Two Sides Of The Chocolate Coin

While American and European consumers associate chocolate with romance, desserts, and luxury, the disparity between end product consumer and cacao producer is significant. One perspective is that northern consumers provide self-agency and opportunity through a free market economic exchange in an environment that provides few opportunities. While western Africa currently provides 75% of the world’s cacao (Coe &Coe, 2013) the African cacao grower has to rely solely on northern purchasers as they lack the economic resources to purchase, manufacture, or market their product. With labor as their only agency, the African cacao grower is in a disadvantaged position in the food production paradigm despite their high product yield. Corporate complicity in unethical labor, slave legacy that has left southern producers turning to raw materials for economic survival, and consumer apathy created by distance from the food supply chain have culminated in producing very opposing experiences for the cacao supplier and the chocolate consumer.

Success in Cacao

With the steady increase of cacao prices, the cacao-growing region of western Africa has seen steady socioeconomic growth in the industry for decades. According to “CNN Freedom Project,” an organization focused on labor practices worldwide, in 2008-2009 western Africa supplied more than 75% of the world’s chocolate, while Europeans and North Americans were consuming a roughly equal amount (2012). In their book Cocoa in Ghana: Shaping the Success of An Economy, Shashi Kolavalli, and Marcella Vigneri observe the steady increase of cacao prices have allowed for significant improvement via more investment in production yields through transport and infrastructure. (2012). Kolavalli and Vigneri further observe that so lucrative is the cacao production in Ghana  that positive socioeconomic influences of the crop, and improvement in western Africa’s poverty, have been significant by stating,

“economic growth has been solid, averaging more than 5 percent since 2001 and reaching 6 percent in 2005–06. Coupled with the effects of greater access to education, health services, and land ownership (World Bank 2008), this rate of growth has contributed to the near halving of the national poverty rate since the beginning of the 1990s, from 51.7 percent in 1991/92 to 28.5 percent in 2005/06” (p. 205).

For cacao growing countries in Africa, maintaining this resource is critical to prevent sliding backward economically in an already impoverished environment.

Who is Eating All the Chocolate?

According to CNN’s freedom project, northern countries are driving the demand for chocolate. In this breakdown for 2008-09, Europeans and North Americans were responsible for eating an equal amount of western Africa’s entire production, which is 75% annually of the world supply. In simple terms, if you live in the northern hemisphere there is a good chance you are consuming on average between 9 to 24 lbs. of chocolate per year. (Satioquia-Tan, J. 2015)

The Swiss eat 24 lbs. of chocolate per person, per year. That’s roughly equivalent to eating half of a Hershey bar every day for one year (Maxim75, 2016)

World consumption of cocoa: 2008/09
Europe – 49.32%
North America – 24.22% (United States only – 20.19%)
Asia and Oceania – 14.49%
South America – 8.68%
Africa – 3.28%

The demand from northern consumers continues to increase steadily. In his paper, Cocoa production in West Africa, a review and analysis of recent developments, Marius Wessel projects necessary agricultural growth for western Africa to maintain its current supply when he states, “The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO) forecasts a 10 percent increase in the world cocoa production and a 25 percent increase of the cocoa price in the next decade. … If West Africa wishes to maintain its present world market share a 10 percent increase in production is needed in the next decade” (Wessel, M., 2015). This is significant in that considerable investment will be required to meet the growing demand, which in turn will offer more employment from land developing to harvesting; boosting the economy even further. The staggering contrast of chocolate consumption between northern consumers and southern producers however, in relation to race and geography is no accident.

A History of Disconnection

After the chocolate drink of Mesoamericans made it to Europe via Spanish colonists in the 16th century, popularity of the drink in Europe began to rise. When Spanish colonists exhausted the Mesoamerican population as a resource for labor, they turned to the middle passage across the Atlantic to Africa for labor to meet the demand (Coe & Coe, 2013). On a continent that functioned tribally with no formal governments, it was quite easy to enslave people into labor for the remainder of their life, which on average due to hard labor and dismal living conditions was about 7 to 8 years after enslavement (Coe & Coe, 2013). This of course, required massive quantities of slaves, which Africa had in abundance. In his book Sweetness and Power Sidney Mintz observes that by the 18th century, the European lower proletariat was adopting the culinary habits of the aristocracy as a way of establishing equality for people in lower social stations (p.181, 1986). The biggest promoter of chocolate consumption for the masses According to Coe & Coe in their book A True History of Chocolate was the industrial revolution when they state,

The Menier Chocolate factory in Paris, France. Mechanized in 1830, and shortly after became France’s largest chocolate supplier. (Expressing Yourself, 2009) 

“The Industrial Revolution, which changed chocolate from a costly drink to cheap food, [was] the driving force in this metamorphosis” (Coe & Coe, p. 232, 2013).

