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FCCI Cacao Academy concept note: Collaborative digital cacao farmer peer-training

This is the first in an occasional series of blog posts on collaborative digital cacao farmer peer-training by FCCI Senior Advisor Alyssa Jade McDonald-Baertl, in collaboration with Executive Director Carla D. Martin, PhD. To follow along with development of the FCCI Cacao Academy project, please join our weekly livestream conversations broadcast via Facebook and subscribe to our monthly e-newsletter.

The Challenge

Cocoa farmer training is often communicated in industry media and conferences, as well as in company communications as large projects that aim to ‘help’ farmers. Despite many claims and millions of dollars investment in farmer training, smallholder yields and living standards have not significantly improved for cocoa farmers around the world. There is a gap between market communications about cocoa farmer training and proof of effectiveness.

In 2019 an evidence assessment examined the effectiveness of cocoa farmer training (knowledge transfer and new practice adoption) and what multifactorial impacts; household health, wealth, farm ecology and productivity exist. The Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses framework (1) (PRISMA) and the QATSDD (2) were used to review the quantitative and qualitative research on to identify effectiveness of cocoa farmer training from 2014-2019 were searched and independently reviewed for selection, extraction, and results from West Africa, Oceania and South America. From a base of over 700, 53 studies were identified and analyzed and found that there is little reliable evidence that current cocoa farmer training is effective regarding knowledge transfer and new practice adoption.

Regarding evidence of training methods; modality of training (e.g. farmer field school or traveling teacher) and length of training, organisations involved, and content was under reported. It has not been possible to benchmark or assess these aspects in cocoa farmer training. It was clear though, that the largest barrier to farmers implementing new practices was access to financial resources, inputs and materials. Knowledge transfer, in the case of cocoa farmer training, is not the only measure of effectiveness without implementation for impact.

There is also significant evidence of multifactorial impacts from farming household health, wealth and ecology occurring concurrently on productivity. Health and food security (access, availability, nutrition) followed by chemical safety and water/sanitation were key impediments to farmer’s ability to live well, and thus work well. Living wage in terms of positive contributions from either farm diversity (plant species and revenue stream) and farmer professionalism were highlighted as key factors regarding farmer wealth, while productivity in the research focused on challenges with plant pest and disease control, land management and professional farming practices. Currently, there are barely any training programs which cover this broad range of topics.

The Complexity

Due to COVID-19, social distancing has meant that farmer training in field schools and cooperatives have functionally stopped. An FCCI poll found that, of 159 responding cocoa production and trade operations, 80% were limiting gatherings of large groups of people, 74% were limiting non-essential visits and travel, 70% were changing in-person meetings to virtual where possible, and 67% were rescheduling or cancelling events or meetings/trainings. Respondents also reported an acute need to continue training for public health purposes: 86% were educating workers about hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette and 50% were changing processes to reduce risk of exposure.

While the case is severe currently, disruption to agricultural extension support and training occurs regularly due to natural environmental disaster, political upheaval or some other community or family challenge. Relying on market-driven (donations from chocolate companies), certification-driven, or government supplied training is not reliable for fundamental productivity and livelihood skills that rural and remote farmers need. This is true for the 4+ million farmers around the world.

The opportunity

Strengths exist for effective knowledge transfer and new practice adoption:

  1. Simple skills transfer easily: Simple skills are effectively transferred through peer-learning (3), farmers learn from other farmers (4) (5) and personal engagement increases knowledge in low-resource agri-locations (6). One of the big reasons farmer’s don’t follow through with new knowledge or innovations is that they lack the resources to implement (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17) (18)  (19) (20) (21) (22) (23) (24) (25), so the knowledge needs to be mapped to the situation and capacity

  2. Self-directed learning is effective: Farmers choose their own learning topic (26) (e.g. a menu of training ideas) and then write their own action plan based on the new practice (27) (28) and understand it in the context of their own land / situation (29)

  3. Motivation is vital: Farmers need to believe the training will help them (30) and receive follow up information / reminders (31) (10). Encouraging farmers to learn a new idea, and take a ‘experimental approach’ to trying it out was also more effective than just ‘learn and do’ (32) (33) (34) so the skillset of designing an experiment and testing a hypothesis was part of the training to understand the logic around crafting curiosity around new practices

