Master's students get taste of complex global problems

In a lush, quiet grove in a remote area of Ghana’s Central Region, three farmers are demonstrating to Sofía del Valle how cocoa is harvested. It is early July, during the smaller of two annual harvests. The trees have been mostly cleared, and the remaining pods look like elongated gourds with hard, bumpy shells in brilliant yellows, oranges and reds.

Cocoa harvesting is a delicate process that hasn’t changed much since cocoa was introduced to Ghana in the 1870s. It is done by hand, requiring only a machete or other cutting tool and a basket.

A man and a woman look at a cocoa pod.
Francis Okoe Lanque talks about cocoa farming with Master of Global Affairs student Sofía del Valle at a farm in the Otwebedidua community of Suhum, Eastern Region, Ghana.
A man cuts down cocoa pods off a tree with a machete.
Kofi Asan harvests cocoa on a farm in the Kokoado community of Asikuma Odoben Brakwa, Central Region.

So, in a way, to watch these three farmers, two men and one woman, expertly harvest the pods is to see generations of their ancestors doing the same thing.

The two men, Emmanuel and Kofi, use their machetes to gently tap the short stems of the cocoa pods, which fall onto layers of plantain leaves covering the ground.

The woman, Theresah, who is Emmanuel’s wife, gathers the pods into a handwoven basket the size of a washtub. When it is full, she lifts the heavy basket onto her head and gracefully carries it to the spot in the grove where the cocoa is fermented.

A woman holds a basket onto her head full of cocoa pods.
Theresah Korsah carries a basket of freshly cut cocoa pods at a farm in the Kokoado community. Her husband, Emmanuel Ketu, and neighbor Kofi Asan follow.

At the fermentation spot, the men gently tap each fruit two or three times to break it open. Theresah hovers low to the ground and scoops out each pod’s 40 to 50 thick white seeds, each about the surface area of a quarter. She piles the seeds and surrounding pulp onto plantain leaves and covers the pile completely with more leaves to promote fermentation, a pungent, five- to seven-day process in which microorganisms consume the sugar in the seeds, leaving dry, dark beans.

A woman holds a basket onto her head full of cocoa pods.
From left: Ketu, Asan and Korsah remove pulp and seeds from the cocoa pods to prepare them for fermentation.
A man and a woman look at a cocoa pod.
Cocoa pods contain 40 to 50 thick, white seeds that are about the surface area of a quarter.
A man cuts down cocoa pods off a tree with a machete.
Farmers pile cocoa seeds and pulp onto plantain leaves for fermentation, which takes up to a week.

Afterward, the farmers collect the beans and spread them onto tables covered with bamboo mats to dry outside for about a week. The beans must be stirred several times a day to dry evenly, and farmers accomplish this by sweeping their hands and arms over them while simultaneously searching for imperfect beans.

Two women and man sort through cocoa beans with their hands.
Farmers in the Eniehu community of Asikuma Odoben Brakwa explain the drying process of cocoa beans. Drying takes four to seven days with farmers frequently stirring and removing defective beans by hand.

From there, the beans are bagged and sold. And, as for generations, the male farmers are paid.

Master of Global Affairs (MGA) student Sofía del Valle has come to Ghana to examine, among other issues, this gendered practice and its implications.

“When women have money and they control money in these families, they invest it in their families and kids and even farms, whereas men don’t necessarily do so,” she explains. “So in the end, improving a woman’s situation is not only good for her, but it’s for the well-being of the whole community. Children of women who earn more money get more education and better living conditions. If you solved this thing, it’s better for the whole community.”

A woman wearing colorful patterns with her children.
A woman with her children in the Eniehu community.

Still, she emphasizes, she isn’t in Ghana to solve gender inequality. Instead, she is conducting fieldwork to gain a deep understanding of every facet of cocoa farming and the larger supply chain for chocolate. Her observations are meant to inform policy about ways to improve the lives of female cocoa farmers.

