of the world’s cocoa. Remember that next time you eat a chocolate bar. And think about this, too: 800,000 smallholder cocoa farmers in the Ivory Coast are illiterate and live on less than $0.50 a day. What’s more, in rural areas, 45 percent of children ages six to 12 and over 60 percent of young people ages 15 to 24 have failed to complete elementary school.  

It’s an unfortunate truth that many farming families must rely on the entire family to make ends meet. This often means children must forgo their education so their families can eat and keep a roof over their heads. Not to state the obvious, but this common practice does nothing to help improve literacy rates or promote education in Ivory Coast.

Enter the Jacobs Foundation, which has a problem with the grim underbelly of the cocoa industry and is stating unequivocally that there can be “no sustainability without education.” Jacobs recently backed that battle cry with a seven-year, $52 million pledge to improve the living conditions of Ivorian cocoa farmers and their families.

Never heard of this foundation? Don't worry, we hadn't eitherprobably because it's based in Switzerland. But the Jacobs Foundation recently celebrated its 25-year anniversary, and during that time, has awarded over $565 million in grants. Annually, the foundation dedicates around $38 million to its programs and grantmaking. The fortune behind the company has roots in the coffee and cocoa industry, in case you're wondering why it has zeroed in on this particular niche of global development. 

The foundation’s multi-million dollar pledge will help to launch the Transforming Education in Cocoa Communities (TRECC) initiative. TRECC will work in cooperation the CocoaAction, an industry-wide platform that was created by cocoa industry leaders and coordinated by the World Cocoa Foundation.

The TRECC initiative is a Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action and is currently set to run for seven years, beginning in June 2015. The initiative will focus on four areas: research, local capacity building, educational projects, and the use of innovative financial tools. CocoaAction will also provide access to better cocoa plants and fertilizers for an estimated 300,000 cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana.

By the time TRECC ends in 2022, the foundation is hoping to improve the living conditions of over 200,000 children and young people, while doing the same for an estimated 10,000 women. Over the long term, Jacobs is hoping to ensure that rural vory Coast communities have access to high-quality education on a permanent basis.

Promoting education and improving livelihoods are a big deal at the Jacobs Foundation, especially when it comes to children and young people. And this is a foundation that goes deep in that regard.

Last year, the Jacobs Foundation dedicated over 60 percent of its annual grantmaking to its Research Funding program. This money isn’t necessarily dedicated to big data, but rather on the notion that “To be able to effectively and sustainably support children and young people, we must understand how they develop.”

Toward gaining that understanding, Jacobs supports a number of academic, social, and scientific disciplines, including psychology, political sciences, economics, family studies, genetics, neurosciences and education.

But back to the foundation's big push to help those cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast. It's the latest in a lot of interesting efforts underway right now to help African farmers, who rank among the poorest people on the planet.