  4. Connecting with all farmers: Training places have been offered to name-holders on land titles, or ‘heads of families’; however more members of an extended family can benefit from multifactorial training such as women and young adults (16).  When women are invited to participate in farmer training, there are barriers to preventing them from being able to attend the whole training, due to home-duties which are often prioritised over their learning (15) (20). Besides women being a potentially beneficial target group, late teens and young adults can benefit from more accessible training in cacao farming to both involve them in the local business, or start upskilling for succession management. Thus offering training to a ‘household’ could benefit more than the primary farmer.

Digital communications suggests an opportunity to leverage farmer connection, inherent skill sets in certain regions and a peer-led learning platform. Indeed, the UN FAO initiated investigation into digital farmer field schools in December 2019 (87) as a potential avenue to explore.

  1. Information sharing among farmers with radio and cell phones could be leveraged for spreading new ideas (or farming practices) (17), and also supporting related-skills sets such as health (35)

  2. Wageningen study goes here. (36)

  3. Farmers who receive training have said they like topics that are directly relevant to them, and have a greater volume of sessions and follow up / refreshment training and reminders via simple reading materials, or posters with key messages (37). With digital tools, such repeatability and reinforcement of key learning objectives and methods can be easily scaled.

The idea

Collaborative digital cacao farmer peer-training:

  1. Diversity of topics: Digital methods enable a huge variety of topics to be delivered, and does not rely on the existence of specialist knowledge in a certain area. If cacao farming is directly impacted by a variety of health, wealth, environmental and productivity-related challenges, then a platform needs to be as diverse as their needs.

  2. Better metrics: Digital tools enable benchmarking before a learning program begins, so true assessment of needs and wants are identified, before a potential curriculum is decided. This should be participatory, involving farmers themselves who share knowledge of their challenges, participate in the identification of potential solutions, and choose for themselves which intervention to learn and try.


Information overload can cause burnout of learning (13) (15), the relationship of new information to traditional wisdom (38) can sometimes conflict and the negative influence of colleagues and peers (39) can also be destructive. Digital training methods could leave out farmers who do not have access due to media literacy or finances to access digital tools; thus encouraging receiving farmers to diffuse the knowledge within their community would be key.


Carla D. Martin, PhD, is the Founder and Executive Director of the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute and a Lecturer in the Department of African and African American Studies at Harvard University. Carla is a social anthropologist whose current research focuses on ethics, quality, and politics in cacao and chocolate and draws on several years of domestic and international ethnographic experience. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Transition Magazine, Social Dynamics, The Root, 25 Magazine, US History Scene, Sodade Magazine,, and edited volumes. She lectures widely and has taught extensively in African and African American Studies, critical food studies, social anthropology, and ethnomusicology, and has received numerous awards in recognition of excellence in teaching and research, including The Harvard Crimson’s Professor of the Year. Since 2016, she has co-led the training of over 500 specialty cacao and chocolate industry professionals in 14 different countries through FCCI’s Cacao Grader Intensive course. Find her online at LinkedIn and @carladmartin.

Alyssa Jade McDonald-Baertl is a third generation farmer from Papua New Guinea, who built a German social enterprise in Ecuador in 2009 to farm cacao and produce chocolate bars for Europe. While the tree to table worked, it became very clear to her that the world didn’t need another chocolate bar, but rather contributions at the most vulnerable aspect of chocolate, farmer households. The organization evolved into a social enterprise providing education on cacao farmer training, and building nurseries and field schools in Philippines and Papua New Guinea. In 2018, she began post-graduate environmental science research at the University of Sydney, Australia, in the area of effectiveness of cacao farmer training, and multifactorial impacts of farmer health, wealth and productivity. She lives in Europe, and when not working in cacao, writes close to market strategy for the European Commission on sustainable finance and eco-innovation. Her purpose is to influence positive systemic change from the fields to financing. She is board member of the German Federation of Green Economy, The European Commission Business and Biodiversity Board, and the Greenpeace Australia Pacific GA. Find her online atLinkedIn and @LyssLand.

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