A Q&A with Deborah Osei-Mensah
The team at Fairtrade America sat down with Deborah Osei-Mensah, a registered cocoa farmer, livelihood development officer of Ghana’s Asunafo North Farmers Union, and leader of the union’s Monitoring and Evaluation team. Deborah opened up to us about her experiences as a cocoa farmer, getting involved with Fairtrade, contemporary and future challenges in cocoa farming, and her personal transformation as a mentor to other women farmers in her community.
Tell us about yourself and your story with Fairtrade.
I work with Asunafo Cocoa Cooperative in Ghana. We produce cocoa and have close to 10,000 cocoa farmers from 67 communities. I’m currently the Operations Manager in charge of child protection, gender and livelihood issues.
I love to travel and I’ve developed a passion for farming ever since I started working with the cooperative. About six years ago, I was looking for a job just like any graduate does. My first encounter with Fairtrade was in October 2016 when the cooperative was having their Standards trainings. I loved everything about the training because I realized this was an organization that gives so much power to the farmers to decide. I always talk about Fairtrade because I love the system. It gives so much respect to farmers and gives farmers a lot of empowerment. So that’s been my journey in progress that is still going on.
Tell us about your cocoa farm.
I have a 2.5 acre cocoa farm. On average, each acre has 430 trees of cocoa. In some ways, it’s more like a tree farm when it grows so much – it forms a canopy, so you can hardly see weeds or any other plants around. From October to January, that is what we call “major farming season” where the tree bears a lot of fruit.
In the major farming season, you wake up in the morning, you go to your farm, you harvest a tree, and you gather the pods. You break the pods and you scoop the beans out. Then we ferment them for about 7 days. From the fermenting stage, we bring the beans home to a drying mat. Then we dry – depending on the sun – between 5 and 7 days. And then we take it to sell.
How has Fairtrade impacted your community?
It’s impacted us a lot. Personally, it has transformed me. I used to be the shy type because of where I come from. It gives you the kind of confidence to tell your story.
For the community, years ago there wasn’t that much respect for farming. But now farmers feel proud. People see farming not just as any job, but as a business that they are investing in. A lot of this is because of the numerous trainings through Fairtrade – taking farmers through finance training and job training. It has changed our society by giving farmers that knowledge, so they are confident.
I can also talk about a lot of projects that have happened because of the Fairtrade Premium. In my community we have water through a mechanized borehole. We supported our school by building three classrooms for junior high. There are other communities close by that I know have a lot of projects like health centers, community centers, and education support.
My first fees for my master’s degree were paid by my cooperative. There are a ton of both physical and intellectual projects that the Fairtrade Premium helps to build.
Now we are seeing a difference. We are seeing farmers who love what they do. We are now seeing farmers who are doing extra activities and earning more income.Deborah Osei-Mensah
Tell us about what your study in school for your master’s degree:
I study the environment, water, and sustainability. I’m done with my classroom work and am working on my final project. The program is about looking at the impact that human interaction creates on the environment. We also look at prolonged sustainability. I chose that degree because of the work I am doing with Fairtrade. It’s helping me to model the way I talk to my farmers – giving me facts when talking to them about environmental impact, about the ways they extract water. It’s helped me understand a large overview of sustainability issues.
Tell us about your work as the Livelihood Officer of the Asunafo North Union? What does your day-to-day look like? What kind of challenges do you face at work?
As a livelihood officer I lead all training related to income generating activities. I also monitor farms to make sure that farmers are doing what they have been trained to do. I also look for opportunities for farmers in terms of marketing and improving their branding or packaging.
Most of our farming communities are very far from the cities. So, you give them their training at the community level, but sometimes they need to expand their market segment to larger areas, and then funding that becomes a bit of an issue.
Has Fairtrade changed the perception of farming/farm work in your community?
I think the perception has changed from when I was younger. Growing up I saw farming as non-profitable. My dad is a cocoa farmer. My mom farms food crops – she doesn’t do cash crops. She was a teacher as well. I realized it was very difficult for them to get some small things we needed for our house, but I always saw them working and producing a lot, especially my dad with his cocoa. So, I saw farming as not profitable.
