Cacao beans are processed at a farm in Ivory Coast. (Image credit: Etty Fidele/Unsplash)
In the 1990s and early 2000s, the chocolate industry — which had grown immensely over the previous decades — faced an unprecedented challenge to its business and brand reputation.
Consumers were confronted by images of children as young as 5 working on cacao farms in Africa, resulting in huge reactions across the United States and Europe, the main chocolate consuming markets in the world. For parents, the idea that the treat they gave to children on Halloween might be produced by a child working in inhumane conditions on the other side of the world was unthinkable.
But the conditions that cause child labor in sectors like cacao are complex. “It’s small farmers who are not necessarily generating a lot of income from their cacao, compounded by a number of additional causes, such as lack of access to quality education [and] healthcare,” says Matthias Large, executive director of the nonprofit International Cocoa Initiative. “Then children may have to help on the farm.”
In the years that followed, it became clear this was not an isolated problem, but a widespread issue. Approximately 70 percent of cacao comes from just three countries: Indonesia in Southeast Asia and Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire in West Africa. In West Africa alone, an estimated 2 million children were working on smallholder cacao plantations in 2015.
“In the case of cacao, the vast majority of child laborers are kids who are helping out on the family farms, but are sometimes involved in hazardous activities,” Large says.
As the problem became more visible in the first decade of the 2000s, opaque sourcing — including a reliance on indirect suppliers — meant nearly no companies could say, with certainly, that their chocolate or cacao products were made without the use of child labor. The immense spotlight and attention forced brands to act, with many setting ambitious goals to eliminate child labor in their supply chains, including Hershey, Nestle and Mars.
However, as anyone working in a sustainable supply chain can tell, making a bold commitment is one thing. Actually investing in the resources to make a difference on the ground is another.
“Companies cannot wait for a journalist to come and say they found child labor in your supply chain. Of course there is child labor,” Large says. "You need to take a proactive approach and responsibly manage risk."
Cacao is primarily grown by smallholders, usually on farms less than five hectares in size. Middlemen gather this cacao from numerous farms, mix it all together, and sell it along complex supply chains. Eventually it reaches traders, three of which — Cargill, Olam and Barry Calleabaut — control about 60 percent of the cacao traded globally. Consumer-facing brands, the ones we buy chocolate from, are many steps away from the cacao farm.
“Consumer-facing brands are not on the ground, directly purchasing cacao,” Large says. “They need to train and support their suppliers and make sure they implement robust due diligence.”
One strategy is to work with nonprofits that are already on the ground and can help build relationships with cacao-growing communities. One with a long history in this space is Rikolto, a Belgium-based nonprofit that works on cacao sustainability around the world. Its model aims to empower communities by setting up and working with farmer’s associations, and helping brands partner with them.
The nonprofit is also looking at innovative ways to help farmers generate additional income, because it's often lack of livelihoods that forces children to work on farms. For example, one Rikolto project in Indonesia, in partnership with Mars, trains farmers to ferment cacao — a higher-value product used in more gourmet production.
“This improves the quality of income for the farmer and reduces the living income gap,” says Peni Agustijanto with Rikolto Indonesia.
Rikolto is also trying to help farmers get better income through the use of agroforestry and intercropping, training farmers on how to grow cacao beans alongside other fruits, spices or even wood crops, which can provide both income and sustenance for farmers.
“Before, agroforestry was not common,” Peni says. "Enabling this is not easy, and requires an active, hands-on approach, which can be labor intensive. It also requires local adaptation, because not every crop is suitable for a particular landscape, or has a local market. Every day, our team is going and assisting farmers [with] how they manage and maintain other crops in cacao farms."
Another nonprofit in this space is IDH, based in the Netherlands. It's focused on developing innovative approaches to help companies meet their sustainability and labor commitments through projects like the Cocoa and Forests Initiative. Like Rikolto, it takes a community approach and aims to diversify income and increase farmers' yields so they no longer have to rely on child labor on their farms.
This approach means treating farmers not as mere suppliers, but as equal partners, and providing the requisite support, says Fitrian Ardiansyah, IDH’s lead in Indonesia.
“Farmers need to be supported as if they are a business entity,” Fitrian says. “If farming continues to be done as it has, as business-as-usual, we can’t address livelihood challenges.”
The work of these groups has had a real impact, but unfortunately, not enough. Large estimates that 30 percent of global cacao is traceable to the point where brands and consumers can be certain there is no child labor involved. This is partly due to the work of groups like IDH, which estimates that its partnerships with Mars and Mondelēz International have helped 20,000 smallholders in Indonesia alone increase their incomes and access new markets
But there are an estimated 6 million cacao farms globally, meaning millions of children are still at risk. How can players in the sector scale up this work and make the entire supply chain sustainable?
IDH has an idea, one that goes even beyond cacao. Let’s stop talking about each individual supply chain and start looking at landscapes, the nonprofit suggests. That's because cacao is often grown in the same areas, and sometimes on the same farm, as other crops. Some of these crops, like palm oil, sugar and coffee, are also linked to deforestation or labor rights issues.
“Since four years, we changed our approach,” Fitrian says. “It doesn’t matter if you are growing cacao, coffee or palm oil, the challenges are quite similar: productivity, lack of knowledge, or access to finance and markets. So, we are now mostly focusing on landscapes, not commodities.”
This includes an innovative pilot project to certify entire landscapes as being sustainable and free of child labor. This approach allows farmers to link their work to promote agroforestry and crop diversification with brands seeking to not only source child-labor-free chocolate, but also deforestation-free palm oil or sustainably-grown coffee.
“We are developing and supporting diversification, not only one particular commodity,” Fitrian says. “With these new interventions, and good management, farmers can find options in diversification.”
Of course, central to this is the willingness of brands to not only pay for sustainably-sourced cacao, but also to invest in these projects and build the future of agriculture. Two decades after the furor about child labor in chocolate, we’ve made real progress in building models to empower farmers. Now, we need to scale those up and build a truly ethical, traceable cacao supply chain.