Child Labor in Ivorian Cocoa Production: An Economic Problem

Children join farmers in breaking cocoa pods on an Ivory Coast farm (Lowy 2016).

In the 1990’s, evidence of child trafficking in the cocoa–producing sector of Africa came to light. The issue gained global notoriety in 2000 when BBC released a documentary on the use of enslaved children on cocoa farms in some of West Africa’s top cocoa-producing countries. Outraged at this injustice, a strong movement to end child slavery rose in response. Bills such as the Harkin–Engel Protocol were passed, global powers pressured West African governments to intervene, and consumers began to demand chocolate made with ethically sourced cocoa beans or boycotted the good altogether. As researchers and reporters began to scrutinize the issue, however, it became clear that child labor was a far more complex problem than originally depicted. In 2009, a study conducted by Tulane University revealed that of the millions of children working on cocoa farms in West Africa, less than 0.5% were coerced into employment by a non–relative (Satyarthi 2016). While any form of child slavery is unacceptable, this study shows there is more to the issue of child labor than the purely malicious and immoral abuse of children.

Child labor in Cote D’Ivoire’s cocoa farming sector is an economic problem for two reasons. Most children in Cote D’Ivoire are “employed” on the farms of their own families. Cocoa farming is extremely labor–intensive, but the margins earned on cocoa beans are very slim. Cocoa farmers have come to rely on help from their children as cheap or free labor to survive on the little profit they are able to derive from production. Working on the family’s cocoa farm is seen as a much more beneficial use of children’s time than a formal education not only for the family’s economic needs but for the child’s future as well. It is a traditional practice to teach children the skills they need to one day take ownership of the family’s cocoa farm. This essay argues child labor is an economic problem on two fronts. Ivorian cocoa farmers need help from their children to meet the family’s financial needs, and the skills children gain from working on cocoa farms is seen as the best way parents can prepare their children for economic success in the future.

While cocoa farming requires intensive labor and maintenance, cocoa does not earn much revenue. Cocoa production is dominated by millions of smallholder farmers across the globe. Most cocoa is supplied by farmers in West Africa. In particular, Cote D’Ivoire is the world’s largest producer of cocoa, growing 40 percent of the global cocoa supply (Leissle 2018, 4). While the global market value of the chocolate industry is valued at $100 billion, the cocoa industry is only valued at $12 billion (7). Split between millions of farmers growing limited yields of cocoa, West African cocoa farmers have been found to make as little as $0.84 per day (117). While price levels might be lower in West African countries than more developed countries such as the US, the differential is not so great that living on such a small amount of money per day does not mean living in poverty. To further illustrate this point, a study found that cocoa farmers tend to be less well off than the general population in Cote D’Ivoire, and poverty is higher among cocoa farmers than in the general population across all measures tested (Katayama et al. 2017, 9). The economics of cocoa farming and financial challenges that often arise in cocoa production has made cocoa farming fertile grounds for child labor.  

Income from cocoa farming is seasonal and very volatile, placing rigid liquidity restraints on cocoa farmers. Cocoa farmers typically only receive income twice a year, which is once during the main harvest and once during the light crop season. Farmers therefore earn as much as 80% of their earnings from cocoa at one point in a year. Women in the family can often earn petty cash in the off-seasons through selling subsistence goods or homemade crafts in local markets to supplement the lack of cash flow in the rest of the year. The main source of income is from the main harvest of cocoa, however, making budgeting and saving very difficult (Leissle 2018, 106). In addition, the revenue a farmer makes per year is also variable due to differences in annual yields and prices. Both yields and prices are subject to environmental factors such as rainfall, temperature, and crop disease. Cocoa farmers are also extremely vulnerable to income shocks. Farmers have low credibility due to income volatility and low cash flow for a majority of the year, and few people in rural Cote D’Ivoire use or even have access to bank accounts. Farmers must often resort to shark loans with interest rates as high as 100% to pay for hospital bills, making debt accumulation a dangerous yet common financial hardship for cocoa producers (Ryan 2011, 60). Due to tough liquidity constraints and few ways to smooth consumption, cocoa farmers often live hand–to–mouth in constant economic uncertainty.

In Cote D’Ivoire, the “pisteurs” purchase cocoa directly from the village and bring the beans to a warehouse in a regional city. The beans are then sold to exporters. The offloading of beans at the middleman’s warehouse is pictured here (Neuhaus 2006).

