Madécasse Chocolate: Fair Trade, or Exploitation Redux?

An image from Madécasse’s website showing how its chocolate is supposedly farmed. An analysis of Madécasse’s promotional material reveals the problematic tropes underlying its representation of farmers and Africa’s industry.

Madécasse chocolate, created by two ex-Peace Corps volunteers, has garnered a reputation for its progressive stance on fair trade chocolate. Madécasse relies on two related claims to boost its image as an ethical company: first, Madécasse often cites its innovative strategy of keeping chocolate production within the hands of local Madagascar communities, and second, Madécasse boasts that its cacao farmers are able to earn up to four times more income than even fair trade cocoa. Although Madécasse’s socially-conscious values—reminiscent of the Cadbury company values—seem like an exciting opportunity for Madagascar farmers and a breath of fresh air in the chocolate industry, a closer look reveals that Madécasse relies on troubling assumptions about cacao farmers even as it claims to change the narrative surrounding chocolate production.

Madécasse has been praised by gourmet food blogs for the company’s core values, its aim to better the lives of cacao farmers, and its efforts to increase local production within Africa. Madécasse’s website claims that the company began selling chocolate because:

We fell in love with the people and the country and wanted to do more. So we started making chocolate there in 2008 in collaboration with a local manufacturer. Even though 70% of the world’s cocoa comes from Africa, less than 1% of the world’s chocolate is actually made there. We exist to change this.

Additionally, Madécasse claims to go even further than other fair trade chocolate companies because “Madécasse generates four times more income than fair trade cocoa because all of the chocolate production takes place only a few hours away from where it is organically and sustainably harvested” (Russo). By helping “people to produce their own chocolate, so that the work stays in Africa (along with the profits),” Madécasse seems to have incorporated “fair production” into “fair trade.”

However, troubling ideas pervade Madécasse’s feel-good story, as evident in the above excerpts from Madécasse’s website. But before analyzing the problematic aspects of Madécasse’s “exploitation” narrative, a historical analysis will help give further context to Madécasse’s ethics-driven business, and show how Madécasse’s tactics are nothing new in the chocolate world.

Cadbury company values in the 21st century

Chocolate production certainly has a troubled history because of the use of indentured servitude and slaves on cacao and sugar plantations. Yet there were conscientious efforts to reform and change the exploitative method of production as early as the 1800’s. William Cadbury’s boycott of São Tomé and Príncipe exemplifies how the idea of mixing chocolate and ethics is hardly new. Cadbury had heard that contract laborers were working in slave-like conditions on the islands of São Tomé and Príncipe where Cadbury sourced some of its cacao (Satre). The Portuguese plantations there used servicais, indentured servants that were really enslaved people brought from Angola to work (Satre); the conditions that met these slaves were so horrific that the average life expectancy on São Tomé and Príncipe was around 7-9 years (Martin).

To verify these claims, Cadbury hired Joseph Burtt to determine if the cocoa it was buying from the islands had been harvested by slave laborers (Higgs). Burtt’s extensive documentation of labor and slavery in West Africa eventually led to Cadbury’s decision to boycott cacao from São Tomé and Príncipe, a boycott that other companies also joined (although it is worth noting that Hershey did not join the boycott and labor abuses on those islands continued into the 1900’s). Instead, Cadbury and other companies turned to the Gold Coast and other regions to grow cacao; today, up to 60% of the world’s cacao comes from the Gold Coast, mostly bulk cacao of the foreastero variety (Martin).

The Cadbury story is important context for Madécasse in two ways: first, it shows that ethical concerns have been pervasive in cacao’s history, and that Madécasse is not the first company to use chocolate production as an avenue for social change. However, there is another lesson from the Cadbury story that cuts the other way: the Cadbury story also tells us that chocolate companies will try to deflect bad publicity by shifting production to other regions and that these companies may continue harmful production practices out of sight. In either case, it is important to read between the lines of Madécasse’s lofty words to analyze whether its agenda relies on faulty narratives of exploitation and poverty.

What is the reality of exploitation?

