West African cocoa farmers are trapped by the global chocolate industry


The chocolate industry is worth over $80 billion a year. But some cocoa farmers in parts of West Africa are poorer today than they were in the 1970s or 1980s.

In other regions, artificial support for cocoa farming creates a debt problem. Farmers are also still under pressure to supply rich country markets instead of securing their own future.

In research published last year, I explored sustainability programs designed to support cocoa farming in West Africa. My goal was to identify winners and losers.

I’ve looked at initiatives like CocoaAction, a $500 million “sustainability program” launched in 2014, and To sustain their livelihoods, cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana need to diversify away from cocoa. concluded that they were made in the interest of large multinationals. They have not necessarily alleviated poverty or developed the economies of the region. In fact, they have created new problems. To maintain their livelihoods, cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana need to diversify away from cocoa production. But multinational chocolate companies need farmers to continue producing cocoa.


Farmers choose to diversify their crops for a host of reasons. These include a reduction in the resources they need to produce a crop (such as suitable land) and a reduction in the price they can get for the crop.

Cocoa cultivation requires tropical forest land. It’s limited; it is not possible to continue expanding into new land to continue producing cocoa. So when the land is depleted, farmers would benefit from diversifying into products like rubber and palm oil. They don’t need to grow cocoa for itself.

Much diversification occurred during the cocoa crisis of the 1970s in Ghana. Cereal production rose from 388,000 tons in 1964/1965 to over a million tons in 1983/83, and declined when cocoa was “revitalised”. The same was true for coconut, palm oil and peanuts.

But such diversification has more recently been prevented by multinational corporations and other stakeholders who want cocoa farming to continue. Multinationals that depend on cocoa as a raw material openly (and rightly) view diversification as a risk to their business. They therefore continue to spend on inputs for cocoa cultivation.

In West Africa, cocoa has historically been slash and burn. The forest was felled and burned before planting, then when the plot became infertile, the farmer moved to fresh forest land and did the same again.

Why there is a limit to cocoa

The new land offered fertile soil, a favorable microclimate, and fewer pests and diseases. Cocoa cultivation required less work and brought in more.

Child trafficking increases as cocoa farmers look for cheaper sources of labor to replant. This explains the link between cocoa farming and deforestation in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. A recent survey showed that since 2000, Ivorian cocoa has been dependent on protected areas. Nearly half of Mount Peko National Park, for example, which is home to endangered species, as well as Marahoue National Park have been lost to cocoa plantation since 2000. In Côte d’Ivoire, the area covered by forest has shrunk from 16 million hectares – about half the country – in 1960 to less than 2 million hectares in 2005. Forest land is limited. Slash and burn cultivation is no longer an option, as much of the forest has disappeared. In West Africa, growers now stay on the same land and rework it. This created its own set of problems.

Rising costs and threats

In Ghana as in Côte d’Ivoire, several estimates of the cost of maintaining a cocoa plantation show that the investment costs necessary for replanting have approximately doubled. A labor investment estimate estimated replanting effort at 260 days per hectare, compared to 74 days per hectare for slash-and-burn planting.

The additional labor required for sedentary cultivation leads to child trafficking and child labor in cocoa cultivation. Child trafficking usually occurs when planters look for cheaper sources of labor to replant.

Farmers who have successfully diversified into other crops have stopped using child labor. In the cocoa industry, however, the use of child labor is increasing. For example, the number of children working in the Ivorian cocoa industry increased by nearly 400,000 between 2008 and 2013.

There has also been a massive increase in the use of fertilizers and pesticides to aid non-slash-and-burn cocoa production.

The increased inputs (labour, fertilizer and pesticides) for replanting the land equates to a higher cost of production. It cannot be adjusted by pricing. Cocoa farmers have no control over prices; they are price takers. Thus, the higher cost of production reduces the profit made by cocoa farmers.

This explains why cocoa farmers in Ivory Coast are poorer today than they were decades ago.

In Ghana, the government, through the cocoa marketing board, COCOBOD, has managed the transition from slash-and-burn to sedentary agriculture. The government has created a mass spraying program to control diseases and pests. He also subsidized fertilizers and created a price policy that sometimes resulted in a government subsidy. these links require users to subscribe. Due to the additional free input provided by the government, sometimes supported by NGOs and multinational corporations, farmers in Ghana have not become poorer. But this approach resulted in a huge debt for COCOBOD. For example, COCOBOD incurred a debt of GHc 2 billion (US$367 million) to subsidize the price of cocoa for the year 2017.

Although cocoa farmers are doing well in Ghana, it is not certain that Ghana’s cocoa sector is truly successful. The shift to debt financing artificially produced success.

The path to follow

Cocoa “sustainability” activities are not the way to go. Cocoa sustainability is a new form of colonization in Africa, as its real objective is to prevent African farmers from diversifying from cocoa to other crops. These programs keep the cocoa industry in deteriorating conditions.

The way forward is to switch from cocoa to crops that do not require forest land (new or depleted), additional fertilizers or more labor.

Research has shown that cocoa farmers in Côte d’Ivoire who have diversified into other crops, such as rubber, have managed to escape poverty.

But this is considered a major threat to the supply of raw materials to Western multinationals. A representative of a large chocolate multinational explained “my enemy is not my competitor in the purchase of cocoa, but the rubber industry”.

In conclusion, Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire need to think about what is best for them rather than what is best for the chocolate industry and consumers in the developed world.

The conversation

The conversation

Michael E Odijie, post-doctoral researcher, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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