Sustainable cashew farming success in West Africa

  • The global trade in cashews is booming, more than doubling from 2000 to 2018.
  • But farmers often miss out on the earnings from this crop.
  • Tolaro Global, a West African company, uses sustainable methods and a community-minded ethos to produce its cashew products.
  • It’s part of a global shift towards sustainable agriculture.

Nuts are tasty, highly nutritious, and – whether used whole or as an ingredient – they are big business.

An estimated five million tonnes of tree nuts (which include almonds, Brazil nuts, walnuts, hazelnuts, and pistachios) are produced each year and one of the world’s most popular varieties is the cashew.

Future of Food Agriculture, Food and Beverage Africa

Image: Statista

Global trade in raw cashews more than doubled between 2000 and 2018 to 2.1 billion kilogrammes annually. But there are problems in the global cashew supply chain, including child labour and poor working conditions.

Now a company in West Africa is seeking to change that. Tolaro Global produces its cashews through “a fair trade, thriving and sustainable farming community,” according to its founders, Serge Kponou and Jace Rabe.

Crops are processed in the company’s own facilities, and a range of products are sold, including cashew flour and butter, and dry-roasted nuts in jars and packets.

Exporting raw nuts – and wealth

Africa is a hot spot for cashew production, accounting for almost two-thirds of the 2000 to 2018 growth. But African farmers are missing out on the potential earnings of this crop, according to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD).

“Countries that grow cashews but don’t process them at a significant scale retain only a small share of the value created as the nut travels from the farm to store,” says Miho Shirotori, who leads UNCTAD’s work on trade negotiations and commercial diplomacy.

In 2018, UNCTAD says, the export price of cashews from India to the European Union was roughly 3.5 times higher than the equivalent paid to cashew farmers in Côte d’Ivoire. That’s a 250% price difference that represents a flow of wealth and opportunities, not just cashews, from Africa.

Tolaro Global’s processing plant handles around 6,000 tonnes of raw cashews per year.

Tolaro Global’s processing plant handles around 6,000 tonnes of raw cashews per year.

Image: Tolaro Global

Tolaro Global, in the West African country of Benin, wants to change this.

The business employs over 600 people, trades with 7,000 cashew farmers and its processing plant handles around 6,000 tonnes of raw cashews per year. Over half of its employees are women, as well as three-quarters of management, while the average Tolaro farmer has increased their yield four times, according to the website.

Tolaro provides daily meals for its workers, as well as healthcare for them and their families, and free childcare in its own daycare facility.

Its employees also elect their own workers’ representatives to liaise with managers or handle complaints.

A shift to sustainable agriculture

The transition to more sustainable forestry, agriculture and commodity trade is a priority highlighted by the World Economic Forum’s UpLink platform, which is encouraging participation in the Tropical Forest Commodities Challenge. Backed by the COP26 Presidency’s Forest, Agriculture and Commodity Trade (FACT) Dialogue and the Tropical Forest Alliance, the challenge wants to hear about new ideas for change in agriculture and related industries.

“The objective is to shift away from clearing land for production, towards optimizing already cleared or non-forested, non-High Carbon Stock and non-High Conservation Value lands,” the challenge organizers say.

Tolaro’s founders have, together with Rabe’s wife Sarah, also launched a non-profit working with local women and community issues, called Projects for Progress, and a trading business called Beyond the Nut, which promotes and sells some of the products from the Tolaro factory. This means more of the money from the cashew value chain stays not just within Tolaro, but within Benin, the company says.

Two billion people in the world currently suffer from malnutrition and according to some estimates, we need 60% more food to feed the global population by 2050. Yet the agricultural sector is ill-equipped to meet this demand: 700 million of its workers currently live in poverty, and it is already responsible for 70% of the world’s water consumption and 30% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

New technologies could help our food systems become more sustainable and efficient, but unfortunately the agricultural sector has fallen behind other sectors in terms of technology adoption.

Launched in 2018, the Forum’s Innovation with a Purpose Platform is a large-scale partnership that facilitates the adoption of new technologies and other innovations to transform the way we produce, distribute and consume our food.

With research, increasing investments in new agriculture technologies and the integration of local and regional initiatives aimed at enhancing food security, the platform is working with over 50 partner institutions and 1,000 leaders around the world to leverage emerging technologies to make our food systems more sustainable, inclusive and efficient.

Learn more about Innovation with a Purpose’s impact and contact us to see how you can get involved.