On top of the inconsistency of earnings, cocoa farmers have little market power and live off extremely low profit margins. The cocoa market in Cote D’Ivoire is an inverted pyramid made of many local farmers, middlemen, and exporters. To sell cocoa, farmers must package cocoa beans and take the produce to the village middleman. These middlemen, who are licensed by the government, are used because it is illegal in Cote D’Ivoire for exporters to interact directly with farmers. A study on Cote D’Ivoire’s cocoa market reports while there are nearly one million cocoa farmers in the country, there are only 1,000 licensed middlemen, creating a huge distortion of market power (Kireyev 2010, 5). The study finds Ivorian producers received, on average, no more than 41 percent of the world price for cocoa in 2001–2009, which is the lowest share in West Africa and plausibly the world (8). Most cocoa farmers grow small farms of 3 hectares with yields as little as 137.5 kg per hectare (Ryan 2011, 59). Coupled with depressed prices, cocoa farming revenue is extremely low.

A young boy uses a machete to break cocoa pods at a farm in eastern Cote D’Ivoire (Lowy 2016).

Cocoa farming is also an extremely labor–intensive business. Farmers must harvest cocoa by climbing cocoa trees, hacking down and breaking open pods with the brute force of a machete to obtain the valuable beans inside. Kilograms of beans must be carried from place to place while they are fermented, dried, and packaged for sale. Even outside of harvesting, cocoa farms must be meticulously maintained and protected by weeding the soil, pruning and fertilizing trees, and planting new seedlings. This labor is not only physically demanding but costly. Cocoa farmers must also pay for capital such as fertilizers, drying racks, and new seedlings. With little revenue to begin with, the costs of capital and labor are high relative to total earnings. Cocoa farmers need the cheapest workers possible, which is often their own family and children, to keep up with the labor demands of cocoa farming (Ryan 2011, 59–60). There is therefore immense economic pressure on cocoa farmers to resort to child labor to cut costs enough to survive. Liquidity constraints, low revenue, and high costs of production have not only made living on cocoa extremely difficult but also limited farmers’ options on how they can make cocoa production economically sustainable.

Many cocoa farmers also believe it is more beneficial to their children’s future economic success to have the children work on the family’s cocoa farm than to have them receive a formal education. In Cote D’Ivoire and many African countries, work is seen as a rite of passage for children, especially young men, and as a tool for socialization. Much of the work assigned is seen as appropriate for the child’s age. For example, the youngest children work by helping to maintain the home or cultivate a farm plot. This work, called “child work,” is considered an “acceptable” participation in subsistence and training for the child’s future life. In Cote D’Ivoire and many developing countries in general, parents and grandparents have often not received a formal education. They therefore place emphasis on learning through work rather than school because they know for sure that children will receive the skills and training they need to successfully work on the farm, and the child is guaranteed a job working on the farm in the future. Meanwhile, receiving a formal education does not necessarily lead to a good job or guarantee a job at all (Buono and Babo 2013). Child labor is therefore not considered an issue in most African countries but a social norm. In fact, Kielland and Tovo (2006) and Guessous (2002) argue that child labor is perceived by parents as a sure guarantee for their future.

Since life in rural Cote D’Ivoire is very difficult, the first imperative of most families is to teach children the skills they need to be autonomous and not dependent on any family members from as early an age as possible. The mortality rate in rural Cote D’Ivoire is high, and parents want their children to be able to survive in the event that there is no one to care for them. In this vein, the work of the land represents and remains the most effective protection against hunger. According to Buono and Babo (2013), “It is one of the rules that the adult teaches the child: ‘to sit’, to do nothing, is to die of hunger,” while growing food or cash crops such as cocoa and rubber that can always be sold for money is guaranteed to provide sustenance and income. It is not that cocoa farming and rural families in general see no value in formal education, however. In an ideal situation, most families want their children to both go to school and learn by working on the farm. These families acutely realize how valuable a formal education is (Buono and Babo 2013). One Ivorian farmer who was unable to attend school due to work demands at home stated, “Being an illiterate has cost me in so many ways…. I feel I am missing a lot” (Ryan 2011, 46). If a child does not attend school, oftentimes it is because the child is desperately needed to work at home. Additionally, if a choice must be made between formal schooling and learning farming skills, knowing how to work the land is seen as a much higher imperative, as this is most important survival skill a child can learn. Child labor is present on cocoa farms because learning how to work the land is seen as an imperative part of a child’s upbringing and a necessary skill for survival.

Halima, 10, used to work in the cocoa fields. Now, she’s in her first year of school and dreams of becoming a teacher (Vigneault-Dubois 2014).

