Could South America Provide Competition to Disincentive African Child Labor?

The above video depicts what has come to be a normal occurrence in the modern day cocoa trade.  Nestlé’s Kit-Kat bars, which the creator of the video claims is one the products these African children’s harvest will contribute towards, sells in stores with a fair trade logo on the wrapper.  This wrapper, depicted below, signifies that Nestle refuses to purchase cocoa made with child labor.  While Nestle, other large manufacturers of chocolate, and the ILO claim dedication to ending and preventing the worst forms of child labor, countless cases of this labor’s involvement in the chocolate industry continue to be brought to light.  With little economic or political incentive for the local governments of the Ivory Coast and Ghana to be tough on child labor, these practices stand to be the status quo in Africa for the foreseeable future unless action is taken.

One key economic incentive could stem come from the birthplace of chocolate, South America.  Once home of the largest cacao farming operations in the world, South America is now mostly known for single-sourced artisan chocolates with Africa exporting the most bulk cacao.  However, a few large South American chocolate manufacturers have had success producing foods closely resembling those of the big five chocolate makers with locally grown cocoa.  South America is still developing as a whole, but generally tends to be better off then Africa and is much less likely to participate in child labor practices.  If companies such as Nestle, Hershey’s, and Cadbury chose to start utilizing South American farms on the basis of African child labor, a significant economic incentive could finally arise to motivate the governments of the Ivory Coast and Ghana to end child labor in the cacao farming industry.

Before searching for drastic alternatives, it is necessary to examine how bad the existing problem in Africa really is.  Documentaries such as the one shown above can often have particular agendas and rely on anecdotal evidence of the specific farms that they visited.  Carol Off gives a more thorough look into child labor practices in the African cocoa industry through her book Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side Of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet.  One of the worst forms of child labor according to the ILO is labor that prevents children from going to school.  During Off’s travels to cacao farming villages in the Ivory Coast, she found that none of the children there attended school (Off 6).  Off even discovered evidence that child slaves were being smuggled onto farms in the Ivory Coast and worked to near death (Off 121).  When large corporations such as Hershey’s and Mars caught word of the reports, they admitted that the majority of their cocoa comes from the Ivory Coast, but claimed that it was impossible for them to monitor the proceedings at all of the small farms (Off 140).  The child labor problem is truly a systemic issue throughout the largest producers of African cocoa.

Despite these findings, no good alternatives or preventative measures have been proposed.  According to Orla Ryan in her book, Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa, United States Senator Tom Harkin was inspired to create such a change after witnessing the dire state of cacao farms in the Ivory Coast (Ryan 43).  This visit sparked the Harkin-Engel protocol, an international effort to end the worst forms of child labor on these African farms.  Unfortunately, this protocol serves more as a method to raise awareness of the issue rather than providing a means to ending these practices.  The protocol included a statement that further action is needed and formed a group that would research and advise on potential ways to improve the situation.  Years after the protocol was established, the situation is not much different in Africa.

Local power in Ghana and the Ivory Coast has made it difficult for national governments to fully help out with the protocol.  The social situation in the countries has created a dynamic that allows child labor to continue its existence.  In Ghana, cocoa farming is controlled by the Asante.  The Asante are an elite group whose chiefs are very powerful at the local level.  These powerful few dominate the cocoa industry in Ghana and accumulate most of the wealth from the trade.  According to Gwendolyn Mikell in her book, Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana, these large and powerful groups would often use the weaker in society as pieces to further their influence in the state (Mikell xiii).  This leads to a fair deal of oppression on the hands of the elite in this group as they vie for power with the Ghanaian national government.

The Ivory Coast exhibits the opposite problem.  Rather than large farms being controlled by a few members of society, the Ivory Coast relies on many smaller unconnected farms to contribute to the nation’s harvest.  Unlike the Asante in Ghana, these farmers do not pose much of a threat to the national government.  In turn, the Ivory Coast does not have a strong infrastructure of oversight of the nation’s various cacao farms.  It is extremely easy for these small farmers to operate counter to the Harkin-Engel Protocol without being monitored by any regulatory agencies.  These issues in Ghana and the Ivory Coast make it extremely difficult for local politicians to cooperate with the protocol and crack down on the worst forms of child labor on their farms.

