The Plight of Cacao Farmers

Note: Sorry if this piece is a bit disjointed. I had the ultimate nightmare scenario of my computer crashing before I could save it, so my write-up is lacking in the punch of the original. Ah well. 

As I’ve long observed, it seems that there is no commodity or service we enjoy that isn’t tinged with exploitation and inequality (often as far away and invisible from us as possible). Chocolate, like most exotic agricultural products, is of course no exception.

A viral video from Metropolis, a Dutch filmmaking collective, depicts this harsh reality in a bittersweet way, showing farmers from the Ivory Coast, a major supplier of cacao, trying the final product for the very first time (indeed, some of them had never even heard of it).

Though first uploaded on YouTube in February, the video only recently started making the roads online and through media. Even NPR picked up the story, offering a grim summary:

“Frankly, I do not know what one makes from cocoa beans,” farmer N’Da Alphonse tells Selay Marius Kouassi, a reporter for Metropolis, an international news website. He’s heard it’s turned into food, but he’s never tried it. That’s because chocolate isn’t easy to find in Ivory Coast, and when it is, it’s sold for around $2.70 — a third of what a farmer like Alphonse makes in a day.

But when Alphonse tries chocolate, he immediately gets why people the world over are buying it. “Ooh! It’s nice … and very sweet!” he exclaims. He and Kouassi speed off on a motorbike to share it with other cacao farmers and the young men who help him on his plantation. “This is why white people are so healthy,” Alphonse tells the other farmers as they pass a chocolate bar around a circle.

This testifies to the fundamental human disconnect that characterizes today’s global supply chain. Those at the bottom do not even know why or who they toil for; conversely, those at the top — not to mention consumers of the final product — typically have little knowledge or concern about how or where the products are sourced. It’s a fragmented and dehumanized process from start to finish.

The NPR piece also offers some perspective on cacao cultivation in the Ivory Coast.

More than a third of the world’s cocoa comes from Ivory Coast; it produces more than any other country in the world. But most of the farmers are small producers like Alphonse, cultivating less than 12 acres and struggling to survive. He’s supporting 15 family members on $9.40 a day.

Some of the Ivory Coast cacao workers are even children. As we reported in 2011, child labor is a persistent problem in the West African cocoa industry.

What’s also fascinating is that cacao clearly isn’t a traditional food in Ivory Coast — it’s a commodity crop. And it takes a lot of work to turn those bitter cacao beans into something as delicious as a chocolate bar.

The Mesoamericans first invented chocolate but consumed it as a drink. It took several centuries for humans to figure out how to ferment, roast and process the beans to turn them into cocoa. And eventually we figured out that adding sugar and cocoa butter was the winning combination for those melt-in-your-mouth bars that have ballooned into a $110 billion a year industry.

Many, many cacao farmers like Alphonse (and not just in West Africa) reap practically nothing from their participation in the cocoa supply chain while retailers and companies like Mars and Nestle are pulling in the billions selling chocolate bars.

Sadly, this is a very familiar, if not routine, story. From coffee to T-shirts to the most cutting-edge smartphones, almost every commodity comes at a great human toll. Companies reap billions while the integral contributors to their bottom line are scarcely acknowledged, much less given better working conditions and living wages.

As an informative slideshow from CNN reveals, the majority of cacao comes from poor or developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia, where farmers earn no more than three percent of the final price — compared to 43 percent for retailers and supermarkets. Again, this is a very similar arrangement for numerous other goods.

It goes without saying that there is no justifying beggaring impoverished farmers while reaping in billions. While many entrepreneurs are thankfully aiming to be more socially responsible in their acquisition of cacao, their well-intentioned efforts are but a drop in the bucket for this massive industry. We would need nothing short of a paradigm shift in the way we conduct economic activity, especially with regards to foreign workers in poorer, far off nations. It should not be the norm for profitable companies to employ people too poor and disregarded to even know the fruits of their labor, much less be able to enjoy it.


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