Shining a light on vital education, with Didier Drogba

How a soccer star and a food company united to help kids in Côte d’Ivoire

The crowd erupts as the young Ivorian soccer star scores a goal…

He wheels away in celebration, and shares a high five with two-time African Footballer of the Year, Didier Drogba, former star of the Côte d’Ivoire national team and top club sides including Marseille and Chelsea.

But this isn’t the African Cup of Nations Final, played out in front of thousands of spectators. It’s a ‘kick around’ on a dusty pitch in a small village in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s largest cocoa-producing nation.

And the goal scorer is a small child, playing alongside his countryman and hero. It’s the stuff of dreams.

Visiting this village in Côte d’Ivoire, Didier Drogba sends out a powerful message on the importance of education, sustainability and sport in the country.

It’s a message that resonates in the classroom of the newly built school, where he shows the excited children a special ball which, he explains, will store kinetic energy when they play football together.

Connecting sport and education

“It’s a magic ball, right?” he says, demonstrating how, once charged, the ball can be used to power a lamp. In the evenings the children can use it to help them do their homework.

Education is a fundamental human right, something we take for granted in developed countries. But in Côte d’Ivoire it’s a dream for many, after thousands of classrooms were destroyed in recent civil conflict.

These children are relatively fortunate, as many others have little alternative but to work on family farms. Even when local schools exist, rural poverty means that some parents still prefer their kids to work.

According to a recent survey from Tulane University, there are currently 1.2 million children laboring in cocoa production in Côte d’Ivoire.

These children are denied their right to education, and lack the leisure time or energy to play team games such as soccer, which are also vital for their physical and mental development.

Improving social conditions

Didier Drogba started the foundation that bears his name to help such vulnerable Ivorians in the area of education, and it has now partnered Nestlé to further these goals, which the company supports.

Nestlé Cocoa Plan Head, Darrell High, explains that the company will build a new state-run primary school for the Foundation in Drogba’s home region of Gagnoa.

The Plan enables farmers to run profitable farms and enables the company to source good quality, sustainable cocoa for its products. Crucially, it also improves social conditions in farming communities.

Nestlé has a zero-tolerance attitude towards child labor in its supply chain, and has already built 42 government-run schools with places for thousands of kids and young people to address the problem.

But classrooms alone aren’t enough. Nestlé also builds staff accommodation to attract good teachers to rural communities, which in turn encourages parents to send their kids to school. It also constructs toilets, and canteens to serve hot food.

Building schools does work

Nick Weatherill, Executive Director of International Cocoa Initiative, an organization that promotes child protection in cocoa communities, insists that well-built schools do help in the fight against child labor.

“If there’s no school in a community, then there’s no real alternative for kids. Since their parents are hardly going to let them sit at home doing nothing, the likelihood of them working on the farm is therefore higher. So building one is an essential part of the response.”

“If that school offers high quality education, and it’s free, then you rarely find a cocoa farmer who doesn’t want to send his child. That said, bricks and mortar alone isn’t enough.”

Weatherill warns that if farmers can’t afford to hire adult workers to replace their children, then they can be reluctant to send them to school. That’s why it’s also vital to address the problem of rural poverty.

Helping children to attend

Nestlé tackles this issue through a monitoring system that is unique in the cocoa industry, which recruits liaison officers from local communities to identify vulnerable children who are either working or at risk.

Once identified, the children are given help to attend school. Sometimes they may simply lack the birth certificate or uniform they require to attend. In more serious cases, their mothers can be given help to develop new income sources and cover school costs.

“We don’t pretend to have solved the problem of child labor. But by supporting farmers in Côte d’Ivoire to ensure that cocoa farming is profitable and sustainable, and through specific measures to help children attend school and fulfill their potential, we’re working hard to make a difference,” High says.

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