March 12, 2018 | By Sebastian Teunissen

Guest Commentary - Creating Decent Work through Innovation and Partnerships

By Sebastian Teunissen, managing director, Solidaridad North America

Linda Afedzi lives in Liate Wote, a village in the Volta region of Ghana. At 16, she was pregnant and dropped out of middle school. At 17, she became a single mother of twins and had no income, living with her extended family.
Linda Afedzi
Liate Wote traditionally was a major cocoa and coffee producing center. However, wide ranging bush fires destroyed their farms a few years ago. Linda’s parents are poor and there aren’t very many job opportunities in her village. Most of the village youth, whether they completed high school or dropped out, are unemployed and have little to do.
Linda’s plight is representative of nearly 88 percent of the world’s 1.2 billion youth living in developing countries. Employment and entrepreneurial opportunities for young women and men are typically limited in rural areas. The majority of rural youth globally are employed in the informal economy, usually earning low wages, working under casual or seasonal work arrangements and often facing unsafe, exploitive working conditions.
Globally, farming populations are ageing. Older farmers are often less likely to make the necessary investments in their farms to increase agricultural productivity. Their children are not interested in becoming farmers, if it means living a subsistence level existence. At the same time, in villages like Liate Wote, large numbers of youth are unemployed, with few opportunities in sight. They are disadvantaged further due to their limited access to productive resources, including land, credit and markets. These conditions can trap them in a vicious cycle of hunger and poverty, triggering distress migration.
Addressing agricultural sustainability for over the last 45 years is Solidaridad, an international organization facilitating the development of socially responsible, ecologically sound and profitable commodity supply chains. With an emphasis on empowering smallholder farmers, miners and workers in developing countries, Solidaridad is a forerunner in bringing together various supply chain actors (including producers, traders, processors, retailers, governments, and non-profits) to implement innovative, context-specific, market-based solutions that improve production practices, enhance rural livelihoods and protect the environment.
In 2016, Solidaridad and its consortium of partners, funded by the Mastercard Foundation, launched the MASO program in the cocoa growing regions of Ghana. MASO (the name means to lift or raise up in Twi, the language of the Ashanti region) is designed to solve two problems:
  • help rehabilitate the country’s flagging cocoa industry
  • provide meaningful opportunities for unemployed youth
Linda’s life started taking a turn when MASO came to her village. She enrolled in the program to be trained as a professional cocoa farmer. “Before Solidaridad came to this community, we had no jobs and no training,” said Linda. “We had nothing meaningful to do since we left school. Some of my mates who travelled to the major cities have returned because the situation is almost the same there. Now, I am the owner of a cocoa farm through the help of the MASO program. I owe them everything I have gotten.”
A MASO class on pruning and air circulation in cocoa plantations being given amongst the cocoa trees.
MASO is demonstrating that cocoa farming, if operated as a business, can provide an adequate livelihood and a fulfilling life. The year-long program provides training in basic life skills, financial skills, good agricultural practices, and business skills. It links them to financial services including bank accounts, banking cards and, eventually, to credit. Through its alumni program, it ensures continuing education and peer learning. Recognizing the special challenges for young women like Linda, MASO also offers daycare facilities near many of the training sites. While most training programs are mixed, a few offer opportunities to undertake training in an all-female setting.
Today, at 22, Linda is establishing herself as a cocoa farmer. She planted one acre provided to her by a neighbor, after her family reneged on an initial offer of land. Until her seedlings mature in three years and produce their first cocoa pods, the maize and cassava she planted will give shade to the seedlings and provide food and extra income for her and her now 6-year-old twins.
So far, MASO has established cocoa training programs in more than 100 villages across five cocoa growing regions in Ghana. Approximately 4,500 youth completed the program in its first two years and a third cohort of 3,000 is roughly half way through its training. For those not inclined to become farmers, an entrepreneurial training program, enabling the youth to provide support services to the cocoa industry, has been set up in 28 additional villages.
Linda tending cocoa saplings
Solidaridad and its partners have made great progress with MASO and the program is showing tremendous promise. However, there is much to be done. The villages, families and neighbors are providing the youth with access to land. But, they also need other inputs such as fertilizers, pesticides, and tools and these require money.
What we critically need now is for financial institutions to step up, recognize the potential in the graduates of this program and make investments in their businesses, in their futures, and in the future of an industry that is vital to Ghana and to Africa.
