From Palm Oil to Cocoa: Companies Tackle Cross-Commodity Deforestation in Soubré, Côte D’Ivoire

Premium chocolatier Godiva invests in the Soubré landscape in Côte D’Ivoire, but it was palm oil that kickstarted this cross-commodity landscape initiative, rather than cocoa.

Earthworm Foundation, the facilitator of Soubré landscape initiative, first came to the region to support Pro Fair Trade, a Swiss-based oil and fats trader, to build sustainability into palm oil supply chains. They quickly realized that to address deforestation they needed to engage and support cocoa producers, who manage 77% of the landscape compared to the 1.3% managed by oil palm growers. Earthworm Foundation invited its members to invest – and the call was answered by Belgian chocolatier Godiva; pladis, a producer of biscuits and cakes; and Givaudan, a flavours and fragrance company. With these companies on board, the Soubré landscape initiative began in 2020.

“If the palm business is protecting forest and the cocoa sector is not, at the end of the day both will face the same problems,” said Gerome Tokpa, country head, Côte d’Ivoire at Earthworm Foundation in Côte D’Ivoire. “When forests disappear, water will also disappear, and rainfall will drop. Production of any commodity will be low.”

This approach makes sense to Godiva. “Taking a long-term view, this is a project that is helping people to build more resilient livelihoods in cocoa growing communities, and we believe in it,” said Connor Mannion, global corporate communications and sustainability manager at Godiva.

Why Soubré Landscape?

Soubré produces around 11% of cocoa in Côte d’Ivoire, which is itself the world’s largest producer and exporter of cocoa beans, supplying 40% of global demand.[1] The landscape spans 977,565 hectares (ha) and contains almost a quarter of the 454,000 ha Taï National Park, the country’s best-preserved national park.[2] Here, huge rainforest trees and wetlands are home to chimpanzees, pygmy hippos, mangabeys, dwarf crocodiles and a host of bird and insect life.[3] The landscape also contains other preserved forests, including Niégré and Monts Kourabahi, though these have lost 80% of tree cover to cocoa and annual crops.[4]

Cocoa in Soubré is produced by approximately 251,000 smallholders, who struggle with low productivity, low incomes and the untreatable swollen shoot virus, which kills cocoa trees, said Tokpa. Palm oil production in Soubré is growing and is a source of income for an estimated 3,353 smallholders[5], but productivity in palm is also very low, according to Tokpa. All this places pressure on forests, as farmers seek new land and better soil to increase their incomes.

How Companies Start to Engage

The Soubré landscape initiative builds on a palm oil sustainability programme begun by SIPEF–CI, Côte D’Ivoire’s second-largest palm oil producer, Pro Fair Trade and Nestlé. From 2015, these companies supported Earthworm to implement its Rurality programme, focusing on traceability, farmer well-being and environment.

In 2020 Earthworm suggested expanding to a landscape initiative that also took in cocoa.

Ralph Erdmann, Pro Fair Trade’s purchasing manager for Africa and Asia, was keen to support all smallholders in the region. “Farmers said to me, ‘We need more land to plant.’ We knew, ‘No, you don’t need more land; you need more efficiency in your own plantations to get more yields and more income’,” he said. At the same time in 2020, pladis was working on its cocoa sustainability strategy. Nearly all the company’s cocoa beans come from Côte d’Ivoire and 75% of the beans are processed directly by a grinding facility pladis owns and operates in Turkey. pladis partnered with Earthworm to advance sustainability of its direct supply from four cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire, which is now fully traceable and covers 42% of the beans processed in the facility.

pladis’ connection to Cote d’Ivoire is one reason it decided to support the landscape programme, and the relationship with Earthworm was another. “We’ve been working with Earthworm for some time, so we already trust them to work with the local stakeholders to deliver impact,” said Sylvain Cuperlier, pladis’ global head of sustainability[1].

Further, because the remaining 25% of the company’s purchases come from large traders with limited traceability, pladis wanted to deliver additional positive impact for farmers at reasonable cost. “If you compare it to the cost that some of the big traders would charge for their super-premium cocoa programmes, it’s more reasonable,” he said.

Godiva and pladis share an owner, Yildiz Holding, and Godiva sources about half of its cocoa products from pladis. Likewise, Godiva’s investment is an expansion of its ongoing partnership with Earthworm, which began formally in 2020 to better execute on a longstanding commitment to foster more responsibly sourced cocoa. The Soubré landscape initiative is particularly appealing to Godiva as the programme includes empowering women through village saving and loan schemes. This resonated because Godiva has its own women’s empowerment programme, The Lady GODIVA Initiative.

