Cocoa Farmers See Little Sweetness from Global Chocolate Binge

Photographer: Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images

A farmer gathers cocoa beans in Zamblekro, a village near the city of Gagnoa, Ivory Coast. Close

A farmer gathers cocoa beans in Zamblekro, a village near the city of Gagnoa, Ivory Coast.

Photographer: Sia Kambou/AFP via Getty Images

A farmer gathers cocoa beans in Zamblekro, a village near the city of Gagnoa, Ivory Coast.

Stop what you’re doing for a second and think about chocolate. Mmmm. Chocolate bars, chocolate ice cream, hot chocolate, chocolate chip cookies, 70 percent-cocoa dark chocolate bars (for the antioxidant hawks). What a delight. What a luxury.

It’s also labor-intensive to cultivate, and is harvested mostly by 1.5 million cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, the countries that grow just more than half of the world’s cocoa beans. Farming there or in other producing nations, including Indonesia, Ecuador and Cameroon, has led to child trafficking, conflict-financing and all-around awful working conditions, according to a 2009 Oxfam International report. Women, who make up a disproportionate number of low-paying jobs, face lower wages than men, harassment, lack of property rights and lack of access to credit, according to an investigation from the group released in February. "Many cocoa producers have never tasted chocolate," wrote the authors of the 2009 report.

Developed-world cocoa-philes are increasingly curious about who’s suffering for their bonbons — or among the cynical, how long-impoverished farmers can withstand the suffering so the chocolate river never runs dry. As Bloomberg’s Alan Bjerga reports, Nestle and Mars have now vowed to address women’s working conditions after Oxfam called them out last month. Nestle, which had the highest score among 10 companies surveyed, earned a middling four out of 10 points on women’s issues. Mars landed fifth overall and earned just a one out of 10 for its work on women and cocoa

Both Nestle and Mars have had cocoa supply-chain programs in place for a few years, trying to root out child labor, improve living and working conditions, instill good farming practices, and overall share some of the wealth, which is substantial. Nestle, which is based in Vevey, Switzerland, took in $10.4 billion from its chocolate and confectionery unit in 2012, 11 percent of its overall revenue. Mars Inc. is a privately owned candy-maker based in McLean, Virginia.

China, India and other developing nations are gradually finding their sweet tooths. Brazil, itself a producer, is nibbling itself into the band of top-consuming countries. Europe and the U.S. consume almost 70 percent of the world’s cocoa; West Africa now accounts for more than 70 percent of global cocoa production. Between 2002 and 2010, increased cocoa consumption in Europe and the U.S. made up 46 percent of global growth, or 337,000 metric tons, according to the International Cocoa Association.

Demand pressure from the rising global middle class and reputational pressure from ubiquitous electronic media have made these companies increasingly vigilant. It’s encouraged them to adopt management and operations practices that are more efficient and that safeguard their supplies. And, perhaps more important to their brand curators, it’s encouraged them to adopt practices that lessen the awkwardness of impoverished West African women toiling so that Europe, the U.S. and other nations can eat their cake and have it too.

Analyses and commentary on The Grid are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Bloomberg News.

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