A special thank you to Kaity Smoot. She is my first guest post in a new series, Around the World. Kaity is a close family friend and it has been a privilege watching her grow up and become the woman she is today. I am always fascinated to see where she will land next in her travels to help make this world a better place to live.
I grew up in Richmond, VA and because of my mom’s close friendship with Jamie, I often babysat her (at the time,five) children. Now I am a specialist in agricultural economic development and for the past six months I have been working with the World Agroforestry Center on a project in Côte d`Ivoire, in West Africa. The project seeks to increase cocoa yields in the region, and my particular job is to analyze the market for the products of certain trees which can be intercropped with cocoa, since such integrated sytems are more ecologically sustainable. For this research I have conducted a number of focus group meetings and have implemented a survey of 400 cocoa farmers plus 100 sellers, transporters, processors, and consumers.
I live and work in the town of Soubré. This little-known town is the capital of the world’s top cocoa producing region. The small family-run cocoa farms in the region thus form the basis of the world chocolate industry. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the profits earned in the chocolate industry trickle back to the farmers in this area, and throughout the cocoa belt of West Africa, which as a whole accounts for 70% of global cocoa production.
That is not to say that the region is completely impoverished. In fact, during my stay in Côte d`Ivoire I have been struck by the richness of the country, in terms of natural resources, community connections and values, human knowledge and initiative, and even availability of some modern ammenities. In fact, there are many aspects of life which I prefer here when compared to the U.S., namely that is it much easier to be connected to the environment and to others in the community. Because of the prevalent stereotypes which portray Africa as a continent plagued by persistent war, famine, poverty, and disease, I want to focus on sharing some of my observations which debunk these myths, at least with regard to this particular area of Africa.
The Sassandra river which flows through Soubré supplies fresh fish and lobster which can be purchased in the local market for just a few dollars a kilo. Locally produced cassava, plantains, peanuts, palm oil, fruits, vegetables, free-range (by default) chicken, and much more are abundant in the bustling local market. The water system is good enough here that I have no problem drinking unfiltered, unboiled tap water. This is an improvement over the water systems in many other, more “developed“ places that I have visited, including Lebanon, Russia, and even Davis, California.
Extended families of cousins, in-laws, and family friends live, cook, and eat together and support one another. Young children play soccer in the streets without fear for their security. In the smaller villages it is common for women of the same ethnic group to form a cooperative to do work together, alternately planting and harvesting in each member`s fields, or pooling their collective palm production to make oil and soap.
The entrepreneurial spirit here is astounding : nearly every household is engaged in multiple activities, from cocoa farming to selling cell phone credit and styling hair. Nearly every person in the country speaks at least three languages. My co-workers in the ICRAF Soubré office (all Ivoirian) are incredibly knowledable and dedicated, working an average 50-60 hours per week. I also really admire the internship system that is common in the country. Every university student is assisted in finding an internship with an organization or business that relates to their area of speciality, and they write a thesis which provides useful, applied information to their host organization.
By emphasizing the positive characteristics of the region I do not mean to downplay the negative. The rural road system here is terrible, with hundreds of dirt paths that become almost impracticable in the rainy season. More work needs to be done to spread health clinics, water pumps, electricity, and schools to the most isolated villages. But in general, I have seen more assets and opportunities than needs and deficiencies, which gives me great hope for the future development of the region.