The issue of child labor in Ivorian cocoa farms is extremely complex. In the first place, one must define how child labor is an issue, as many children are employed not only to help their families but also ensure their own survival and success in the future. Berlan (2013) defines child labor as an issue when working on the farm prevents the child from receiving a formal education or the work is harmful or hazardous to the child’s health. In most cases, children are prevented from receiving an education due to economic constraints. Cocoa farmers not only need the children’s help to sustain the cocoa farm but also cannot afford to send them to school. To help combat this conflict of interest, in 2010 UNICEF and the Government of Côte d’Ivoire launched a program covering the school fees of children of struggling cocoa farmers. As seen above, this program has met with significant success (Vigneault-Dubois 2014). Similar programs have been implemented by other major players in the cocoa industry. The World Cocoa Foundation and chocolate manufacturing giant Mars, for example, implemented a program in several cocoa farming villages in Cote D’Ivoire that incentivized cocoa farming families to enroll their children in formal education by providing children free lunches at school (PR Newswire 2015). While many of these programs are still small and new, they have proven to be very effective solutions to harmful child labor.

Examining Brazil’s cocoa–chocolate supply chain gives insight into how child labor arises and potential solutions to stop it.

Child labor in cocoa production is not a phenomenon unique to Cote D’Ivoire. Many cocoa–producing countries around the globe suffer from this issue. Brazil, for example, is the second–largest producer of cocoa beans in South America and has as many as 8,000 children working on cocoa farms (Picolotto et al. 2018). As discussed in the video above, child labor is a problem in Brazil for similar reasons as it is in Cote D’Ivoire. For example, one of the reasons why child labor is prevalent in Brazil is because of the low price paid to producers by middlemen and families’ economic need for children to work on the cocoa farm rather than attend school. Several solutions to this issue are proposed, including shortening the chocolate supply chain and improving producers’ coordination and organization to ameliorate the disparity in market power. Just as the issue and economic drivers of child labor are not unique to Cote D’Ivoire, successful programs implemented in Cote D’Ivoire might also work in Brazil. Similarly, the solutions proposed in this video could viably be applied in Cote D’Ivoire. The issue of child labor is complicated, but by better understanding the economic problems that drive harmful child labor, more effective solutions can be derived and implemented to eventually eradicate the worst instances of this issue.


Berlan, Amanda. 2013. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” The Journal of Development Studies 49 (8): 1088-100.

Buono, Clarisse, and Alfred Babo. 2013. “Travail des enfants dans les exploitations de cacao en Côte d’Ivoire. Pour une réconciliation entre normes locales et normes internationales autour du « bic », du balai et de la machette.” Mondes en developpement 163 (3): 69–84.

Grier, Beverly. 2004. “Child Labor and Africanist Scholarship: A Critical Overview.” African Studies Review 47 (2): 1–25.

Guessous, Chakib. 2002. L’exploitation De L’innocence : Le Travail Des Enfants Au Maroc. Casablanca: EDDIF.

Katayama, Roy, Andrew Dabalen, Essama Nssah, and Guy Morel Amouzou Agbe. 2017. “Welfare and Poverty Impacts of Cocoa Price Policy Reform in Cote d’Ivoire.” 29625. World Bank Other Operational Studies. The World Bank.

Kielland, Anne, and Maurizia Tovo. 2006. Children at Work: Child Labor Practices in Africa.

Kireyev, Alexei. 2010. “Export Tax and Pricing Power: Two Hypotheses on the Cocoa Market in Côte D’Ivoire.” IMF Working Papers 10 (269): 1.

Leissle, Kristy. 2018. Cocoa. Resources (Polity Press). Cambridge, England; Medford, Massachusetts: Polity.

Lowy, Michael. March 1, 2016. In “Inside Big Chocolate’s Child Labor Problem.”

Neuhaus, Tom. 2006. OFFLOADING BUSH BEANS. San Pedro, Cote D’Ivoire.

André Picolotto, Daniel Giovanaz, Julieta Casara, Luara Wandelli Loth, Lúcio Lambranho, Marques Casara, Poliana Dallabrida, Raquel Sabrina, and Tulio Kruse. 2018. “COCOA SUPPLY CHAIN ADVANCES AND CHALLENGES TOWARD THE PROMOTION OF DECENT WORK: A situational analysis.” ILO Working Papers.

PR Newswire; New York. 2015. “World Cocoa Foundation and Mars, Incorporated Team Up to Provide School Lunches in Cote d’Ivoire Cocoa Communities,” July 17, 2015.

Ryan, Orla. 2011. Chocolate Nations : Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa. African Arguments. London : New York, NY: Zed ; Distributed in the USA Exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan.Satyarthi, Kailash. 2016. “It’s up to Us All to End Child Labour.” Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development. The OECD Observer; Paris, no. 308 (June): 1B,2B,3B,4B,5B.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s