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Towards ethically-sourced chocolate

December 10, 2022
topics: Slavery
by: Bob Koigi
located in: Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire), Ghana, Burkina Faso
tags: child labor, cocoa industry, deforestation, Ghana, human rights, Ivory Coast, slavery

As multinationals stall on eradicating abuse in the cocoa industry, Africa-based initiatives are leading their own efforts to make ethically-sourced chocolate. Some believe cocoa products must stay in within Africa for the industry to be clean of exploitation and abuse.

Police in Côte d'Ivoire last May rescued 68 children working in cocoa farms in the Southwestern region of Soubré. The minors had been trafficked from neighbouring Burkina Faso.

This incident, which made headlines across the globe and sparked international furor, is one of numerous instances of child labour on cocoa farms in Côte d'Ivoire and Ghana, two West African nations that supply up to 70 percent of the global cocoa market.

Cocoa is the main export revenue for Côte d'Ivoire and the third largest for Ghana.

But as the $100 billion chocolate industry continues to thrive, it inflicts misery on farmers and the economies of the two top producers of cocoa. The West African cocoa industry is known for a litany of human rights abuses, including extreme poverty, hazardous child labor and forced labor.

Child labour on cocoa farms

There are an estimated 1.56 million children working on cocoa production in Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire, according to a study commissioned by the the US Department of Labor. These children, some of whom are as young as five years-old, work in hazardous conditions, handling harmful chemicals and performing back-breaking duties - including knocking cocoa pods from trees with crude weapons such as sickles, opening cocoa pods with machetes and carrying heavy sacks of cocoa beans, some taller than them, for long distances.

Some of the children work between 80 and 100 hours a week.

"It is a complicated cycle where rural poverty and the challenges in the supply chains fan the child labour debacle," said Keith Munaria, a human rights lawyer. "The gaps in law and poor implementation have seen traders exploit the farmers and system."

Six Mali nationals who were suing Nestlé USA and Cargill at the Supreme Court seeking damages for being trafficked as children and forced to work in Côte d'Ivoire's cocoa farms under harsh conditions, described the kind of punishment children fleeing such farms suffered at the hands of guards: from being forced to drink urine, having their feet cut open and being kept in locked dark rooms at night. 

Labour and land abuses

Beyond the horrors of child labour, farmers who form the bulk of cocoa producers in the two countries make a meager living, with those in Côte d'Ivoire making an average of USD 0.78 per day and their Ghanaian counterparts making $1 per day: less that what consumers pay for a bar chocolate.

The majority of these farmers have never even tasted chocolate. 

And in a bid to increase acreage under cocoa production to satiate an ever-growing international demand, the two countries have been forced to clear more land, which leads in turn to land degradaiton. 

According to a study by the data-driven transparency initiative Trase, Côte d'Ivoire has lost 90 percent of its forest cover in the last 50 years.  Between 2000 and 2019 alone, the country cleared 2.4 million hectares of forests to pave way for cocoa farming - which amounted to a 45 percent cumulative forest degradation.

In 2019, a quarter of the country’s cocoa production was concentrated in forest reserves and protected areas, the study further notes.

Multinational chocolate manufacturers and suppliers have admitted to being aware of the gravity of the situation, and have rolled out initiatives to reverse the sorry state of affairs. On tackling child labour, Nestlé runs a programme dubbed Child Labor Monitoring and Remediation System, Mars has Protecting Children Action Plan, Hershey champions an initiative christened Cocoa for Good and Mondelez embraces Cocoa Life

In 2001, the behemoths signed The Harkin-Engel Protocol committing to eradicate child labour by 70 percent in West Africa. But they have repeatedly pushed the deadlines for realising these commitments and have set a new one to 2025.

Alive to the gross violation of human and environmental rights in West Africa, lobbying groups, legal entities and civil society members have stepped up the onslaught on chocolate manufacturers, pressuring them to take responsibility for these violations and pushing for fair trade practices. 

ethically-sourced cocoa

The Corporate Accountability Lab is one such entity. As a group with diverse expertise in labour, human and environmental rights, the organisation employs legal instruments to protect people and the planet from corporate abuses. 