But Linda and her thousands of youthful Ghanaian colleagues are but one example of Solidaridad’s efforts to provide decent working conditions for smallholder farmers. Half a world away, in Central America, sugarcane cutters are dying.
Temperatures can top 40 degrees Celsius in the cane fields
Sugarcane grows in hot humid parts of the world. Before cutting, a typical cane field is set on fire to burn the leaves and chase away rats, snakes and other creatures. As soon as the flames are gone the cutters get to work, attacking the cane with long machete-like knives. It is backbreaking, exhausting work. Temperatures in the fields rise over 40 degrees Celsius. Cutters are paid on piecework, so they rarely take breaks. A cutter can harvest 12 tonnes of cane in a day, losing as much as 2.5 kilos of bodyweight in the process; similar to what a marathon runner loses in a single race. But cane cutters run this “race” every day, six to seven days a week, during the entire harvest season. While it is not easy work by any means, for many, it is the only work they can find.
The heat, humidity and exhausting effort lead to dehydration and kidney damage, a condition called Chronic Kidney Disease of non-traditional cause (CKDnT). In some places, CKDnT is the greatest cause of death amongst working age males, the very people who are working in the cane fields. In Nicaragua alone, as many as 25,000 men have died from this disease, over the last 20 years. Sixty-eight percent of the workforce in one village is affected by the disease, and life expectancy has dropped to 48 years.
Jose Oscar Rivas Vasquez (19), works in the sugarcane fields of El Angel Sugar Mill
outside of Suchitoto, El Salvador (Photo credit: Ed Kashi)
But, another Solidaridad initiative is working to change that. With the support of the Dutch PostCode Lottery and companies such as Kellogg, Solidaridad has developed a program that changes working conditions in order to reduce the worst triggers leading to the disease. Early results, working with the El Angel sugar mill in El Salvador, have demonstrated the effectiveness of the program in improving the health conditions and productivity of the cutters. While this isn’t curing their disease, it is making their lives more comfortable. Ongoing research is examining the causes of the disease and further improvements in working conditions are likely to be implemented as the mechanisms are better understood.
Mobile tents have been set up in the fields to provide shade for workers.
The cane cutters are urged to take periodic breaks at specific time intervals.
Meanwhile, Solidaridad is expanding the work to more than 25 mills in Central America through PanAmericaña, a multi-stakeholder platform established to bring significant change to the sugarcane industry. With support from the food and beverage industry, governments and civil society organizations and supporters, we’re committed to expanding the effort until CKDnT in cane fields is a thing of the past.
As the agrifood industry faces several challenges, ranging from climate variability to human rights violations, and as consumers and investors demand greater transparency and responsibility, it is becoming increasingly evident that a sustainable food system requires holistic solutions that encompass the entire supply chain. Continuous innovation is critical to unleashing the transformative potential of supply chains to enhance profitability, sustainability and social well being and ensuring decent working conditions are a key part of solution.
Workers take a break under the shade tents in a sugarcane field
outside of Los Almendros, Cuscatlan, El Salvador.
To present the best of theory and practice in supply chain innovation, Solidaridad has joined with the University of California, Berkeley to organize a two-day workshop that will bring together business leaders, practitioners, researchers and innovators. To be held from April 18 – 19 in Berkeley, California, the training on “Innovation in Agrifood Supply Chains: People-Planet-Profitability” will examine innovation in the agrifood sector, from business, social and environmental perspectives. A diverse group of speakers from organizations including Bunge, Costco, Fairtrade USA, Google and universities including UC Davis, Michigan State University and the University of Guelph will present global insights on the topic. Learn more about the program here.


The Global Food and Agriculture Program aims to inform the development of US policy on global agricultural development and food security by raising awareness and providing resources, information, and policy analysis to the US Administration, Congress, and interested experts and organizations.

The Global Food and Agriculture Program is housed within the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. The Council on Global Affairs convenes leading global voices and conducts independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

Support for the Global Food and Agriculture Program is generously provided by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.


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| By Roger Thurow

Our New Gordian Knot

Fifty years ago Dr. Norman Borlaug recieved the Nobel Peace Prize for cutting the "Goridan knot" of population and food production. Now the planet faces another seemingly intractable problem: how to nourish the planet while preserving the planet.