Tag Archives: economic issues

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. http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1017/S0002020600030833.

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. https://ideas.repec.org/p/wbk/wboper/29625.html.

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. https://doi.org/10.5089/9781455210763.001.

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.” http://fortune.com/big-chocolate-child-labor/.

Neuhaus, Tom. 2006. OFFLOADING BUSH BEANS. San Pedro, Cote D’Ivoire. https://www.projecthopeandfairness.org/gallery-category.php?id=12.

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. https://cocoainitiative.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/04/Cocoa_EN.pdf.

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. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1696890536/abstract/A4E8B3D5D9D04362PQ/1.

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. http://dx.doi.org.ezp-prod1.hul.harvard.edu/10.1787/1ce14148-en.

Experimenting with Cocoa Economics

            Cocoa producers generally have very low, seasonal, and volatile earnings. As discussed by Kristy Leissle in Cocoa, cocoa’s seasonality determines when money comes into the household, which affects farmers’ ability to allocate income evenly across the household (105, 107). Producers are also greatly affected by risks inherent to agriculture, such as fluctuations in the market price of cocoa, weather, and yield. The risk and uncertainty inherent in cocoa producers’ lives stands in direct contrast with the centralization of cocoa processing and industrial chocolate production. Hershey’s is capable of producing huge quantities of chocolate for very low cost, generating massive sales and profits (D’Antonio 121). On the other hand, unpredictable shocks greatly impact the quality of life of cocoa farmers. While the large companies that dominate chocolate production and distribution can generally manage changes in the market, shocks impact various aspects of cocoa farmers’ lives, including household consumption, school enrollment, child labor, and various child health outcomes (Cogneau and Jedwab 532).

In recent years, various initiatives have emerged to try and “seek justice for famers” (Leissle 128), typically through trade. These include Fairtrade, which works to bring awareness to prouction that is “fair” for poor and impoverished workers (Sylla 17), as well as other efforts, like direct trade. A collage of the various sustainability certifications that exist is shown below.

These represent a variety of ideas and approaches aimed at improving the cocoa supply chain. However, a key question remains on whether these interventions are actually effective in terms of improving farmers’ lives. A study on “Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda” in 2014 was unable to find any evidence that Fairtrade made a positive difference to the wages and working conditions for those working in Fairtrade-marked commodity production, including cocoa production (Cramer et al 15). This is significant, as Fairtrade works with around 1.66 million farmers and workers, paying around €158.3 million in Fairtrade premiums (“Monitoring the Scope and Benefits of Fairtrade 13, 14). This represents value in various supply chains, including for chocolate, that is apparently still struggling to really change conditions for producers.

            Fairtrade is one of many organizations invested in improving conditions for cocoa producers. Other organizations include approaches focused on improving cocoa quality, improving sustainability, and various trade interventions. For example, the Fine Cacao and Chocolate Institute (FCCI) identifies, develops, and promotes fine cocoa and chocolate. It works to share cocoa quality knowledge with producers so that they can make more informed investment decisions. For sustainability, one organization in this space is Rainforest Alliance, which is mainly focused on environmental sustainability measures, like biodiversity conservation and natural resource conservation. Rainforest Alliance also discusses economic measures, like effective planning and management practices. Fairtrade International and various similar organizations look to marketing and labeling to increase consumer awareness for better trade terms. Another approach in changing conventional trade is direct trade, where chocolate producers source cocoa beans directly from farmers. These organizations all share similar goals, albeit clearly with varying approaches. As a whole, these organizations target different areas of the conventional cocoa supply chain and, ideally, could all have a significant impact on improving the lives of cocoa producers. To do this most effectively requires examining social policy in greater detail.

           One organization focused on gathering such information is the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab (J-PAL). J-PAL is a global research center working to reduce poverty by ensuring that policy is informed by scientific evidence. As Esther Duflo, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the co-founder and director of J-PAL discusses in her Ted Talk, shown above, J-PAL conducts randomized control trials on social policy to improve the effectiveness of social programs. A figure of the experiment design is shown below.