Before the industrial revolution the use of people from southern countries as a commodity for labor separated them from society and cultural habits of northern countries. Even had they wished to adopt the habits of their masters, there was no means or opportunity as a consumer base. Having never been ‘folded in” to European culture, they were completely disenfranchised as a chocolate consumer base. The exclusion of southern laborers and slaves from society as citizens, also found them ignored by the industrial revolution; leaving them to lag behind economically and industrially, unable to participate as consumers of chocolate.

State of Labor Today

After northern consumers developed a social conscience for disenfranchised populations and impoverished nations, one might be tempted to think everything has changed, but it has not. Still lagging from being on the outside of the industrial revolution, Cacao farming practices have changed little in the last hundred years. In villages of working adults there is a complete disconnect to their labor once it leaves the village. In her book Bitter Chocolate, Carol Off  tells of a village where all but the chief were ignorant of where the cacao went, none knew how it was used, and only one had ever tasted chocolate. Micheal and Sophie Coe argue that it is not only adults and families working, but that millions of children are trafficked and forced into slavery from neighboring countries (Coe & Coe, 2013). Off supports this claim by observing that slavery is alive and well  particularly in the Ivory Coast where child slavery is so common, it is a sub-industry of cacao with its own economy, as farmers finance networks to traffic children for forced labor who then suffer from starvation, disease and physical abuse while working on cacao farms (Off, C. 2006). While numbers of child slavery are at times sketchy and often disputed, no one denies it exists (Off, C. 2006).

Children from the Ivory Coast. Due to extreme poverty many children seek out work in cacao only to be abducted and worked as slaves. (DFID, 2011)

Consumers Grow Distant

The consumer vending machine selling prepacked processed chocolate adding a further degree of separation from labor to consumer. (Whitehouse, P. 2007) 

While slaves grow cacao, consumers grow distant. Though southern laborers have not advanced industrially, this is not the case for northern consumers. The industrialization of food completely changed northern food culture. Through mechanization, transport, and refrigeration, the distance between consumer and food source has grown. Mechanization produced food en mass cheaply, allowing access to goods that were more accommodating to lower budgets, while transport and refrigeration allowed food to travel further than it had before. (Counihan & Van Esterik, 2013) The biggest game changer in food culture was the mechanization of canning and preservation. With better preservation, food sources began to change, ingredients began change, and soon we had processed and prepackaged food embraced by women everywhere for freeing their time and labor (Counihan & Van Esterik, 81-82, 2013). After two or three generations of eating processed food transported from faraway places, with lists of ingredients that are rarely inspected, consumers today know very little about their food, or even what it contains. They are not unlike their southern counterparts in this way who do not know where cacao goes, or what its use is after it leaves the village.


Distance Creates Apathy

Capitalist consumerism breeds competition, creating incentive to keep the consumer

Cacao farmer in Ghana with his crop before it is prepared and bagged to be sent to manufacturers to make chocolate. (Rberchie, 2014)

happy. As modern chocolate consumers in the north are far more concerned with inclusiveness, fair treatment, and food activism than previous generations, the power of the purchase is seemingly an easy solution to the poor working conditions and poverty that are still prevalent in the cacao industry despite its economic growth. Far removed from the supply chain, unaware consumers continue to purchase due to lack of transparency in food product, and manufacturers remain complicit in the absence of financial threat. Manufacturers however also have limited power. Even with strict purchasing policies, and government regulation it is still difficult to know if a supplier is using slaves without constant physical inspections (Martin, C. 2017), and blame shifts all along the supply chain making it easy for manufacturers to be complicit, and consumers to remain uninformed.  Lack of transparency in food sourcing, blame shifting in the industry, and distance from food sources, culminate to create a culture of apathetic food consumers.

