Nearly three-quarters of the world’s 4 million metric ton annual cocoa bean crop is grown in West Africa, where farmers often must overcome challenges accessing clean water, health services and even education as they struggle to eek out livings on small parcels of land (the average cocoa farm is just under 5 acres, or about 2 city blocks).
Olam, which is the world’s largest buyer of cocoa beans, is building a network to help improve the lives of these farmers directly, by improving and supporting productivity and sustainability. The solution depends, in large part, on using technology to connect with them.
“These farmers often keep records with pencil and paper, or maybe on an Excel spreadsheet.”
“That keeps them isolated, not only from us and from one another, but also from the insights their collective needs and experiences might yield,”explained Simon Brayn-Smith, who leads the Olam Farmer Information System, or “OFIS,” as Commercial Director for Cocoa Sustainability.
Launched in 2014, OFIS relies on capturing that farmer data onto smartphones via an app, assisted by purpose-built questionnaires to capture unique environmental and behavioral attributes, such as geography and level of farming experience. Since a lot of remote areas in Africa are without mobile coverage, the app collects data offline until it can access a network.
When this information is correlated with Olam’s records, which can include fertilizer and other purchases in addition to yield and sales data, an individual farm development plan can be prepared by an automated system that can generate or update 30,000 plans in an instant.
“We can give farmers personalized recommendations on variables like fertilizer and pesticide use, and new seedlings rate, along with the related cost models, so they can make more informed decisions,” Brayn-Smith said, noting that correlating productivity with other seemingly unrelated attributes, like bank accounts, can help Olam identify needs for more training.
Aggregating the data then yields multiple levels of actionable insights.
For instance, OFIS has a mapping function that lets Olam plot all of the farms in an area. A Distance Risk Map allows Olam to pinpoint key inflection points for social infrastructure needs, such as health centers or schools, thereby enabling the company and its customer partners to make social investments based on solid data. These findings can also be shared at a pre-competitive level with CocoaAction, an industry wide initiative working to improve the lives of cocoa farmers.
“One of the challenges of sustainability programs is that you get well-intentioned people throwing money at an issue.”
“OFIS lets us see the actual impact of those interventions on the metrics of farm performance, which can then prove efficacy or suggest changes,” Brayn-Smith said.
Outside of OFIS, Olam has an initiative underway to study the yield performance of sustainable vs. non-sustainable farms, and inaugurated a program in Ghana in 2012 to study the effects of climate change on farmers (through which it hopes to make ongoing recommendations to support a concept it calls “climate smart cocoa”).
Supply is the ultimate challenge to the cocoa industry, both in terms of product and people.
Olam sees the potential for as much as 3x yield improvements in average small farm productivity, which will be necessary to help meet a consistently growing global demand for chocolate. Yet the average West African cocoa farmer is over 50 years old, and the next generation is far less interested in assuming the strenuous duties and considerable risk of farming.
“We hope that what we’re doing on productivity and social infrastructure will encourage people to continue farming, as well as do so sustainably,” Brayn-Smith added.