The Age Question … Again

I’ve written before about the aging population of cocoa farmers, particularly in Africa where most cocoa is grown. The farmers I met in Ghana all told me that young people rather go to the cities than stay on the cocoa farm. Now a report from Nigeria’s Oyo State confirms this impression.

Oyo State lies in Western Nigeria

Oyo State lies in Western Nigeria

The farmers interviewed for the article sound just like the typical cranky old men everywhere who complain about today’s youth–they are not interested, they want fast money, they don’t want to work hard.

All that is probably true. But some larger factors come into play as well:

Yes, cocoa farming is hard work with little long-term  or even medium term assurance that the hard work will pay off. Maybe the problem is not avoidance of hard work per se, but wanting some assurances that the hard work will pay off. The old men probably got started when cocoa paid much better than today and decided to stick it out when the conditions changed.

Second, the most productive cocoa farms are usually situated far from population centers. That has to do with the fact that cocoa farmers have long sought fresh forest land for their new farms. The more recent (and more productive ones) are therefore quite far afield. The corresponding reduction of social and technological infrastructure makes is hard for young people to want to stay. Without access to mobile phone networks, the Internet and other aspects of modern culture, it is difficult to say informed–not just about the latest gossip or music videos but also the market conditions for cocoa.

Sophi Tranchell, the Managing Director of Divine Chocolate, told me during an interview that she considers decent technological infrastructure an important ingredient for making cocoa farming a sustainable profession for the future.

Third, access to land. The villagers in Boakyeasua told me that there was little land available for young farmers seeking to establish themselves as cocoa farmers. I don’t know what the land situation is in Oyo State, but if it is similar to that in Ghana, then generational change won’t come until the parents are unable to work their farms anymore.

The cocoa farmers in the Toledo District of Belize don’t have that problem. Young farmers there are serious about cocoa farming. Cocoa is a new crop and fair trade has allowed them to manage some of the risks.

In the end, it’s all about incentive structures. The cranky old men in Oyo State might take that into consideration. I suspect they know all that, but having grown to a ripe old age, being cranky is one of their prerogatives.

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