South American nations have a very different social structure than the African cacao powerhouses.  According to Mikell, Latin American development has been carefully monitored and is not as chaotic as economic progress in Africa has been (Mikell xvi).  This social structure is conducive to a society that can thrive without relying on the worst forms of child labor on their farms.  Home to the world’s largest cacao plantations before Europeans began mass producing chocolate and buying from primarily African farms, South American cacao has recently started to make a comeback, most specifically in the single origin chocolate industry.  Kristy Leissle explains this rise in her article, “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.”  In the article, Leissle highlights artisan chocolate makers role in giving South American farmers business with their single source chocolates.  Africa tends to be associated with many negative connotations with slavery and violence at the forefront (Leissle 26).  On the other hand, countries such as Venezuela and Ecuador convey exotic messages and are more appealing to artisan chocolate consumers.   It is not surprising to learn that Ecuador and Venezuela produce over twenty percent of single origin cocoa (Leissle 23).  Political solutions to child labor in Africa have so far failed.  The problem certainly seems difficult to solve from a political standpoint.  Economically, Africa has few competitors in the cacao farming industry.  Perhaps the rise of single source cacao farming in South America could lead to competition that incentivizes the end of African child labor.

While companies as large as Hershey’s, Nestle, Cadbury, or Mars have yet to purchase significant amounts of cocoa from outside of Africa, some large South American chocolate companies have seen a fair amount of success making similar products from Latin cacao.  The above picture depicts a Jet chocolate bar produced by Grupo Nutresa, a food company headquartered in Colombia.  Jet is not an artisan chocolate bar and resembles a bar that could be made by any of the four previously listed large companies. According to Bloomberg Business, Jet is one of the bestselling chocolate bars in the world with forty seven million dollars in annual sales.  Unlike other top selling chocolate bars, none of the cocoa in this bar comes from Africa.  The map below is an excerpt from Grupo Nutresa’s sustainability report highlighting the origins of its raw materials.  The entirety of Grupo Nutresa’s cacao originates from the South American countries of Colombia and Ecuador.


Grupo Nutresa and Jet are not alone in South American only production.  Grupo Arcor is a large South American food company, best known for its brands of chocolate and other candies.  The website candy industry ranks Grupo Arcor as one of the top candy manufacturers in the world.  Again, this high performing candy manufacturer goes against the grain and imports no cacao from Africa.  In Grupo Arcor’s supplier report, Argentina, Brazil, and Chile are listed as the three countries that supply the company with its raw farm materials.  These large chocolate manufacturers succeeding with South American cacao alone could pave the way for a viable economic disincentive of the worst forms of child labor in Africa.


If global chocolate manufacturers refused to purchase cocoa from Ghana and the Ivory Coast as long as illegal child labor remains, opting instead to buy South American cocoa, a significant incentive against child labor would finally be in place.  An economic incentive seems necessary.  Previous political actions, such as the Harkin-Engel protocol, have failed to cause meaningful change, and the social environments present in both Ghana and the Ivory Coast make it unlikely for local governments to be able to wholeheartedly cooperate with efforts.  South America, as one of the largest cacao producers outside of Africa could provide enough competition to drive meaningful change.  The continent has already exhibited success outside of the single-origin space that it is most known for.  This plan may be slow moving and require some encouragement from global powers due to the shear amount of cacao production South America would have to take on in order to gain a significant number of clients, and more research into how much production the region could realistically handle must be taken on.  With Africa maintaining such a large share of the global cacao market, South America appears to be the only place remotely capable of putting enough market pressure on the African nations to curtail upon the worst forms of child labor in order to keep their farms functioning.

Works Cited

Kit Kat: Give the Child Slaves a Break. Ken Symes. Youtube, 2011.

Wolfenden, Paul. Kit Kat Now Carries the Fairtrade Foundation 9 Dec. 2009. Web.

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New York: New, 2008.

Ryan, Orla. Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. London: Zed, 2011.

Mikell, Gwendolyn. Cocoa and Chaos in Ghana. New York: Paragon House, 1989.

Leissle, Kristy. “Invisible West Africa: The Politics of Single Origin Chocolate.”Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture (2013): Web.

Jet MilkCompania Nacional De Chocolates. Web.

“The World’s Best-Selling Candies: Colombia.” Bloomberg

Grupo Nutresa. Informe Anual Y De Sostenibilidad 2013.

“Top 100 Candy Companies.” Candy Industry.

Grupo Arcor. Suppliers, Customers, and Consumers.

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