Innovative model provides income diversification opportunities

Coca farmer

ASPEN is an innovative last-mile distribution model for rural smallholder cocoa farming communities in Cote d’Ivoire. The project leverages cooperatives to distribute high-impact products and provide income diversification opportunities for the farmers.

Products that matter

Supported by TRANSFORM (a joint initiative between Unilever and the UK’s Department for International Development) and our supplier Cargill, we have set up several community hubs that are linked to cocoa cooperatives. Through these hubs, farmers are recruited as agents to sell products with health, hygiene and wellbeing benefits to members of their communities.

In remote rural communities such as these, ‘high-impact’ products – including soap, detergent, toothbrushes and toothpaste – are often hard to obtain. Even when they are available, people may not fully understand their benefits or indeed know how to use them to best effect.

Positive cycle

The farmers – and their helpers – are given business skills training and tailored coaching to help them set up their new ventures. They are also taught all about the products, so they can promote and encourage behaviour change, at the same time as driving sales.

This is a win-win: the agents can earn extra income by diversifying, while members of their communities learn how to improve their general health. What’s more, the repeat sales that are generated by such an operation builds the resilience of the businesses. And so it becomes a continuous positive cycle.

Empowering women

Improving the skills of smallholder farmers in business as well as agriculture can make a big difference to their own lives and the communities they live in. But too often, women and girls are left behind when it comes to education. So providing them with access to training and skills is critical to expanding female participation in the economy and closing the gender gap.

Of the 56 agents currently in the programme, around 40% are women. They especially benefit from the training and coaching to build their confidence and independence. The coaches mentor agents weekly on business basics, adapting the approach to their specific needs.

Economic resilience

The ASPEN programme brings together Unilever’s consumer goods expertise and distribution networks with Cargill’s cocoa supply chain. At the moment, we are still piloting the approach. If the model is successful, there is potential to explore how agricultural cooperatives & village savings and loan associations can be leveraged at scale to foster economic resilience within the communities they support.