Randomized Controlled Trials

By studying randomized “treatment” groups in comparison to “control” groups, researchers can determine the real effect of social policy by comparing it to the “control,” which represents a counterfactual. These experiments cover a range of issues, such as malaria and immunizations, education and literacy, and economic initiatives like rural insurance, loans, and savings. Of relevance here is their work on studying the impacts of various economic initiatives. By examining various experiments and studies conducted by J-PAL and other organizations, we can consider how to most effectively improve life for cocoa producers. We will examine three main areas: increasing the price paid for cocoa, financial options that mitigate risk, and developing viable producer organizations. Understanding this research can help inform social policy programs and initiatives in the cocoa supply chain.

           The first area to examine is perhaps the simplest and most often cited: increasing the price paid for cocoa. In theory, higher-valued cocoa should sell for higher prices, but this is not necessarily true for cocoa. 90-95 percent of cocoa in West Africa is produced by smallholder farms that are spread apart (Ryan 59). Thus, there exist various intermediaries in the supply chain, where cocoa moves from farmers to traders to wholesalers to exporters and, finally, to buyers at the port (Casaburi and Reed 6). The number of parties in the supply chain means that it is difficult to ensure that increases in the market price of cocoa will actually make it to the farm gate price at which farmers sells their beans to traders. This is important to approaches that depend on paying a price premium for higher quality cocoa (e.g. Fairtrade, organic) or directly increasing the price paid for cocoa (e.g. through a government-established price floor). To study this, a team in Sierra Leone conducted an experiment where they offered a bonus to traders to mimic a market price fluctuation. They found that traders with the bonus (treatment) paid similar prices to farmers as traders without a bonus (control) (Casaburi and Reed 3). Thus, the market price did not translate directly to the producer price. However, treatment traders were substantially more likely to provide credit to farmers (17). Since rural areas often lack formal financial institutions, informal agents, like traders, can emerge as a source of credit; in this case, an increased market price meant that traders could offer advance payments for cocoa, allowing cocoa farmers to use those payments for production inputs or consumption smoothing. This is clearly preferred by farmers; treatment traders purchased substantially more cocoa than control traders (+188%), mainly from market stealing (18). Farmers, when offered the option of credit, preferred to sell their beans to those traders. This makes sense, since reputable sources of credit allow farmers to make investments and better manage their consumption, since their income is dependent on the seasonality of cocoa.

            As this study showed, increasing the price of cocoa does not necessarily translate to an increase in income for farmers; however, it could offer them more flexibility in managing their finances. As such, one way to improve life for farmers is to offer loans and insurance. With loans, farmers would be able to invest more in their cocoa, thus improving the quality of their cocoa and increasing their potential income. For small producers, many potential quality improvements are generally out of reach. This includes many certifications (Fair Trade, organic), which require certification fees and annual renewals. Cocoa trees themselves are also an investment, since it takes years for them to mature and grow fruit. This makes switching to growing cocoa trees that emphasize flavor inherently risky. This general logic applies to other agricultural inputs, like hiring labor. For farmers, investing in any of these is not guaranteed to result in increased income; weather, disease, market price, and other factors all greatly influence farmer income and make such investments risky.

In fact, a study found that risk, rather than capital, is the primary restraint on investment (Karlan et al (2014) 597). As such, organizations that are focused on improving cocoa quality, whether through better trade relationships, improved cocoa flavor, or some other standard should also consider and emphasize the financial infrastructure and options necessary for increased take-up, particularly for the smallest, poorest farmers. For example, to encourage cultivating cocoa for flavor, organizations could agree to purchase cocoa in advance of the harvesting season, guaranteeing a certain income and cash flow for farmers making the transition. This could even apply to experiments in other aspects of cocoa quality and flavor, like fermentation and drying. Another option is to design loans that include a crop price insurance element. To guard against price variability in the market, crop price insurance would include the indemnification of crop prices, where at a certain threshold, the bank would forgive some amount of the principal and interest of the farmers’ loan. In rural Ghana, researchers found that offering crop price insurance led to farmers spending more on their primary crop and selling more to market traders (Karlan et al (2010) 12). Basically, with insurance, they were more willing to risk looking for higher market prices instead of selling at the farm gate, which is primarily through pre-determined contracts with lower prices. There are many more studies focused on designing loans and insurance to make the most impact for farmers, and incorporating this knowledge into existing efforts could greatly improve the efficacy and take-up of cocoa quality initiatives. Furthermore, throughout design and implementation, organizations, particularly large ones like Fairtrade, could run their own experiments to both insure that their interventions are effective and to continually improve their methods. Many companies are more than willing to fund hundreds of studies to establish often-questionable claims of chocolate’s health benefits—why not expend that same effort on improving the cocoa supply chain?