Her fieldwork is based in Accra, Ghana’s capital, and she works in conjunction with Oxfam, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that focuses on alleviating global poverty.

A woman walks down a dirt road.
Del Valle heads to her first meeting with cocoa farmers in the Aponoapon community of Suhum.

For the next six weeks, she will speak with Ghanaian governmental agencies and private organizations that are part of the cocoa supply chain.

Most important, she will visit six remote villages that lie a difficult three or four hours’ journey north of Accra — places where the simple clay or thatch homes usually don’t have plumbing or electricity and where obtaining the basics of life can be complicated.

In these villages she’ll interview farmers to learn about the growing and harvesting of cocoa and what steps are delegated to men or women.

But first it’s important to understand the Notre Dame program that brought her here.

Del Valle’s fieldwork in Ghana is part of the MGA and its Integration Lab, or i-Lab, a three-component professional experience that refers to a physical space, a curriculum that involves a variety of academic disciplines, and a global project. As the MGA’s first cohort, the 38 students from 22 countries also are the first to experience the i-Lab.

The idea for the i-Lab took shape in planning for the 2017 launch of the MGA, a two-year professional program through the Keough School of Global Affairs.

“In creating the i-Lab, we wanted to answer a foundational question: How can we offer our students the most valuable theory-to-practice experiences to contribute to solving global problems?” explains Steve Reifenberg, co-director of the i-Lab and associate professor of the practice of international development at the Keough School.

“The answer needed to pull together a variety of disciplines because global problems can’t be addressed by a single field. It needed to promote teamwork because problems aren’t solved by individuals. It needed to involve partner organizations that address world problems to give students on-the-ground understanding of how policy is shaped into practice.”

A woman crouched down leans on whiteboard and looks up at sticky notes. A man is in the background holding and looking at a tablet.
Master of Global Affairs students Sofía del Valle and Mian Moaz Uddin work on their report for Oxfam in the i-Lab at the Keough School.

Additionally, the unconventional basis for the i-Lab meant it needed unique physical space to inspire innovation, promote collaboration and facilitate creative problem solving.

“Every element in this space was developed to promote maximum flexibility,” explains Tracy Kijewski-Correa, i-Lab co-director and Leo E. and Patti Ruth Linbeck Collegiate Chair for the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, who is also an associate professor of global affairs.

“The space needed to be dynamic because our teaching modes are not traditional. It needed to be highly flexible for collaborative teams to work through stages of their project design and implementation. So elements of the space bring best practices regarding creativity and inspiring creativity. We emphasize design as a big part of what we do, and this space facilitates design.”

Whiteboard walls provide huge writeable and erasable surfaces. Accent walls and chairs inject energy into the room with bright orange, teal and chartreuse. The tables are easy to wheel from place to place. There are rubber balls, modeling clay and sticky notes everywhere.

A man and a woman discuss near a whiteboard covered in colorful sticky notes.
The i-Lab’s wall-to-wall writeable, erasable, flexible surfaces make it an ideal space for innovation and creativity.

It’s the ideal environment to teach students about design thinking, negotiation, systems thinking and implementation science during their first semester.

“We call it the Integration Lab because of the integration of these different interdisciplinary perspectives, ways of seeing these different backgrounds and integrating theory into practice,” Reifenberg explains. “We want our students to develop an integration mindset about how they might work together effectively in teams, partner well with organizations or accompany others who are affected by global problems.”

Perhaps the most notable component of the i-Lab is its Global Partner Experience, in which student teams in two concentrations of the MGA — sustainable development and global affairs — work closely for a year with an NGO, nonprofit, think tank or other organization to create a project to respond to a challenge that the organization is addressing. The highlight of the partnership is a fieldwork assignment, usually for eight weeks in a different country.

The point of the project is not for the students to solve problems for the organizations. Instead, they are helping the organizations to understand these layered, complex problems better.

The partnership begins with teams of three or four students carefully matched according to their skill sets to a global organization, for maximum benefit to both the student and the organization.

