Assetou Bitie’s tailoring shop was a microcosm of the community around it: thriving during the short cocoa harvest season, then struggling during the other nine months of the year. “I used to work intensely only during the three main months of the national cocoa campaign, October to December. After this period, there was a total lack of interest in my activity,” she recalled.
The reason why is clear: in Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing families, about two-thirds of household incomes come from the crop, and the remaining income tends to come from largely informal businesses that struggle to grow. As a result, many families are unable to lift themselves out of poverty. Women are particularly impacted, as cocoa farms are principally owned by men, who also typically control the proceeds from cocoa sales.
The 33-year-old Assetou, who lives with her in-laws and helps support both her nine-year-old son and her parents, understood how tenuous the situation was. “I was worried about not being able to pay the rent on my store and losing it. I was also afraid about not being able to respond financially in case my parents had a serious problem,” she said.
Income diversification in Côte d’Ivoire
To address this challenge and improve household livelihoods, Cargill, through its Gourmet Belgian chocolate brand Veliche, partnered with TechnoServe to launch Project Awalé in 2021. The initiative aims to diversify incomes in the communities surrounding the COOP-CA SOCABB cocoa cooperative in Loh-Djiboua region by building the leadership, business, and technical skills of women–who comprise nearly 90% of the program’s participants–and young people while improving access to savings and credit. This enables participants to start or grow micro-enterprises, cultivate and sell alternative crops, or undertake other income-generating activities that bring additional resources to their households.
Internal changes empowering women entrepreneurs
Unlocking these opportunities requires change both within the entrepreneurs and in the surrounding community. Through gender-inclusive workshops, Project Awalé provides training on the essential information that entrepreneurs need, such as personal skills, basic tools for financial management, and vital business practices like marketing.
The workshops are supplemented by personalized, one-on-one coaching sessions in which business counselors work directly with the entrepreneurs to address their specific challenges. More advanced entrepreneurs also receive aftercare to support the development of business growth plans, technical training for farming specific crops, and tailored market-access training.
Assetou enrolled in the program and found an immediate impact. “Honestly, the first training on personal skills helped me a lot, as I discovered what it is to be an entrepreneur and that my activity is a business–and even a company…I made the decision from that moment to take control of my future by focusing on my work,” she said. “I work as a professional now and manage my finances well. I even provide invoices to my clients. I also have a strategy to build customer loyalty and attract new clients.”
A supportive ecosystem for women’s entrepreneurship
For women entrepreneurs to build successful businesses, they also need the opportunity to apply their new talents and skills. One of the primary obstacles to doing so is limited access to finance; because women are less likely to have legal title to assets like land or a history of formal crop sales, they face particular challenges in receiving loans to fund investments in their businesses.
To help address that problem, Project Awalé has worked with community members to create 26 village savings and loan associations (VSLAs). These grassroots, self-managed organizations allow members to safely save their money and access microfinance loans. To help ensure that these groups are inclusive and support women’s economic empowerment, the project also provided women’s leadership training to 24 VSLA officials.
Finally, Project Awalé is working with the leadership of the cooperative to identify opportunities to support other income-generating activities carried out by member households.
The impact of supporting women’s entrepreneurship
Since launching in 2021, Project Awalé has directly benefitted 1,415 people, helping participants to increase their incomes by an average of 56%. This has indirectly benefitted more than 11,000 people in the participants’ households. Through the VSLAs, program participants have also mobilized more than $125,000 in financing.
Assetou has seen the impact on her business: the lean times are much less lean, and the boom times are even more profitable than they were before. She earned $545 in December, and while the post-holiday and post-harvest lull used to hit her business hard, that has now changed. “I have been able to earn $145 in January and $190 in February, while I used to earn nothing after December,” she said.
The extra money allowed Assetou to pay her son’s medical bills when he needed an operation. “I’m so grateful for having been able to contribute in saving my baby’s life,” she said. Asked what makes her proud, she replied, “Bringing real respect to my household, as I earn money and participate significantly in [covering] expenses. I’m so grateful for that.”
Looking towards the future, Assetou hopes to invest her extra funds to buy a chicken farm and use the income to fund her son’s education. “I hope my son will not stop school, as I have been obliged to, and finds a great job,” she said.
The success of Project Awalé has demonstrated that across Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa-growing area there are many enterprising women like Assetou. When equipped with the skills and opportunities they need, they can help to bring more diverse livelihoods to their households and create more prosperous communities.