The Darker and Lighter Side of Chocolate – A Story of Bitterness and Hope

Photo by nagualdesign

The world indulges in chocolate. Seven million tons of it annually, and the amount increases by 50% every decade. Yet, while children, teenagers, and adults alike in developed countries enjoy the sweetness of the chocolate treats, the experience of people in developing regions of the world, such as West Africa, is far more bitter.

What causes this discrepancy? The chocolate production process. Specifically, the growing and harvesting of cocoa, the key ingredient for industrial chocolate. Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana are the first and second largest global cocoa producers respectively. The neighboring countries carry a significant clout in the $103 billion dollar global chocolate industry.

Though multinational confectionery companies invest a lot of attention to Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, that attention brings significant socio-economic consequences. Though the issues of child labor and colonial economic models expose the darker side of chocolate and leave a bitter taste amongst environmental reformists and human rights advocates, there is hope to find a lighter side of chocolate in the future fueled by innovation.

The Darker Side of Chocolate – Child Labor
“Trafficking of children has always existed. Always,” emphasized Idrissa Kante, General Secretary of the Driver’s Union in Sikasso, Côte d’Ivoire. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, as of 2015, 2 million children in West Africa were stuck in dangerous child labor on cocoa plantations; labor that is a modern form of slavery. These children are cogs in the modern chocolate industrial machine.

In Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, the cocoa capital of West Africa, strategic headquarters of multinational chocolate conglomerates, such as Nestle, Cargill, ADM, and Barry Callebaut, dominate the city limits, businessmen in suits everywhere overseeing contracts and production delivery. But the truth is that fundamentals of the industry take place far away from here, in plantations that require cheap labor, resulting in the trafficking of children.

Children from poor neighboring countries, such as Benin and Burkina Faso, are often baited, coerced, or even kidnapped from their families and illegally smuggled away to be sold as an unlimited source of labor. Though some children are tricked by traffickers for the allure of money that could support their families, the children are rarely–if ever–paid.

Though the Harkin-Engel Protocol, a 2001 international voluntary agreement that was signed by the heads of the multinational chocolate corporations, was supposed to eradicate child labor in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, many international chocolate companies are unable to fully trace back their supply chain to farm level and as such deny that any child labor was involved in their chocolate production, but it is more than present. The likelihood is that if you are eating chocolate produced in West Africa, children will almost certainly be part of the production process.

The Darker Side of Chocolate – Colonial Economic Models
While child labor leaves a bitter taste in Côte d’Ivoire, colonial economic models maintains the bitter taste in Ghana. Although child labor is also prevalent in Ghana, a more overarching issue plaguing the country’s chocolate economic infrastructure is past and present colonialism.

Ghana was colonized by the British, an imperial super power. As a member of the British Empire, Ghana was a major producer of cocoa for the working and middle class in Britain during the Industrial Revolution. By 1911, Ghana was the number one producer of cocoa in the world. Although British colonialism departed after independence in 1957, a corporate colonialism took its place, whereby a small handful of multinational confectionery conglomerates perpetuated the economic conditions that prospered under British rule.

This reality was corroborated by the President of Ghana, Nana Akufo-Addo, who contended in 2007 that the colonial relationship “cannot, and should not continue,” and it was time “to enter ‘different kinds of commercial interests’” to invest in the “development [of] the cocoa industry in Ghana.” David Pilling reinforced this position, explaining in simple terms how Ghana “is locked in a colonial-style relationship with the world’s chocolate manufacturers in which it provides raw materials only to import finished goods.”  Until Ghana finds a way to escape this corporate colonial relationship with the chocolate industry, the darker side of chocolate will remain.

The Lighter Side of Chocolate – Breaking the Mould With Innovation.
Though Côte d’Ivoire produces more cocoa, Ghana still holds 25% of the global cocoa production market share. Yet, even with a large cocoa production apparatus, the Ghanaian home-grown chocolate industry struggles with a lack of refrigeration in its supply chain, and the inaccessibility to four of the five integral ingredients for chocolate: milk, lecithin, sugar, and vanilla.

Complicating matters is the cocoa board, the government body that regulates the wholesale of cocoa in Ghana. While this purchasing prerequisite is sensible for a foreign wholesaler, it is not sensible for a local Ghanaian cocoa farmer. Ruth Amoa, a UK-born Ghanaian, is one of the domestic chocolatiers disrupting the industry. She exposed the irrationality of needing to sell her cocoa to the government only to buy it back from them. Consequently, Amoa bypassed the government and made chocolate from her own cocoa without regulatory interference. She disrupted the industry, even at a small scale.

Entrepreneurs in Ghana are also breaking the chocolate mould in other innovative ways. In 2014, Kimberley and Priscilla Addison, perplexed by the lack of a dometic chocolate industry in their home country although they were the world’s second largest producer of cocoa, opened their own boutique chocolate company called ‘57 Chocolates. Named after 1957, the year Ghana gained independence, the Addison sisters’ chocolates are engraved with historic Ghanaian Ashtani symbols. ‘57 Chocolates officially opened in 2016 with a made-to-order business model with hopes to start a retail business soon.

Similarly, Selassi Atadika breaks the chocolate mould with Ghanian–and African–flair. Born in Ghana but raised in New York state, Atakida went to the United States for culinary lessons after a decade working as a UN humanitarian aid worker. She then returned to Ghana to help her country folk and foreigners alike appreciate African cuisine more.

Back in Ghana, she founded Midunu, “a pop-up restaurant and private dining business that also makes chocolate truffles featuring flavour from around the continent infused in Ghanain chocolate.” As a homage to Ghana’s African heritage, Midunu utilizes authentic African ingredients that are locally sourced and seasonal to embrace the many flavors of the continent. Atadika narrates “stories of Africa on a plate” and in her chocolate truffles.

Hope for the Future
Although boutique chocolatier establishments, such as ‘57 Chocolates and Midunu, are in the minority in Ghana and are not yet close enough to bridge the gap in cocoa production, they are making progress. If chocolate lovers locally and internationally support these small, independent chocolate makers at a large enough scale while advocating for the eradication of child labor, then countries such as Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana will slowly liberate themselves from the bondage of child labor and shackles of a corporate colonialism, allowing them to compete for market share in the global chocolate economy.

In 2019, the shackles of corporate colonialism were loosened when Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana turned off the cocoa tap to foreign exporters. The two countries demanded that multinational conglomerates paid 30% more to the cocoa farmers. A 30% pay increase sounds impressive enough; yet, it is just an increase of 30 cents a day for farmers.

Though it was just a drop in the financial bucket, it was a step in the right direction. By raising the wages of farmers, those farmers would be able to invest in their children’s education rather than send them out in the cocoa fields. With future financial reform to raise the wages of cocoa farmers, coupled with the entrepreneurial spirit and innovative methods of locals in West Africa, not only shows the lighter side of chocolate as they disrupt a multi-billion dollar industry, but also shines hope that  the future of chocolate is not bitter after all.

For Times Media Mexico
Beto Wetter

Beto Wetter is an environmental advocate from California who writes for a myriad of online and print media for international publications.