Despite the feel-good story of Cadbury’s boycott of cacao plantations in São Tomé and Príncipe, the reality was more complicated: the boycott did not eliminate the slave-like conditions on those islands (which continued up until 1950) and other companies like Hershey stepped into the void left by Cadbury (Martin) (Higgs). Similarly, Madécasse’s characterization of cacao farming in Madagascar paints an incomplete picture of the reality surrounding cacao farmers. In fact, several review of Madécasse chocolate have claimed that the chocolate is “guilt-free” and that the consumer should rest assured that they’re “giving a little something back with each bite” (Cocoa Runners). Only by challenging the exploitation narrative can we break down these statements to analyze the true means of chocolate production.

Cacao farmers have often been victim to the “exploitation” narrative, where they are assumed to be victims of the chocolate-industrial complex. As Carol Off writes, these farmers make a pittance that there is “little remaining for tomorrow” after they buy the basic necessities of life (Off). Off argues that “almost every critic of the industry has identified the key problem: poverty among the primary producers,” and asks if this problem could be solved by “simply undertak[ing ways] to make sure the farmers received a decent price for their beans” (Off).

However, this simplistic analysis ignores the role that national governmental policy and local pressures play in cacao production. At its most insinuous, this exploitation narrative paints farmers as either helpless victims or as exploiters themselves. What is often left out of promotional materials for bean-to-bar companies is how several layers of local, national, and industry forces are sandwiched between the consumer and the farmer. Cacao farms in Africa are often independent family farms with complex land ownership titles. These farms produce cacao for mostly foreign-owned corporations whose primary market is outside of Africa (Martin).

For instance, the equation is often complicated by national policies and inter-fighting that has little to do with how much consumers pay for a bar of chocolate. In the 1970’s agricultural crisis, harsh economic policy worsened economic hardships for farmers and disincentived farmers to continue growing cacao and other cash crops (Martin). Governments have also continued to use the marketing boards/caisse system to hurt farmers by forcing them to sell their crops at price below the world price. In some cases, farmers have been hurt by behind-the-scene politics: some countries had passed legislation that allowed the government to take money out of the cacao farming areas and use it for the benefit of the country as a whole in an effort to shift resources to promote urban industry (Martin). These urban industrial interests were seen as bigger threats to governmental rule and rural farmers had less consolidated power to challenge or lobby for change. All of these examples show how the narrative of exploitation often ignores cultural, economic, and political forces that stand between farmers and the product that we enjoy.

Does Madécasse rely on a simplistic exploitation narrative?

Madécasse’s promotion materials, as well as review of Madécasse chocolate, reveal how the “exploitation” narrative and several other troubling tropes still pervade “fair trade” chocolate production.

Madécasse’s writings contain faint undertones of colonialistic amazement and paternalism in the way it generalizes and describes Africa. Madécasse’s website contains these excerpts:

For centuries, Africa’s economy has been overly dependent on the export of raw materials (cocoa, sugar, coffee, vanilla, to name a few) with zero value added locally. These are eye-opening facts, which explain how a continent so rich in raw materials can remain so poor.

“These are eye-opening facts”—but to whom? Sure, Madécasse is writing to a Western audience, but even such an audience would have already been vaguely aware of African exploitation. The use of the phrase “eye-opening” here seems more to emphasize how Madécasse is doing a great service by raising awareness for poor African farmers—in fact, in the second sentence, Madécasse goes ahead and paints the entire continent as “poor.” Another concern centers around whether these eye-opening facts actually facts at all. Madécasse uses the slogan “Did you know that Africa grows 70% of the world’s cocoa, yet produces less than 1% of the world’s chocolate? Madécasse exists to change this by making chocolate entirely in Africa.” Yet there are chocolate bars and lemon treats produced in Africa (Martin). And Madécasse’s claims are completely contradicted by Madécasse’s later explanation of how they make their chocolate: “We work with a local chocolate manufacturer to actually make our chocolate, from start to finish, in Madagascar.” If there were already local chocolate manufacturers to partner with, has there really been “zero value added” locally, or was Madécasse’s trying to downplay the local economy and paint the Western industry as more advanced?

