The Bitter Reality of the Cacao Industry

Updated: Dec 15, 2020

Chocolate. A casual snack, a decadent luxury. How often do we think of where it comes from, who is growing it, and what the real price for us enjoying it is? The cocoa industry is currently worth over $100 billion a year and it is a market that continues to grow year by year but has an increasingly devastating effect on lives and on the environment.


The cocoa bean is grown in the tropical climates of Western Africa, Asia and Latin America. However, 70% of all cocoa beans grown in the world come from Western African countries, particularly Côte d’Ivoire (or Ivory Coast) and Ghana which are the world’s two leading cocoa producers. These two countries heavily rely on the cocoa industry, for example in the Ivory Coast cocoa exports make up 60% of their revenue and 2/3 of all employment in the country.


Since the early 2000s, many reports, documentaries and campaigns have been made to bring awareness and change on the use of child labour, slavery and the poor working conditions on many cocoa farms. Particularly in Western Africa, very little has been done to bring these practices to an end. Whilst the cocoa industry is a lucrative market, very little of the profits made actually reach the farmers and workers, with the average farmer earning less than $2 per day, which is considered to be way below the poverty line. In 2019 The Guardian reported that cocoa farmers only received about 6% of the sale price of a chocolate bar whilst manufacturers and retailers kept 80%.


In 2001, some of the largest chocolate companies in the world such as Nestlé, Hershey’s and Mars signed the Harkin Engel Protocol to ensure that all practices of child labour and child trafficking, amongst other human rights violations would stop by 2008. In 2010 an undercover documentary titled ‘The dark side of chocolate’ by Miki Mistrati and U Roberto Romano made public the horrors of child trafficking that was occurring with children as young as 7, being kidnapped from neighboring countries such as Mali, Nigeria, Niger, and Togo, as well as the child rights violations occurring on cocoa farms in the Ivory Coast. This clearly proved that the agreements made by the chocolate companies had been breached as these companies continued buying and using cocoa beans from these countries despite the child labor practices taking place. In 2020, these issues still prevail and have arguably become worse in some cases.


The cocoa industry is heavily monopolized by middle men who control the price at which the beans are bought and sold, the cocoa producing countries have no real say in the prices that are set by the stock market and therefore cannot control or improve the profits of the farmers. In 2020 the average price for 1 kilogram of cocoa beans is $1.84, such low prices force farmers to use children as cheap labour to cover the costs they accrue such as inputs, labour, transportation, packing, etc. Cocoa farming is a laborious occupation whose harvesting methods have largely been the same since the 1920s. Farmers cannot afford to buy expensive machinery and therefore have to use cheap labour and machetes to harvest their crop.


The unfortunate thing about cocoa farming is that the people who do this work are greatly impoverished and disadvantaged. Many lack schools or the proper infrastructure, such as running water, electricity and any other job opportunities besides cocoa farming. These communities are heavily exploited by their governments and the global chocolate industry who refuse to give them fair wages, better working conditions and further developments to their communities. The 2019 Netflix documentary titled ‘Rotten’ further explored and explained the cocoa bean to chocolate bar supply chain and how the working conditions of the farmers haven’t changed much in the last decade.


Some companies have started trying to make a dramatic change in how the cocoa beans they use for their chocolates are grown. For example, Tony's Chocolonely, a Dutch based company, are a good example of how this can be done. Together with the cocoa manufacturing company Barry Callebaut, they aim to make the chocolate industry 100% slavery-free by 2025; however, this goal can only be reached if other major chocolate companies and producers also take onboard this initiative to make the industry as ethical and sustainable as possible.

Other initiatives being taken are coming from within Africa by African entrepreneurs and businesses, such as WeFly Agri. This company helps farmers to have greater visibility of their farms through drone mapping. Axel Emmanuel was one of the first Ivorian chocolatiers to make his company Le Chocolatier Ivoirien successful, not only in the Ivory Coast but in Europe as well. Together with the local cocoa farming villages, the project Coopérative du Bélier that employs about 200 women was created. This project enables the women to be involved in the chocolate making process from growing the cocoa beans to making the chocolate bars. Such initiatives ensure that the farmers do not only have to depend on the large chocolate companies and manufacturers to improve their lives but can also try and make the needed changes themselves.


The impact that cocoa farming has had on the environment has largely been ignored but its negative effects are beginning to show. Since 1990, 80% of the Ivory Coast’s protected rainforests have been destroyed by farmers who use the land to grow cocoa beans to supplement their crops and have caused irreparable damage. One quarter of The Ivory Coast was once covered with rainforests but currently only 4% remains covered. Climate change is exacerbating the situation by bad rains, high temperatures and failed crop yields mean that cocoa farmers have to work even harder to keep supplying the cocoa beans, but this does not necessarily mean that their profits are increasing. As the world’s demand for chocolate increases, and nothing is done to prevent and stop the deforestation of these cocoa-producing countries in the next 10 years, there will be no rainforests left.

With all this being said, what can we as consumers do? By becoming more informed on how the products we love to consume are made we can hold companies accountable for where they get their raw materials from and how ethical and sustainable they are. We can buy ethical chocolate and chocolate products from companies like Tony’s Chocolonely which is available in all major supermarkets across Europe and America, they even have a chocolate store in Amsterdam where you can enjoy their wide variety of chocolate products and become more informed about their mission and how you too can make a change. All in all, for the chocolate industry to become more ethical and sustainable, companies need to do better and pay farmers fair wages and actively help to eradicate child labour and slavery, and us - consumers - need to try in our capacity to hold these companies accountable and to buy as ethically as possible and stay as informed as we can.

By Rumbidzai Mudzongo Rumbi is a Zimbabwean girl who is in her 1st year of the International and European law program at the Hague University of Applied Sciences. She loves to read, is obsessed with history and crime documentaries, and loves to write about current affairs. She is a new member of Collective. and is one of the writers, she mainly focuses on writing articles on current affairs and global issues. She joined Collective. because she believes that in this day and age of information it's important for everyone to be informed and be active in making our world a better place, and she believes that Collective. enables that in a safe, supportive environment.


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