James Madhier is a 3rd year student at the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict, and Justice at the Munk School of Global Affairs. James went to Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire after winning the Global Challenge on Leadership and Sustainability organized by Nudge Global Impact in Amsterdam, Netherlands. Three winners of this challenge were sponsored by Tony’s Chocolonely, a social impact chocolate company based in Netherlands, to go on a mission of investigating Child Labour on cocoa farms in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. His work is sponsored in part by the Trudeau Centre for Peace, Conflict and Justice. Below is an interview conducted with him regarding his research:
1. In late November, you led a lecture on your recent investigation of child labour on cocoa farms in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. What initially interested you in studying this?
My interest in studying child labor and poverty in cocoa farming started when I visited Choco-Story, a chocolate Museum in Bruges, Belgium in June 2015. I had gone to Belgium at the end of May 2015 for the European Development Days Forum as a selected ‘Future Leader’ by the European Commission. During the weekend, I decided to go to Bruges with a group of other future leaders. My intention at the time was just to go for a relaxing trip to this medieval city and most importantly to learn about the story of chocolate. While at the Museum, I went to a section on cocoa production and I found that 70 % of the world cocoa beans comes from West Africa with Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire leading the pack. The exhibition at the museum did not mention anything about the lives of the children that work on the farms neither was there any information about poverty in cocoa farming. In Brussels where I was staying, there were chocolates at every corner in the city. It was intriguing for me to find out that there were no stories of cocoa farmers in the largest chocolate museum in the country – yet 70 % of the inputs in chocolate production comes from West Africa. I went to my hotel that evening and searched for further information on cocoa farming in West Africa and I was greeted by a child slavery case against Nestle and Cargill multinational companies in the US. This was the beginning of my interest in the issue. However, I did not do anything about it then. I just came back to Toronto after my program with the European Union ended. I only got the chance to engage with the issue again in November 2015 when I won the Nudge Leadership Global Challenge on Sustainability in Amsterdam, Netherlands. As a winner of the challenge on leadership and sustainability, I was tasked with the mission of ‘starting a movement to stimulate chocolate multinationals and consumers to choose for honest, slave free products as well as to chart ways to address poverty in cocoa farming,’ by Tony’s Chocolonely, a social impact chocolate company based in Amsterdam and Nudge Co. This was the beginning of my journey to the cocoa farms in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire.
2. It’s difficult to understand the magnitude of the hazards in the cocoa farming industry considering how non-transparent the processes are to the average consumer. What was the most shocking part of your discovery and why?
Among many shocking discoveries that hit me while I was on the cocoa farms, two stood out. First, while interviewing farmers in Agboville, a small town in south eastern Côte d’Ivoire, I was shocked to find out that the farmers did not even know what a chocolate is. I had asked them what they could tell chocolate companies and chocolate consumers. They were unable to answer my questions since they did not know chocolate in the first place. This is because most chocolate companies do not interact with the cocoa farmers directly since there are many intermediaries involved in the cocoa industry. The farmers do not understand the intersection between the multibillion chocolate industry and their small-scale cocoa farms.
The second shocking thing was the level of poverty among the cocoa farmers. I will not pretend here that I did not imagine poverty in cocoa farming before I went to Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, but witnessing it first-hand still shocked me. For example, in Agboville, I met workers who were getting paid an equivalent of CAD 45 per year. It would have been hard to believe the validity of this pay if I was given this figure by the workers themselves but I was given this figure by the employer and later confirmed it with the workers. The huts that the workers live in too are enough proof for this kind of pay. The farmers in Agboville also took me to their only elementary school that was overcrowded with kids crammed into the only available spaces in the classroom, along with the teacher barely moving at the front of the class.
3. Chocolate is a product that many consumers do not think twice about using – how can the average consumer go about learning about the “bitter roots” of cocoa farms, and what can they do to prevent using products from farms that support atrocities like child trafficking, labour, and poverty?
Consumers must demand reports from the companies and most importantly, they should seek transparent information from independent monitoring and evaluation reporters. Seeing a fair-trade label on a chocolate bar is not enough evidence that the chocolate you are eating is ethical. One of the things I found out while I was on the cocoa farms is that abandoning a village that uses child labour does not help end child labour in cocoa farming. Farmers still smuggle in their cocoa produce to other villages to sell their cocoa beans. Many companies that claim they’ve disassociated themselves from carrying out business with the cocoa producers using child labour; however, it is time to think twice and dig further for more information. Organizations like Free the Slaves have decent information that guide consumers in finding out about the atrocities of child trafficking, child labour and poverty in cocoa farming.
4. What can be done for there to be more change in the farming industry – not just on cocoa farms? How can child trafficking, labour, and extreme poverty begin to be systemically changed?
Ending child labour, trafficking and extreme poverty in cocoa farming and in other areas requires a whole-society approach. In regards to child labour and poverty in cocoa farming, poverty is identified as a cause and a consequence for child labour in the industry. Therefore, solving these two inextricable issues requires the actions of the governments, multinational companies, the consumers and the development agencies to work together. The consumers must push the multinational chocolate companies to increase the prices for the farmers. The farmers currently get CAD 1.91 per Kilogram of cocoa beans which is lower than the real price of CAD 10.03 per Kg of cocoa beans that a farmer is supposed to get, according to the True Price calculations. The governments, development agencie,s and multinational companies on the other hand, must improve services for the farmers. These include training the farmers on efficient farming methods, provision of efficient modern farming equipment, improvement of infrastructure such as roads and financial loans, construction of health facilities, water provision (such as irrigation services,) and schools.
In the long-run, there is need to move towards value-added cocoa industry in West Africa. There is an opportunity to open processing chocolate factories in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire to add value to the exports of this commodity to boost the economic opportunities.
Child trafficking however, is prevalent in part due to war and economic hardships. The neighbouring countries to Côte d’Ivoire – Burkina Faso and Mali – have been affected by civil wars that have worsened the economic and security situations for their citizens. Children from these countries get trafficked into Côte d’Ivoire where there are relatively more economic opportunities. Côte d’Ivoire’s institutions such as the border services were weakened by the war that occurred in 2010 and cannot track the trafficking properly. Securing these countries and improving the institutions in Côte d’Ivoire as well as improvement of economic welfare of the citizens are some steps towards systematically changing the status quo.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.