“The partner comes with an opportunity or an issue that they’re facing and the teams build out a strategy for how will we address this together and how will we collect necessary data,” Kijewski-Correa says. “So it looks like a consultancy model. The partner is saying, ‘This is what we need. What do we need to develop as a deliverable to get there?’ And the teams work intensively with their partners throughout the year-long engagement.”

The Global Partner Experience kicks off in January when the teams start working remotely with representatives from their respective organizations. Melissa Paulsen, faculty adviser for the i-Lab, emphasizes the time and commitment required by both the organization and the MGA students.

“It’s not a rushed process,” says Paulsen, who advised two MGA teams in the cohort. “When you’re working on really thorny, difficult problems, it takes time. We’re focusing on understanding the complexity of the problem, unpacking it and maybe helping understanding the solution an organization is trying to introduce. So that is an elongated process, and in the development world, that is something very necessary to create long-lasting, sustainable change. We can’t rush from problem to solution, especially when we’re shaping students who are going to be practitioners and policymakers.”

In addition to working with Paulsen, Kijewski-Correa and Reifenberg, the MGA teams connect with faculty from multiple disciplines across campus who have expertise in certain countries or regions, political or societal issues, experience with partner organizations or other relevant backgrounds.

The inaugural MGA cohort was assigned to projects with the Bangladesh Centre for Advanced Studies; the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard Medical School in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Sierra Leone; the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops at the U.S./Mexico border, Greece, Germany and Switzerland; Enseña Chile; Habitat for Humanity Terwilliger Center for Innovation in Shelter in the Philippines; and the Institute of Economic Affairs in Kenya.

Female symbol, with pattern overlay

Women perform an estimated 40 to 60 percent of cocoa farming responsibilities in Ghana. But men control most of the cash and land.

Continent of Africa, with pattern overlay

Nearly 70 percent of the world’s cocoa is grown in Africa. Ghana is the world’s second-largest producer.

Symbol for Ghanaian cedi, money.

Cocoa farmers in Ghana receive a once-a-year payment, and often struggle to make the payment last until the next harvest.

Del Valle and MGA teammates Mian Moaz Uddin and Caroline Andridge were matched with Oxfam America in conjunction with Oxfam country offices in Ghana, Malawi and India.

Unlike the other MGA teams that either traveled together or split into sub-teams of two or three, the Oxfam team split with individual teammates assigned to separate countries. While del Valle was assigned to Ghana, Mian was assigned to Oxfam in Malawi to examine the complex land rights in that country. Andridge was embedded with Oxfam in India to learn about sugar farming, production and distribution.

Oxfam operates in more than 90 countries and oversees dozens of campaigns aimed at eliminating poverty.

Del Valle, Andridge and Mian work with Oxfam’s Behind the Brands (BtB) initiative that challenges and collaborates with 10 international food and beverage companies to improve their social and environmental policies and practices. BtB aims to improve the lives of farmers, workers and communities by addressing problems such as climate change, land rights and gender issues. The MGA Oxfam team’s work ultimately will inform BtB efforts in the corresponding countries and make an impact on farmers’ lives.

The 10 companies, referred to as the “Big 10,” are ABF/Illovo, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez, Nestle, PepsiCo and Unilever.

“Our key question was, ‘How do we take these really smart, energized sustainable development students and plug them into an existing piece of Oxfam’s work — preparing them as a team, sending them individually into the field to do separate projects and then bringing them back together to finalize their deliverables?’” says Emma Fawcett, evaluation, learning and effectiveness adviser for Oxfam America.

The answer developed as Fawcett, the students and Paulsen, who served as faculty adviser, dove into the project. Fawcett visited in person for two days in March for an intensive working session. After that, she and the team were in constant contact through email and weekly phone briefings.

They believed the students would be most helpful if they could get an understanding of the relationship between companies and communities, especially focusing on what kind of impact BtB had already had, Fawcett said. “We need to understand what’s happening on the ground in these value chains to help us decide where to focus our efforts on engaging the BtB companies. We wanted to find that sweet spot where we can use our leverage and advisory role to have the greatest impact with the communities.”