How It All Comes Together

The dichotomy between cacao consumer and producer today began with early Europeans and European colonists who failed to view southern peoples as sovereign and instead as a voiceless labor resource. Excluded from global interaction, Southern populations failed to participate in cultural trends, shifts, and innovations that were transforming society and industry elsewhere. Non-participation in the industrial revolution left southern continents behind in what would become a global economy with no agency for economic competition; turning to natural resources and labor for economic survival in a state somewhere between hunting and gathering and industry with little opportunity for growth. While mechanization followed by technology has created decadence in northern populations as compared to southern countries, northern consumers are today ignorant of their food supply chain because of these advancements, and unaware of the poverty and labor practices of those supplying it. Lack of transparency in food products add to this distance, and northern Chocolate manufactures as well as governments are complicit in unethical labor practices, shifting blame along the food supply chain leaving those who are aware unsure of who to even hold accountable (Martin, C. 2017). While northern consumers today have more of a social conscience than their ancestors, the opposing lifestyles of the chocolate consumer and the cacao laborer have failed to come closer together over the last several hundred years due to a legacy of “othering,” and complicit corporate interests protecting their revenue stream that has created an apathetic northern food culture.

Where We Go From Here

Consumer awareness is growing. Projects like Fair Trade, CNN Project Freedom, End Slavery Now, Slave Free Chocolate etc., have been working hard to inform the public. Many consumers now seek out fair trade products when available, and appear willing to pay more for ethical practices. In their paper, Consumer Demand for the Fair Trade Label: Evidence from a Multi-Store Field Experiment ,  Hainmueller, Hiscox, & Seguiera state,

“Total sales of Fair Trade goods in the United States in 2011 amounted to roughly $1.4 billion (FLO 2012) … But the average annual rate of growth in U.S. sales of Fair Trade certified goods was close to 40% between 1999 and 2008” (2014).

Fair Trade is not without its problems, as certification can be costly and marginalizes the poorest producers, but it is a start, and one of few ways to access transparency of the food supply chain in a consumer market that provides no source-to-store product information. Legislators are also working to intervene in child slavery practices. Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engen introduced a protocol to reduce trafficking in the cacao industry, agreed to by manufacturers and legislators from Ghana and the Ivory Coast as stated by the ILO, “that aims to reduce the worst forms of child labor by 70 percent across the cocoa sectors of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire by 2020” (ILO, 2017). Currently Fair Trade and other transparent and ethical alternatives have not achieved mainstream mass production, making it difficult for a consumer to use the power of the dollar against corporate complicity even when they choose to. Raising awareness and creating a demand for ethical products can aid in ending consumer apathy by closing the information gap, and denting corporate revenue streams that, with some work, will promote less disparity between southern suppliers and northern purchasers.


Works Cited


Coe, S. D., & Coe, M. D. (2013). The true history of chocolate (3rd ed.) London, ENG.Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Counihan, C., Van Esterik, P., (Eds.). (2013). Food and culture a reader New York NY. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.

CNN Freedom Project (2012) Who eats the most chocolate?. Retrieved from:                

DFID, (2011) Children of the Ivory Coast [digital image].  Retrieved from Wikimiedia Commons Website:

Expressing Yourself (2009) Menier Chocolate Factory. [digital media]. Retrieved from:

Hainmueller, j., Hiscox, M., Sequeira, S., (2014) Consumer Demand for the Fair Trade Label: Evidence from a Multi-Store Field Experiment. Retrieved from:

ILO, (2017) Africa: Child Labor in Cocoa Fields/ Harkin-Engel Protocol. Retrieved from:    labor/WCMS_159486/lang–en/index.htm

Kolivalli, S., Vigneri, M. (2014) Cocoa in ghana: Shaping the success of an economy. Retrieved from

Martin, C. (2017) Modern Day Slavery. Harvard Extension School. [Mar 22, 2017 Lecture].

Maxim75 (2016) Hershey Bars. [digital media] Retrieved from Wikimiedia Commons Website:

Mintz, S.W. (1986) Sweetness and Power. NY, NY. Penguin Books 1986

Off, C., (2006) Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of the World’s Most Seductive Sweet. New   York: The New Press.

Rberchie (2014). Cacao farmer [digital media] Retrieved from Wikimiedia Commons Website:

Satiodqua-Tan, J (Jul, 2015) Americans eat how much chocolate?. Retrieved from:   

Wessel, Marius (Dec, 2015). Cocoa production in west Africa, a review and analysis of recent developments. NJAS-Wageningen Journal of Life Sciences, 74-75, 1-7. doi:       

Whitehouse, P.  (2007). Vending machine [digital image]. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons Website:



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