A Case for Infrastructure to Help End Child Labor in Cocoa

Author Kristy Leissle

Co-Founder, Cocoapreneurship Institute of Ghana
Affiliate Faculty, African Studies, University of Washington
Cocoa farmer Solange Aya N’Guessan and her family in front of their home in Tolakro, near Toumodi in Côte d’Ivoire.

Consider what your life would be like if you could not flip a switch and light a room, or turn a tap to get a drink. What if, every time you needed to wash your hands, you first had to walk several blocks to fill a bucket with water? What if every trip to the toilet meant exposing yourself to natural threats—snakes, scorpions, storms—or even ill-intentioned people? In many of our own lives in developed countries and urban centers around the world, sound infrastructure has made fulfilling these basic needs almost magically effortless. Reliable infrastructure is often taken for granted, ubiquitous and unnoticed.

But in rural cocoa-growing areas, poverty of infrastructure is a daily, oppressive reality. It shapes every aspect of life. When we understand what lack of infrastructure means, in a realistic way, I believe we can better comprehend why it is so difficult to keep each and every child out of harmful labor scenarios. Weak, unreliable, or nonexistent infrastructure adds to the context of an overwhelming workload I portrayed in a previous blog post to explain why child labor, including tasks that can be dangerous, persists.

Though certain areas do have some or even all the necessary infrastructure, many cocoa-farming villages have no paved road access, no electrical power, no safe water source or plumbing to distribute it, no hygienic, accessible sanitation, no health care delivery system, no affordable, reliable transportation in or out.

Let’s return to the village in Ghana where I researched to learn more about how its poverty of infrastructure magnified and exacerbated every challenge. Houses were made of wooden lattices packed with mud, with thatch or tin roofs, occasionally draped with tarp. No one had plumbing, so far as I knew, although residents had one village borehole with a manual pump. Some women ran side businesses selling prepared food, but there was no refrigeration or capacity for indoor cooking, and hardly any processed foodstuffs for sale. For many families, every meal began by harvesting the ingredients and building a smoky fire.

There may have been private latrines, but most people—including me while I was there—used a communal pit toilet: boards crisscrossed over a pit, sheltered by a thatch roof, no walls. There was no electricity. When I stayed overnight, a relatively prosperous family cleared a room for me and my research assistant to share. Even they had only one kerosene lantern, which they lit for us to sit outside in the evenings and talk. Compared to my life here in Accra, fulfillment of every basic need took at least twice as long and was much more exhausting.

As I noted before, domestic work and cash crop labor are not strictly divided, and it’s the same with infrastructure. Electricity makes every household chore easier, and also expands options for labor-saving farm tools and techniques. Universal water distribution saves endless work cleaning and cooking, but also makes certain forms of irrigation possible and can improve hygiene on farms. Paved roads make for easier access to school, health care, retail options, civic engagement, and family and friends living elsewhere. They also make the physically demanding and costly process of moving cocoa from farm to market more efficient and less costly.

Reliable infrastructure improves quality of life from home to farm, for adults and children alike. It is difficult from a research perspective to draw a direct line between, say, paving a road and reducing instances of child labor. But my many years of experience in rural cocoa-growing villages have convinced me that whenever infrastructure improves, and people’s lives get even that little bit easier, the daily burdens that children experience lessen.

  • Community members are pumping water at a well in Nyamebekyere, Ashanti region, Ghana

    Community members are pumping water at a well in Nyamebekyere, Ashanti region, Ghana

  • View of the cocoa farming village of Koforidua, Ashanti region, Ghana

    View of the village of Koforidua, Ashanti region, Ghana, equipped with solar panels and public lighting

  • Children in a cocoa community in school

    Children learn math in a cocoa community school. Photo by International Cocoa Initiative.

  • A truck bed for transporting cocoa sits in a cocoa community

    A truck bed for transporting cocoa sits in a cocoa community

  • Children outside at school in cocoa community

    Children play outside at school in a cocoa community. Photo by International Cocoa Initiative.

  • Cocoa farmer and motorcycle on sustainable cocoa farm

    Emile Zeke lives in Gobokro, near Divo, Côte d’Ivoire. He can only reach is cocoa farm on a motorbike. His cocoa harvest needs to be transported back to the village the same way.

  • Sustainability, cocoa sustainability, sustainable cocoa, why is sustainability important, sustainability defined, sustainability movement, cocoa plant, cocoa bean, cacao, raw cacao

    A farmer transports a bucket of items on his head on a dirt road near a cocoa farm

The reassuring news is that improving infrastructure is already a part of development conversations. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals informing poverty alleviation strategies across many industries, including cocoa, there is widespread recognition of the need to improve water, sanitation, energy, and other basic needs infrastructure. Sustainability plans and child labor remediation programs for Nestlé, Mars Wrigley, Mondelēz International, and Olam, among others, identify the critical need for infrastructure investment. And, of course, the governments of Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, the world’s largest cocoa producers, continue their development strategies to improve and expand national infrastructure.

It is frustrating for all of us that harmful child labor persists in cocoa farming. It is a systemic problem, and systems are not changed overnight. Eliminating child labor is not simply a matter of identifying children who are working in dangerous situations and removing them to safety. Individual approaches like that will not work comprehensively or over the long term. Real change must come from addressing basic needs for adults and children alike, and the context that serves up undue burdens for everyone. We can take hope from the knowledge that the companies, organizations, and governments working to eradicate child labor from cocoa farming are investing in broad-based change. I would like nothing more than to write that resolution is in immediate sight. But in truth, I can only urge us to take reassurance from the works in progress, and to confront this egregious problem with patience, fortitude, and clear sight.