Which brings us back to Ghana.

Somehow del Valle’s unlikely interview system is working marvelously.

Though she had worried that farmers might be reluctant to talk about their lives, they are, in fact, happy to share. The men and women in the first village talk about the steps of cocoa farming down to the last detail. They speak and gesture passionately, sometimes arguing good-naturedly over a method or process or inserting a detail that another farmer has skipped.

Two women speak while standing up as others are sitting in chairs forming a circle.
Del Valle, Martha Mensah (standing right) and Naana Nkansah Agyekum (seated left) from Oxfam in Ghana meet with cocoa farmers from the Otwebedidua community.

Del Valle, while enjoying the conversation immensely, doesn’t understand a word. The villagers are speaking in Twi (pronounced “tree”), the dominant language of south and central Ghana. Del Valle is from Chile and speaks Spanish natively and English secondarily.

To understand the villagers, del Valle relies on Martha Mensah, a program officer of Oxfam of Ghana, to translate Twi into English. Impressively, Mensah manages to keep the conversation from stalling.

As soon as Mensah translates, del Valle uses a marker and a large piece of paper to quickly draw the farming step described. She has a knack for it, and her stick figures reflect the processes of farming cocoa. Perhaps the most important part of the exercise is asking the farmers to identify what steps women perform versus men.

A woman, wearing a Notre Dame t-shirt, sits on the ground while drawing on a large piece of paper. Several people sit and stand behind her.
Del Valle listens to a cocoa farmer as she draws the steps involved in cocoa farming during a meeting with farmers in the Ningo community.
A close up of the large sheet of paper with drawings on it.
The drawings bridge a language gap between English and Twi so that farmers can see that del Valle understands what they’re saying.

For the rest of this day and all of the next, del Valle and Mensah repeat this exercise in five other villages, each time pulling together information for del Valle’s field research and allowing the farmers a chance to tell their story and, possibly, reflect on women’s roles in ways they might not have done previously.

Illustration of a male farmer using a machete to chop at a tree. Cleared land is behind him, while more trees and weeds are ahead of him.

Farmers select land with good soil structure and clear away weeds and small trees.

A male farmer uses a shovel to mark straight rows in the land.

The farmer marks the rows for the cocoa trees, leaving about 10 feet between rows to optimize growth.

A male farmer tends to young cocoa trees, planted equidistant in the marked rows.

Young cocoa seedlings are planted in small holes about 10 feet apart.

A male farmer and a female farmer pull weeds that grow among the growing cocoa trees.

As the tiny trees grow, farmers continually chop down weeds that grow fast enough to kill a cocoa tree in a matter of days.

A male farmer and a female farmer collect red cocoa pods from the trees and place them in baskets.

In three to five years, the cocoa seedlings grow into trees that produce bright yellow, orange and red cocoa pods. The farmers collect the pods in handwoven baskets.

A male farmer breaks open a cocoa pod, while a female farmer scoops out the seeds.

Farmers use machetes to break open the cocoa pods, and then scoop out each pod’s 40 to 50 thick white seeds.

A male farmer dumps the basket of cocoa seeds onto plantain leaves, while a female farmer covers the pile with more plantain leaves.

The seeds are piled onto plantain leaves and covered completely with more leaves to promote fermentation, a five- to seven-day process that results in dry, dark beans.

A female farmer spreads the now darkened beans across a table.

The beans are spread onto tables covered with bamboo mats to dry outside for four to seven days. Farmers stir the beans frequently and remove defective beans by hand.

When the beans are packed into cocoa sacks, the farmers are ready to sell the product.

Government-approved purchasing clerks weigh the bags and pay the farmers their once-a-year salaries.

The time with the farmers is exhilarating to del Valle. “I was so honored that the farmers received me so kindly,” she said. “There’s a stereotype of a poor, downtrodden farmer, but these men and women were so wise and strong and expansive. I never felt that they were vulnerable — in fact, it was me who was vulnerable and nervous. That doesn’t mean there’s no struggle because there is, and the unfair elements of the cocoa system need to be changed.”