But now we are seeing a difference. We are seeing farmers who love what they do. We are now seeing farmers who are doing extra activities and earning more income. I will not say they are getting a lot of profit, but I see them benefit more than what I used to see. So, there’s a lot of change. A lot of youths want to be farmers – not just ordinary farmers, but Fairtrade farmers.
Why is it so important that your community find ways to diversify your incomes? You’ve spoken about soap making before and how that skill allows you to diversify your income. Can you speak more to that? How did you become passionate about helping other women diversify their incomes with new skills?
One thing I see is that women have more expenses than men. People will not understand – but that is the truth. You see cocoa farmers with children in the house. The father leaves the house to go work on the farm. But the little things that a child needs at home – biscuits, clothes, shoes, and other things – they are all on women to pay for. So you realize at the end of the day, women have a lot more costs to incur than men.
Women farmers often need to hire more help with labor on the farm than men do. So, at the end of the day, a woman’s cost of production becomes higher than a man’s. And so, it’s necessary that women make additional income. Looking at the whole cocoa sector, the income women get just from cocoa is not enough to cater to the cost of production of the cocoa.
So, we look at supporting women. Once they have additional income generating activity, like soapmaking, they can take care of their labor costs. So, when you want to do something in the community, I always say, if you go through a woman, you get a lot of people benefiting from it. And women are good managers. They are ready to do a whole lot of activities to benefit society. If I have a society with 20 women, and 50 men – if I’m able to better the income of 10 women, I tell you, the entire society will change.
We are in it together. Because this world is just one. So, let’s all make sure that we contribute and make the future a very fair one.Deborah Osei-Mensah
What is the largest challenge your community faces today when it comes to the future of cocoa farming?
Sustainability – that is a major challenge. The sustainability of cocoa production can threaten food security. There’s an issue of living income – a huge gap. Some farmers are still struggling through the challenges to produce food. I know we will get to a time where they will no longer produce because they feel they can use their land for another business, or sell their land to a factory owner and get more profit for it. So, the sustainability of cocoa production becomes a problem because farmers aren’t earning enough from it.
And that translates into what their children see. So, if their children have a chance to choose their job, cocoa farming or any type of farming will be last on the last. That’s how it was for me. I never thought I would be in the farming system. I wanted to be a nurse. I knew that would give me a good salary to live a very good life and people would respect me. So once the income of farmers is a lot better, their children will also know that and move towards the agriculture sector.
Another big hurdle is climate change. Farmers are looking to grow new cocoa, new coffee, new tea trees. But the survival rate of these new trees is becoming threatened – it’s very hard to plant 100 saplings and get 80 from that in six months. The cost of production because of climate change is also becoming an issue. With all this, I see that a time is coming where food, chocolate, and coffee will become a little bit scarce if nothing is done now.
Are you noticing or experiencing ripple effects from things like wavering economies, the war in Ukraine and the financial impacts of climate change?
There’s been changes, especially during the pandemic. It was tough. The cost of production is high because the economy is not so good. The cost of all the materials needed for the farm is high – but the price of our cocoa remains the same. During the pandemic, the cost of regular household items went up, so the costs of living for a farmer became very high, even though they were earning the same income as before. So, it’s really affecting us. But of course, as Fairtrade farmers, we have the Fairtrade Premium to make sure we can wave off some of this heavy burden.
What do you think American companies need to do better to help support you and your community? How about Americans who love eating what you grow?
There are three things that I always say. Be fair. Practice fair. Make the future fair. If you’re not buying Fairtrade products, start being conscious about what you are consuming. Because of the Standards, we produce very good products. So, buy Fairtrade if you haven’t yet. If you’re already buying fairtrade – buy more.
For companies in the US, we all know that CO2 emissions from industry are causing a lot of climate change. If you want to do anything, make sure you are committed to supporting farmers to mitigate climate change. I want to say thank you to organizations like that are already in Fairtrade – you are doing really well.
I always say: we are in it together. Because this world is just one. So, let’s all make sure that we contribute and make the future a very fair one.