What gives chocolate its unique taste is its main ingredient: cocoa. Indulging our sweet tooth on Easter and year-round relies on the work of millions of farmers, mostly in West Africa, who harvest cocoa pods from trees on small plots of land. Most of them are too poor to hire workers — so their children help with the farm work.
The cocoa and chocolate industry wants to see children in school, not toiling on farms, and has worked for decades with the West African governments to reduce child labor in the supply chain. The results have been mixed, meaning we urgently need a new approach to fix the problem.
N’Dri Kouadio Pascal is a farmer in Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s leading cocoa-producing country, and he is a great example of both the challenges and opportunities of cocoa. Pascal never went to school and as an orphan spent his youth as a child laborer on cocoa farms.
Today he farms his own 23-hectare plot of land in Toinié in southwest Côte d’Ivoire. He received assistance and training through an industry supported cooperative, which he says helped increase his yield and income.
“Before I was harvesting three bags and now, I’m doing about 20 bags,” he said. That means more money so he can send his younger children to school. Unlike his own childhood, his children do not need to spray the trees with insecticides, carry heavy loads, break pods with machetes or face other risks in cocoa farming work.
When we talk about child labor in cocoa this is usually defined as work that harms a child. More than 99% of all children working on cocoa farms in West Africa do so within their families. This is different from forced child labor, which a report showed is extremely rare in the cocoa sector.
Ending child labor requires the work of cocoa-growing communities, governments in cocoa producing countries, the chocolate and cocoa industry, and chocolate-consuming countries around the world.
Chocolate companies have invested more than $215 million in the fight against child labor. Some of these investments have shown results. The International Cocoa Initiative estimates that child labor has fallen by about 50% among the child laborers identified by its program.
The problem is larger than the successes, however. As global demand for chocolate grows, so does cocoa production. This can mean more children working on farms.
According to a recent report, 1.6 million children in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire are exposed to what the International Labor Organization calls child labor. Industry and the governments of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and the United States pledged in 2010 to work together to cut this number by 70% by 2020. This goal was not met.
Company initiatives to fight child labor currently reach about 200,000 out of 1.6 million cocoa-farming households. The challenge is to expand programs that fight child labor so they tackle the root causes of the problem.
These root causes are heavily associated with poverty. A higher income was important for Pascal’s children but so too was a nearby school and awareness campaigns against child labor. It takes a range of actions to lift farmers out of poverty and save their children from child labor.
The cocoa and chocolate industry is working with the West African governments to take the fight against child labor to a new and much higher level. New initiatives will seek to combine the work of governments, U.N. agencies and development partners, and civil society to tackle the root causes of child labor in a more direct way. This will include increasing farmer incomes, so they no longer need to use their children as workers. It will also include improving education for children with a significant public-private investment in the school systems in West Africa. Other actions will include expanding health, nutrition and child protection services.
These actions will accelerate industry investment and help achieve the Sustainable Development Goal, adopted by all United Nations member states in 2015, to end child labor in all its forms.
We want more cocoa farmers to be able to say what Pascal says when he declares that being a cocoa farmer is “a good thing,” because “you can take care of your children with that.”
A version of this article first appeared on Food Dive. It has been updated with new data.