“But they are living their lives and keeping it together. And I admire them so much.”

A woman holds out her hand as she stands speaking to a group of other woman inside of a building.
Women cocoa farmers from the ABOCFA union in the Aponoapon community describe how they grow and harvest organic cocoa beans for chocolatier Tony’s Chocolonely. Unlike many cocoa farmers in Ghana, the ABOCFA farmers have a relationship with the company that purchases their beans. It is common for Ghanaian cocoa farmers not to know where their beans go after sale.
A man stands speaking to a large group of men and women and their children.
Del Valle meets with cocoa farmers from the Eniehu community. Facilitated by CARE International training, the women in the community have formed a strong women’s group that includes a village savings and loan for small, short-term loans.

This includes the male farmers who don’t share pay with their wives.

“There can be a temptation to simplify situations and villainize men for gender problems, but oftentimes there are bigger forces at work,” she explains. In Ghanaian society, it is typically the man’s job to provide financially and the woman’s job to take care of the home. Finances are controlled by the man. These are longstanding societal frameworks that are not easily changed.

No stranger to examining gendered practices, del Valle formerly worked for an NGO in Chile, advising mining companies on their community engagement processes, including efforts that focus on improving women’s lives.

So she understands the layers of complexity associated with change in this regard.

“The male cocoa farmers I met were open about their own experiences,” she says. “Nor did they try to stop the women from speaking about being left out of selling or payment. The women were comfortable in expressing themselves and criticizing the unfairness of the process.

A man is expressive as he speaks to a woman while she writes notes on a pad of paper.
Del Valle draws the steps involved in cocoa farming during a meeting with farmers in the Nankese Ada community in Suhum. Peter Owusu Ansah (right), extension officer from the Ministry of Food and Agriculture is translating Twi, a native language of Ghana, to English for del Valle.

“The men seemed respectful in listening and seemed to be contemplating the women’s concerns. I’m not saying husbands don’t hold responsibility in this matter. I’m saying it’s a bigger issue than seeing the men as villains.”

The definition of who is a farmer likely contributes to the gendered attitudes among cocoa farmers. Women in Ghana aren’t typically considered farmers. Instead, they are seen as supporting their husbands’ or families’ efforts. “Their labor isn’t accounted for as formal labor,” del Valle explains.

Yet, during her interviews in the six villages, it is abundantly clear that women perform many steps in the farming process. Both men and women who del Valle interviewed said that women take part in planting, weeding, harvesting, fermenting, drying and stirring.

A Ghanaian woman wearing bright patterned clothes stands in front of an aqua colored wall. A mother and daughter pose for a photo outside of their home. A woman holds a basket on her hip full of cocoa pods.
(Clockwise from left) Ghanaian woman from the Ningo community in Suhum; mother and daughter at their home in the Aponoapon community of Suhum; Theresah Korsah carries a basket of cocoa pods on a farm in the Kokoado community.

It’s estimated that women perform 40 to 50 percent of cocoa farming responsibilities in Ghana, and del Valle’s interviews seemed to bear out these figures.

On top of that, women take care of children and all of the responsibilities of the home. During the times that women aren’t directly performing farming responsibilities, they are often supporting farming by cooking and taking the food to the men as they work in the cocoa groves.

Women prepare lunch for children outside their home.
Women prepare lunch for schoolchildren in the Aponoapon community.

This unpaid and unrecognized work is referred to as “time poverty,” del Valle explains. “Because of a woman’s unpaid responsibilities, she has less time to do work that could earn her a wage.”

Gender inequality is just one aspect of several complicated problems that exist with cocoa farming. Another is financial management skills for farmers who are paid once a year for their crop and need to make the payment last until the next harvest. In addition, farmers face increasing challenges from climate change in the form of erratic rainfall and degrading soil conditions.