Lastly, there is also an argument to emphasize the development of viable producer organizations in the cocoa supply chain. While there may not be quantitative research on factors that encourage such organizations, a case study of Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghanaian Fairtrade-certified cocoa farmers organization, found that emphasizing a “commercial framework” was vital to success. Below are two producers in the organization, Linda and Victoria, holding a bar of Divine chocolate, which is partially owned by Kuapa Kokoo.

Linda and Victoria from Kuapa Kokoo

Kuapa Kokoo was primarily focused on business development and farmer participation (Tiffen 393). “Developmental” discourse, like social-oriented activity and gender opportunities, were understood in terms of the business framework, and Tiffen points to this as a major factor in the long-term success of Kuapa Kokoo. In fact, she states that “efforts to ‘use’ the cocoa business structure for purely development projects-e.g. by well-meaning NGOs-have seldom worked and are frequently rejected by farmers” (393). As such, while producer organizations often include features like farmers’ trusts that sponsor medical programs, scholarships, school constructions and other community projects, these should not be the primary purpose of producer organizations. Producer organizations should focus first on supporting and encouraging cocoa farmers’ efforts to organize themselves and be “protagonists” in the cocoa supply chain. A common developmental paradigm is to view the poor as “looking for handouts” or taking advantage of aid, but often, the disconnect does not exist in faulty socioeconomic behavior but rather in flawed social policy design. As Esther Duflo said in her Ted Talk, “perhaps we should give them more credit” in seeing the value of the intervention over the opportunity for something free.

Cocoa farmers, like many farmers worldwide, face many risks in their daily lives. While demand for chocolate is always high, the actual conditions of the cocoa marketplace depend on a variety of uncontrollable factors, like market price, speculation, weather, and disease. There are many different organizations that strive to improve the cocoa supply chain, whether through educating farmers of cocoa quality or emphasizing fairer trade terms. However, it is often difficult to determine if these efforts are actually effective. In light of an often-opaque supply chain, it is important to consider designing programs informed by scientific evidence. A significant body of research has identified several credit and insurance schemes that are capable of mitigating some of the riskiness of farming, thus encouraging farmers to invest in their crops. If organizations want the cocoa supply chain to actually encourage sustainable practices, whether in terms of environmental or economic sustainability, they must look to rigorously testing that their initiatives work. It is fairly common to see chocolate labeled with “sustainably produced” in an effort to differentiate from the rest of the market; the reality for the cocoa producers is perhaps very different. Cocoa is a supply chain fraught with issues and abuses, but this does not have to be the case. If the numerous relevant organizations focused their time and resources on ensuring effective change, we would be working towards a fairer, better life for cocoa farmers.

Works Cited:

Casaburi, Lorenzo and Tristan Reed. “Competition in Agricultural Markets: An Experimental Approach.” 2017. Available at: https://www.poverty-action.org/publication/competition-agricultural-markets-experimental-approach

Cogneau, Denis and Rémi Jedwab. “Commodity Price Shocks and Child Outcomes: The 1990 Cocoa Crisis in Côte d’Ivoire.” University of Chicago Press, 2012.

Cramer, Christopher, Deborah Johnston, Carlos Oya and John Sender. “Fairtrade, Employment and Poverty Reduction in Ethiopia and Uganda.” UK Department for International Development, 2014.

D’Antonio, Michael. Hershey. Simon & Schuster, 2006.

Karlan, Dean, Ed Kutsoati, Margaret McMillan, and Christopher Udry. “Crop Price Indemnified Loans for Farmers: A Pilot Experiment in Rural Ghana.” International Food Policy Research Institute, 2010. Available at: http://www.ifpri.org/publication/crop-price-indemnified-loans-farmers

Karlan, Dean, Robert Osei, Isaac Osei-Akoto, and Christopher Udry. “Agricultural Decisions after Relaxing Credit and Risk Constraints.” Oxford University Press, 2014.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

“Monitoring the Scope and Benefits of Fairtrade.” Fairtrade International, 2018.

Ryan, Órla. