Cocoa pods: key ingredient of a bar of chocolate
Bledgi Yode has lost count of how often he was injured as a child working on his family’s cocoa farm. The two-hectare holding is in the village of Ziguédia, 15km up a dirt track, south-west of the city of Daloa in central Ivory Coast.
“We started working in the fields aged six or seven and were digging and using machetes from when we were eight,” says the subsistence farmer, now 58. He mimes slashing grass with a long blade as he walks among cocoa trees laden with ripening pods. “We often hurt ourselves but we had no choice. My father said we wouldn’t eat if we didn’t work in the plantation.”
Three decades later, in the late 1990s, Mr Yode, treated his eldest son, Ange, exactly the same. “Like me, he went to school but he also had to work in the fields,” Mr Yode says. “It was the way things were done.”
Change arrived in Ziguédia seven years ago, Mr Yode says, when the Ivory Coast government started to crack down on the use of child labour. Its campaign initially prosecuted employers of child labour and child traffickers, but then, after limited success, switched to encouragement as much as penalty. In 2015, for example, laws were passed that made schooling until the age of 16 both compulsory and free.
These alliances sought to educate adults about children’s rights, and build and improve schools and health facilities. Some schemes included women’s empowerment programmes and providing children with birth certificates. The latter are still a rarity across much of west Africa, and children without them are denied many legal rights.
Education matters: outside a primary school in Bognonzra, east of Daloa
“We have to address the issue in a global manner, holistically, not just through one aspect,” says Amany Konan, a senior official in Ivory Coast’s Office of the First Lady, which is leading the fight against child exploitation. “It’s about education but also [addressing] poverty and lack of social infrastructure.”
Pierre Laporte, Ivory Coast country director at the World Bank, applauds the Ivorian government for its reform agenda but says farming practices are unlikely to change significantly in the foreseeable future. One challenge is that fluctuating prices put pressure on farmers. The government-guaranteed farm-gate price in 2017-18 is 700 CFA francs ($1.27) per kilogramme, 400 francs down on the previous year, following one of the most dramatic slumps in global prices in recent years.
Mr Konan says the government’s goal is to eliminate the worst forms of child labour by 2025. He admits, however, that this will happen only if current programmes are “rapidly accelerated and broadened”. He adds: “It will be a multigenerational challenge. We will have to keep doing follow-up work for years.”
The International Labour Organization defines child labour as work that deprives children of their childhood, potential and dignity, interferes with schooling and is harmful to their physical and mental development. Activities such as lifting heavy loads or working with dangerous tools or chemicals are considered among the worst forms.
In west Africa, child labour has been perpetuated by the way cocoa is grown — on small plots of a few hectares each. The majority of the 900,000 cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast, who between them have almost 4m children, struggle to earn enough to stay above the poverty line. Sometimes child labour is the farmers’ only option.
Three years ago, Ecojad, a Daloa-based cocoa farmers’ co-operative with financial backing from Tony’s Chocolonely, a Dutch chocolate-maker, began paying farmers in Ziguédia a premium for their beans if they did not use child labour. Tony’s Chocolonely promises consumers “slavery-free chocolate”.
Some of the money was in cash and some arrived through community projects. These have included new toilets at a local school, a pump in the village so people no longer have to walk miles for water, and two programmes to provide women with greater income.
On a tour of supplier farms and co-operatives in Ivory Coast, Henk Jan Beltman, chief executive of Tony’s Chocolonely, is clearly delighted about the progress so far. But he stresses in a meeting with two dozen villagers in Blaisekro, about 50km east of Daloa, that everyone has to play their part. “My responsibility is to build the brand and yours is to develop the village,” he says. “The co-operative’s role is to make sure the children go to school. If we work together we will have [a] long-term impact.”
Listening and learning, left to right: Henk Jan Beltman, Korotoum Doumbia, a cocoa sector consultant, and Alphonse Zaha Silue, of Kapatchiva cocoa co-operative, tour a primary school in Blaisekro village
Mr Beltman admits he cannot guarantee that every chocolate bar his company sells is 100 per cent child-labour free. The numbers of farmers involved, often in remote locations, makes ensuring full compliance impossible, and on-the-ground definitions of what constitutes child labour can be a matter of individual judgment.
“If a child is used to carrying a machete, who are we to block it?” asks Mr Beltman. “As long as a child’s education and development are not hindered, I’m not against children doing some work.”
“The projects really do make a difference,” says Bakayoko Gondo, the headteacher of the primary school in Ziguédia. “Now we have latrines, the children are happy and they’re healthier.”
Christiane Kabron, who runs the ICI’s Daloa office, agrees that its work has just begun. “It will require a great effort by everyone for a long time to get to the end,” she says.
Taking shape: bars at a moulding and packaging plant in Belgium
For anyone wanting to change the chocolate industry, a good place to start is Zurich-based Barry Callebaut, the world’s biggest supplier of chocolate and cocoa products. In the financial year to September 2017, it sold almost 2m tonnes of chocolate products to the confectionery and catering industries. The wholesaler’s name may be little known, even among chocolate lovers, but its size gives Barry Callebaut considerable influence over how the industry works.
Out of school:
boys sit alongside men at work on cocoa pods in Ivory Coast
Today, however, Mr Smith detects renewed determination by companies to tackle underlying problems. “The industry is experimenting and learning. Resources are being increased. There has been a major push in the past few years,” he says. “Consumers do have a role. It is important to get out the idea that the incomes that farmers receive, in many cases, are not adequate to really eliminate child labour.”
Like Tony’s Chocolonely, Barry Callebaut uses the Child Labour Monitoring and Remediation System (CLMRS), which was developed by the ICI for people to collect and track data on labour abuses via a mobile app. A progress report published last December showed that just 3.2 per cent of the 340 farmer groups in the Ivory Coast from which Barry Callebaut sources its beans had adopted the CLMRS. Some 247 cases of the worst forms of child labour were identified in 2016-17.
Barry Callebaut recognises it cannot solve the problem on its own, and wants to be part of a broad movement. The company does not reveal how much of its chocolate is sold under labels such as Fairtrade or its own programme, Cocoa Horizons, saying that it depends on choices made by its customers.
Mr De Saint-Affrique says the special facilities it provides to Tony’s could be extended to others. He notes, however, that “what you see is [that] some customers — and I will not name them — are not interested in sustainability because they don’t see necessarily the benefit”.
In time, he believes the market will push the more reluctant chocolate-makers to adopt a shared mission to end child labour. “Consumers more and more will want sustainable, traceable products.”
Bars: the striking wrappers on Tony's Chocolonely bars include a logo that reads ‘Together we make chocolate 100% slave free’
Tony’s Chocolonely has an unusual origin story, but its short history shows how a child labour-free chocolate supply chain might be possible.
The business was founded in the early 2000s by Maurice Dekkers, a Dutch film producer, and Teun “Tony” van de Keuken, a local journalist who had worked on exposing child labour in the global chocolate industry. They produced some documentary footage that was hard-hitting but had little effect. Instead, Mr Van de Keuken tried a stunt: he reported himself to the police for eating chocolate that he said must have been produced using illegal child labour. The Dutch authorities, however, declined to prosecute.
The founders hoped that sales of their chocolate bars would help stamp out child labour in the wider industry — an ambitious task. Cocoa beans are just one of many ingredients that Tony’s needs to ensure is ethically sourced — from sugar to flavourings such as cinnamon and cardamom. They also needed to consider the materials in the chocolate bars’ packaging.
Staff are known as “Tonys” and sign off emails with the salutation “Best choco greetings”. Every six months a ballot decides where they sit in the office. Colleagues in the same department are forbidden to sit together, to encourage integration and idea-sharing.
Mr Beltman reckons Tony’s is still in its “entrepreneurial phase”. It is aiming for 50 per cent revenue growth, to reach about €67m in the financial year ending this September. With Tony’s products already available in the US, it plans to carry out feasibility studies in the UK before launching its products there, probably starting in specialist food shops. Tony’s sells online, in supermarkets and at airports, but “we’re crap at opening stores”, says Mr Beltman. The company has opened a store next to its headquarters to help gauge consumer tastes directly.
The strategy is straightforward: Tony’s pays above the market price for its beans, adding $200 per tonne to qualify for the Fairtrade label, plus a “Tony premium” of at least $175 a tonne. It also agrees long-term contracts of at least five years, so the farmer can invest in production facilities, and offers help in boosting quality and productivity. These extra costs, Tony’s reckons, make its chocolate 15-20 per cent more expensive than competitors’. A 180g Tony’s bar usually sells for between €2.75 (in supermarkets) and €3.05.
At Barry Callebaut, Mr De Saint-Affrique points out that there is a potential shortcut to guaranteeing child labour-free chocolate. His company could simply source all its cocoa beans from regions outside Africa where child labour is less of an issue. But that would mean abandoning farmers like Mr Yode in Ziguédia, who are now becoming financially stable enough to keep the next generation out of child labour thanks to the co-operative schemes.
“You could suddenly say that you are sustainable, and you wouldn’t have changed anything,” Mr De Saint-Affrique reflects. “Actually, you’d have changed the world of small farmers in Africa for the worse.”