Another area of concern is that Madécasse provides limited information on the livelihood of farmers that it employs. This is a company who prides itself on how “Madécasse generates four times more income than fair trade cocoa because all of the chocolate production takes place only a few hours away,” yet Madécasse’s description of these farmers is just as opaque as some of the press releases for Hershey or Mars. Madécasse claims that “workers are paid above the “fair” price and are provided job and skill training.” While Madécasse does put the word “fair” in quotes as an acknowledgement that the industry can do more to compensate farmers, there is little else about how the farmers stand to gain any tools, education, or aid from Madécasse. All we know as consumers is that Madécasse has “created meaningful income for over 200 people – from farming of cocoa, to making our packaging, to making our chocolate”—which is a disappointing amount of information for an innovator in fair trade and fairly produced chocolate (Madécasse). The website actually writes more extensively on the environmental impact of nurturing cocoa trees than it does about the farmers that grow the trees: the website boasts an entire section on Madécasse’s “250 acres of forests that provide a safe haven to over 65 species of plants and animals” and “endangered plants and animals,” leaving farmers out of the picture (Madécasse).

Madécasse’s founders also seems to suffer from a minor “savior” complex in the way they describe their company’s impact on the local economy. In an interview with Fast Company, one of the co-founders Tim McCollum credits Madécasse for how “people are starting to wake up, and realize that for 100 years they’ve been exporting about 65 percent of the world’s cocoa to France, and then importing the chocolate that France makes with their cocoa. There’s this appetite for it to work in Africa as well” (Evans). But if in fact Africa is starting to realize its own production capabilities, the better explanation might be because demand is increasing as a “genuine middle class is emerging across the continent,” not because of foreign investment in one chocolate brand (Russo).

McCollum also pats Madécasse on the back for how it has supposedly created a pool of talent in Africa: McCollum begins by generalizing that “Africa suffers from a brain drain. Everyone who’s educated there is educated abroad and they usually don’t come back because there are no jobs.” To combat this, the founders claim they have “create[d] opportunities for talented individuals even when there isn’t a position available simply to hold on to them,” because “the people are so few and far between that we’ll create that opportunity” (Evans). Not only is this statement extremely dismissive of potential African ingenuity, it also creates a sense that foreigners are qualified to identify and cultivate talent to “save Africa,” for lack of a better term. These condescending “savior” undertones taste bitter in light of Madécasse’s promise to encourage self-growth in local economies.

In conclusion, Madécasse rests on praise-worthy principles: supporting local production and raising awareness of fair trade ideas. However, Madécasse’s execution is flawed in several respects: in terms of historical context, Madécasse is hardly the first company to mix ethics and business, despite what Madécasse’s promotional materials indicate. Additionally, Madécasse might want to have a look at the historical and political context surrounding the production of its beans: as history shows, paying more for cacao beans doesn’t work if the government is the only seller to the global market and simply pockets the increase, and change cannot occur if our conception of cacao farmers does not take government policy and local pressures into consideration. Lastly, Madécasse’s rhetoric is troubling in the way that it paints the local economy as helpless and in need of a foreign infusion of leadership when its own website admits that Madécasse came into existence by relying on already-existing farms and local manufacturers. While Madécasse’s fair trade goals are well-intended, its exploitative narrative and practices should be examined for its perpetuation of simplistic and reductive tropes that pervade the chocolate industry.

Works Cited:

  • CocaoRunners. “Madécasse.” Online
  • Evans, Lisa. “How a Chocolate Company in Madagascar Overcame the Odds.” Fast Company. 3 April 2014. Online.
  • Higgs, Catherine. Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, Slavery, and Colonial Africa. 2012. Print.
  • Madécasse. “Our Impact.” Online
  • Martin, Carla. “Modern Day Slavery.” 2016. Powerpoint/lecture.
  • Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: Anatomy of an Industry. 2014. Print.
  • Russo, Maria. “Made in Madagascar: How the World’s Finest Chocolate is Finally Being Produced at Home.” The Cultureist. 27 March 2012. Online.
  • Satre, Lowell. Chocolate on Trial: Slavery, Politics, and the Ethics of Business. 2005. Print.



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