Spotlight on CocoaAction: 4 Questions with Nira Desai

Despite significant investments in cocoa sustainability initiatives by the public, private, and nonprofit sectors in recent years, cocoa farming continues to face major challenges. Even though the sector has set up initiatives to tackle these challenges, cocoa farming remains a difficult livelihood for many farmers. As a result, it is losing its appeal as a viable livelihood among younger generations. 

As CocoaAction, a voluntary industry-wide strategy that aligns the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate companies, origin governments, and key stakeholders on regional priority issues in cocoa sustainability, celebrates its 2 year anniversary, we interviewed Nira Desai, Director for CocoaAction, to discuss the progress CocoaAction has made, how the collective impact concept is being put into practice, and what lessons Nira has for others working on global, multi-stakeholder collaborations.

What is CocoaAction’s vision, and what is your role there?  

CocoaAction’s vision is a transformed cocoa sector that offers a profitable way of life for professionalized and economically empowered cocoa farmers and their families, while providing a significantly improved quality of life for cocoa-growing communities. CocoaAction’s role is to convene the sector in order to align complementary roles and responsibilities, leverage scale and efficiency through collaboration, and catalyze efforts to accelerate sustainability in the cocoa sector.

Within that, my role is really to serve as a resource and a guide to our companies and other sector actors towards achieving CocoaAction’s vision.  I work to not only drive the strategic direction for CocoaAction, but also to enable the resources and relationships for us to reach our long-term goals.

Which important milestones towards sustainable cocoa have you reached since your work with FSG and what is new with CocoaAction in 2016?

Many exciting things are happening with CocoaAction in 2016. At the end of last year, we finalized the shared activities for CocoaAction, and our shared metric system—the CocoaAction Results Framework. The Results Framework represents over 2 years of work by our companies and the World Cocoa Foundation team, including extensive consultations with the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, as well as technical experts on CocoaAction thematic focus areas. Many of those who contributed to the creation of the framework are now planning on aligning their activities and measurement systems with the CocoaAction framework—this is truly significant when we talk about sector-wide change.

Looking forward, we’re releasing our first annual report in the fall of 2016, which will share the CocoaAction story, as well as the progress we’ve made on alignment and activities in 2015. We’re actively seeking ways to be more transparent about our efforts and share more about what we’re doing and where we hope to go.

What does it take to align the efforts of 9 leading cocoa companies, 2 governments, and dozens of stakeholders to make the cocoa sector sustainable?

We always go back to why the companies came together and started CocoaAction—the companies recognized that they were not making enough progress on cocoa sustainability through independent efforts. While there is a clear business imperative for these companies to work together, they are also genuinely committed to cocoa sustainability and deeply involved in the lives and communities of farmers.

That said, every stakeholder has a unique lens or priority agenda that they bring to the table. I recently had an “aha” moment at the “From Self to Systems: Leadership for Collective Impact” workshop I attended through the Collective Impact Forum. Rather than asking stakeholders to put their agenda aside, it’s important to acknowledge and consider the individual agenda of each stakeholder. Once you have an understanding of the role each organization wants to play and what they’re hoping to accomplish, you can use that knowledge to develop a stronger common agenda, to de-conflict roles, and to go further faster in sync.

As for the international nature of our initiative, we spend a lot of time on conference calls! We have incredible team members in the U.S., Switzerland, the Netherlands, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire, who form a global, as well as a local backbone structure. The World Cocoa Foundation team works closely with CocoaAction company representatives on global and local levels, as well as with national government officials. FSG has particularly helped us to build the initial backbone structure and think about what our implementation on the ground looks like. For example, we recently established in-country “huddles,” where local company representatives come together to share information and identify common challenges.

What lessons can you share for other backbone leaders and those who work on multi-stakeholder collaborations? 

I would say to embrace the “unglamorous” work of the backbone. In the beginning, we sometimes underestimated the time required and importance of building relationships. Often the best way to do that is getting in a room together and developing rapport and respectfully disagreeing with one another. This relationship building process, which we’ve found critical to successful collective impact, is a huge undertaking but is often overlooked because it’s wrapped up in the day-to-day function of the backbone organization.

The other piece we’ve found crucial to our work is continuous communication. We work across all levels with our stakeholders, from CEOs at major corporations to plant scientists working in the field, and creating different mechanisms and ways to interact is something we’re constantly developing. For example, we recently hosted our first ever “CocoaAction Community Call”—where we brought together all levels of staff from CocoaAction companies. We’ve seen the demand signal for greater communication grow, not only from within CocoaAction, but also from the realm of stakeholders we work with. 

One thing we’re working to expand on now is how to be truly inclusive of all sector actors who share our same vision or agenda. Some of the involvement may need to be staggered, since getting multiple actors aligned takes time, but it’s really important to have a proactive plan for it. CocoaAction started mainly as a joint approach of companies and governments, and we are now eager to broaden the way we ideate, strategize, and execute with civil society, NGOs, and others invested in cocoa sustainability. These organizations are instrumental to our long-term success, and we’re exploring ways we can partner more closely with them moving forward, such as through stakeholder interviews and formal feedback sessions, community meetings, and inclusion in our workshops and technical reviews.

Lastly, I would say don’t forget to pause and honor the successes, small though they may be. Establishing a functioning backbone structure, the right communication processes, a common agenda and finally a shared measurement system involved our blood, sweat (and at times, tears!), but we’re working towards building an incredible platform which will provide a level of analysis and learnings that the sector has never had before. Reflecting on the milestones, big and small, and celebrating them, is crucial in keeping everyone energized and committed in the long-run.

About CocoaAction
CocoaAction is a voluntary industry-wide strategy that aligns the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate companies, origin Governments, and key stakeholders on regional priority issues in cocoa sustainability. CocoaAction convenes the sector in order to align complementary roles and responsibilities, leverage scale and efficiency through collaboration, and catalyze efforts to accelerate sustainability in the cocoa sector.


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