It has been collecting evidence on forced child labour in cocoa farms, children trafficking and government corruption.

It has also been involved in a series of campaigns, including petitioning US Customs and Border protection to stop chocolate manufacturers from importing cocoa from Côte d'Ivoire until they can prove the finished product has been made without the use of child labour. 

The organisation has also sued chocolate companies like Hershey and the Rainforest Alliance for false advertising on chocolate products.

"The Harkin-Engel Protocol was announced with a commitment by firms to eradicate child labor by 2005, yet little progress was made by this deadline or subsequently extended deadlines," read one of its reports, which is titled Empty Promises: The Failure of Voluntary Corporate Social Responsibility Initiatives to Improve Farmer Incomes in the Ivorian Cocoa Sector.

"Indeed," the report goes on, "despite 17 years of voluntary CSR and certification initiatives, child labor in the West African cocoa sector not only persists but according to many has been getting worse," 

The EU is currently working on a due-diligence legislation that will compel large firms with operations in the bloc to review their global supply chains for human rights and environmental atrocities and compensate affected parties. 

Cocoa is one of the products included for review in the legislation. The EU accounts for 60 percent of global cocoa imports, making it the largest importer with Côte d'Ivoire, Ghana and Cameroon being major suppliers into the EU market with a total value of €4.6 billion.

Already, the bloc, Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana have endorsed an Alliance on Sustainable Cocoa that seeks to boost the social, economic and environmental sustainability of cocoa production and trade.

Swiss NGO The International Cocoa Initiative (ICI) has also rolled out a series of initiatives to tackle forced and child labour by working with farmers, governments and companies in the cocoa value chain.

One of its interventions is identifying households that use child labour and providing direct income support through mobile money, which has reportedly tamed the practice. 

Furthermore, Mighty Earth, a civil society organisation, runs an annual Easter Egg Scorecard campaign that hands over "rotten and good eggs" awards to companies based on their approach to child labour and sustainability practices. This has contributing in keeping the multinationals in check and pushed them to improve on their practices. 

On a domestic level, interventions have been rolled out in Côte d’Ivoire to advocate for a sustainable cocoa supply chain that tackles child labour and strives for improved conditions for farmers and deforestation. Such initiatives include Belgium’s Beyond Chocolate, The Netherland's DISCO, Germany's GISCO and Switzerland's SWISSCO, among others. 

Growing the African chocolate market

But even as the debate on exploitation of African farmers and children by multinationals rages on, some argue that Africa should invest in growing its own industry and market to ensure it reaps the maximum benefits of the cocoa sector while protecting its people.

The argument is that as the continental trade pact that liberalised markets and opened up borders in Africa comes into effect, the continent should utilise this opportunity to grow the cocoa sector.

"Africa needs to put an end to these colonial trade practices where it exports raw materials at low prices and import finished goods at exorbitant prices," said Martin Lusaka, an international trade expert.

He added, "[The] African burgeoning middle class provides an opportunity to harness trade and keep the value of cocoa in Africa. The onus is on the continent to improve agro-processing, industrialisation and manufacturing."

Artisanal chocolate makers like Bioko Treats and FairAfric in Ghana are leading the way in tapping into local markets. 

As consumers the world over increasingly become conscious of purchasing ethical chocolate, a number of organisations have outlined manufacturers and sellers that have embraced ethically sourced cocoa, including Slave Free Chocolate and Fairtrade.

Image by Etty Fidele

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Ivory Coast (Côte d’Ivoire) Ghana Burkina Faso
Farmers who form the bulk of cocoa producers in West Africa make a meager living, with those in Côte d'Ivoire making an average of USD 0.78 per day and their counterparts in Ghana making $1 per day.
"Africa needs to put an end to these colonial trade practices where it exports raw materials at low prices and import finished goods at exorbitant prices."
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