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Climate smart cocoa production in Ghana may not be all that smart

Climate smart cocoa has become a new term for sustainability and supply-chain initiatives. It aims to address reduced deforestation, climate change and improved smallholder livelihoods. The researchers identify three key challenges that must be addressed in order for it to be successful. Photo: F. Nasser

Story highlights

  • Climate smart cocoa (CSC) aims to stop deforestation, increasing climate adaptation and mitigation and supporting smallholder livelihoods
  • But challenges connected to tree tenure rights, shade trees levels, deforestation and agrochemical-dependence loom
  • Equity concerns should form the core of any initiative looking to achieve sustainable outcomes

Production model promises triple wins for smallholders and the environment. That may be too good to be true

TOO HIGH EXPECTATIONS? Ghana is the second largest cocoa producer in the world, an estimated 95% is exported making cocoa the most important commercial crop in the country. But challenges loom. Land pressures, low global market prices and price fluctuations risk farmers’ livelihoods and the food security of around 800,000 smallholders.

Climate smart cocoa (CSC) has become a new umbrella term for sustainability and supply-chain initiatives that aim to address these multiple challenges.

In a study published in Frontiers in sustainable food systems, former centre master’s student Felix Nasser and centre researcher Grace Wong together with colleagues from University of Oxford, Forestry Institute of Ghana and University of Freiburg examine how stakeholders perceive CSC and how this is reflected in policy and practice.

They also look at what the implications of CSC are for cocoa smallholders through an equity lens.

Confronting equity concerns should not be considered as an appendage to climate smart cocoa policy – these issues should form the core of any initiative looking to achieve sustainable outcomes.

Felix Nasser, lead author

Winners and losers, not just winners

In interviews and focus group discussions with Corporate, NGO and governmental representatives as well as farmers and field officers reveal an expectation that CSC is a “triple win”: reduced deforestation, increased climate mitigation and adaptation, and improved smallholder livelihoods.

In short, an exciting business opportunity for smallholders.


Wong and her colleagues warn that when multiple goals are pursued by many stakeholders there tends to be winners and losers, rather than winners and winners.

The authors identify three key challenges that must be addressed if CSC is to achieve sustainable and equitable outcomes in Ghana’s cocoa sector:

1) vague tree tenures and complexities around optimal shade tree levels create risks of inequities;

2) there are potential rebound effects regarding deforestation relating to tree tenure and uncertainties in local governance

3) the risks of intensive use of agrochemicals are unequally distributed

Map of study sites in Ghana. Source: World Resources Institute (2019) and author's own creation.

Amplifying ignored voiced

Nasser concludes: “By continuing to side-line these issues, climate smart cocoa initiatives in Ghana may further marginalize those without influence and power, namely Ghana’s 800,000 smallholder cocoa farmers.”

However, if implemented appropriately, local governance structures governance structures could amplify smallholders' voices, which are either side-lined or wholly ignored by the triple win discourse.

He says: "Confronting equity concerns should not be considered as an appendage to climate smart cocoa policy – these issues should form the core of any initiative looking to achieve sustainable outcomes."


The authors used a mix of qualitative research methods, including a literature review of global discourses on Climate smart agriculture (CSA), semi-structured interviews, focus group discussions, participant observation, and transect walks. Data collection was conducted at multiple study levels, from international to farm level, and combined deductive and inductive approaches.

Link to publication

Published: 2020-06-21


Nasser, F., Maguire-Rajpaul, V.A., Dumenu, W.K., Wong. G. 2020. Climate-Smart Cocoa in Ghana: How Ecological Modernisation Discourse Risks Side-Lining Cocoa Smallholders. Front. Sustain. Food Syst., 28 May 2020

Link to publication

Grace Wong's research focuses on ecosystem services, poverty and equity within complex social-ecological systems.


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