Moreover, major chocolate manufacturers can do more to share profits and increase the partnership with cocoa producers. While international chocolate companies involved with Behind the Brands — Mars, Mondelez and Nestle — have a goal of improving farmers’ lives, the geographical isolation of smallholder farms alone is formidable enough to hinder successful outreach or contact. The farmers del Valle met didn’t always know what happened to their beans after they sold them. They weren’t sure which companies ended up with the beans or how they were processed. It is even common in Ghana for cocoa farmers to have never tasted chocolate, the end product of their hard work.

Hands touch cocoa beans that are spead out on bamboo mats to dry in the sun.
Cocoa beans are spread out to dry on bamboo mats in the sun at a farm.

During her time in Ghana, del Valle checked in regularly with her teammates, Mian and Andridge. Though the students’ field assignments were different, they discovered common threads to the problems they were examining.

At the heart of each of their findings was an opaque and sometimes confusing supply chain with more intermediaries, including governmental players, than they had anticipated.

“The distance between the farmer and the company is much greater than we expected,” Andridge says. “We went into these field experiences thinking that we would be able to simplify the understanding of the supply chain, but, in fact, the understanding became more complicated. There are many steps still to be figured out.”

With their firsthand observations in hand, del Valle, Andridge and Mian left their fieldwork placements to spend a week in Washington, D.C., with Oxfam representatives who work with the BtB initiative.

They presented their findings in detail, especially addressing the challenges that the BtB program will likely face as implementation continues. Though much of this information is proprietary, the team members said they emphasized the importance of communication between Oxfam country offices and the global team. In addition to the initial report, the MGA students presented a formal deliverable to Oxfam.

Even before presenting to Oxfam, the team received unexpected validation. As Mian was preparing to leave his assignment in Malawi, his supervisor asked him to review proposals by a potential consultant.

“When I was going through the proposals by these consultants with 20 or 30 years of experience, I realized they are pretty much doing what we have been doing,” he says. “We accomplished a project that could be considered actual consultancy. And if the work they are going to do is real, then our work was real.”

All three students said the i-Lab experience was a top reason they chose the Notre Dame MGA.

“It was really a big focal point,” says Andridge, who formerly worked for the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank in Washington, D.C., and then received a Princeton in Africa fellowship to work in South Africa with the Clinton Health Access Initiative for HIV prevention.

A group of people walk together down a dirt path.
Del Valle, Mensah and Agyekum walk with cocoa farmers during a tour of their farm in the Otwebedidua community.

“Notre Dame frames the i-Lab and Global Partner Experience as a yearlong consultancy, and that’s what our partnership has been. That was really important to me. It gave me the chance to work and engage deeply with an organization that has extensive experience in the area I’m interested in — food security.”

Del Valle agreed the experience would help her future.

A group of people pose for a photo outside a building.
Cocoa farmers from the ABOCFA union and del Valle gather for a photo outside the community center after their meeting. The co-op is the first organic and fair trade association in Ghana.

“A meaningful and serious experience with a big organization that is taking our work seriously elevates me from a girl from Chile that was only working on Chilean stuff to someone who was working on a global initiative in many countries with an NGO,” she says. “That is great. I feel like it opens the world to me jobwise.

“Before now, I would have felt kind of weird applying to a job outside of Chile. Now I feel pretty confident applying anywhere in the world because I’ve had this experience. So that’s pretty cool.”

A woman walks down a busy market where people are selling fresh produce, colorful colthing, and many more items.
Del Valle shops at the Madina Market in Accra. The busy market sells fresh produce, meat, smoked fish, African fabric, shoes, clothes, tools, medicines, pots, pans and many other items of daily life.

Beyond that, her professional experience in Ghana has, of course, shaped her personally. “For example, when I think about climate change now, I think about how life will be harder for the farmers that I met in Ghana if we don’t take care of it,” she says. “When I think about the inequality that women face, I think about the strong women that I met in Ghana.

“These issues are so real. I think about that in my personal space much more than I did before.”