Soubré Initiative’s Goals and Early Successes

In Soubré, regenerative agriculture and feeding the soil is important because many farmers cannot afford to buy fertilizer, said Tokpa. ‘If soils are poor they need to look for other soil, and that would be under the forests,’ he said. Farmers also need support to develop alternative sources of income to improve livelihoods and serve as a buffer in the period between replanting and first harvest. To improve productivity, Earthworm is also working with farmers to plant high-yield oil palm seedlings in place of old trees and is planting shade trees in cocoa plantations.

Earthworm has three facilitators in the field to provide coaching and is hiring a fourth as the programme is well received. “We can see that the farmers really appreciate the fact that they have somebody coming with them, sitting with them, sharing some issues, some challenges and also trying to move forward with them,” Tokpa said.

With the support of Godiva, pladis, Pro Fair Trade and Givaudan, Earthworm has progressed on many fronts with the landscape initiative. It has provided 611 farmers with training in livelihood improvement, which includes assistance to 247 farmers in diversifying their livelihoods, the coaching of 255 farmers in best management practices and support for 276 women with savings schemes. It reforested 23 ha in 2021 and the initiative has been allocated a further 500 ha for replanting cocoa in an agroforestry and forest restoration model.

By 2023, Earthworm aims to have restored 200 ha of cocoa farms, helped 500 farmers to diversify their incomes, trained 1,000 farmers in best management practices, and restored 60 ha of degraded forest under the Soubré landscape initiative. The non-profit also plans to address labour issues and ensure all stakeholders in the landscape are committing to no-deforestation practices.

Challenges: Multi-stakeholder Processes and Long-Term Funding

One key challenge in Soubré is a lack of process to bring different stakeholders on the ground to define shared goals and collaborate towards achieving them, which are essential to strengthen local buy-in and the probability of long-term success.

Earthworm wants to re-invigorate a committee that was set up in 2019 to support payment for an ecosystem services pilot programme to direct progress in the Soubré landscape initiative. The committee already includes various stakeholders involved in forest protection – the Taï national park, the forest development agency SODEFOR (Société De Développement Des Forêts), the Ministry of Water and Forests, Ivorian Cocoa Board, cooperatives, the regional council and NGOs, as well as Mondelēz International, which supported the scheme.

The key challenge to rejuvenating the platform and defining shared goals across commodities, including palm oil, cocoa, and rubber, is sufficient long-term funding.

“The Soubré project is a long-term, multi-sectoral effort that involves the mobilization of local stakeholders, following the landscape approach. Impact can be accomplished through integrated efforts and long-term funding,” said Tokpa. Earthworm is working with its members and seeks support from additional companies and donors to meet this need.

Future for Soubré Landscape Initiative

The elements of a strong landscape initiative are developing in Soubré. Goals and structures are developing as stakeholders commit resources to create a sustainable production landscape and help protect Côte D’Ivoire’s ecosystems.

Soubré could provide lessons on the implementation of a multi-commodity landscape initiative. Companies are clearly interested in this model: a recent study on company landscape engagement in cocoa found that 13 out of 20 cocoa landscape initiatives are focused on at least one other commodity. Read more here.

In Soubré, the support of cocoa and chocolate companies helped the landscape approach take off, building on the achievements of the palm oil sector. For long-term success, however, more partners are needed, and the Soubré initiative would warmly welcome new stakeholders to help on the journey towards the long-term sustainability goals.


Earthworm Foundation, n.d. “Soubré landscape, Côte D’Ivoire”.

Earthworm Foundation, 2021a. “Collaboration with palm oil and cocoa producers in Soubré, Ivory Coast”.

Earthworm Foundation, 2021b. “Helping farmers in the largest cocoa-producing region in Ivory Coast”. 15 November.

FAOSTAT, n.d. “Crops and livestock products”.

IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme, World Conservation Monitoring Centre, 1982, updated May 2011. “Taï National Park”.

OEC (Observatory of Economic Complexity), n.d. “Cocoa beans”.

[1] Sylvain Cuperlier held the position of pladis’ Global Head of Sustainability at the time of interview but has since left the company

[2] OEC n.d.; FAOSTAT n.d.; Earthworm Foundation n.d.

[3] Earthworm Foundation 2021b

[4] IUCN and UNEP 1982, updated May 2011

[5] Earthworm Foundation 2021b

[6] Earthworm Foundation 2021a

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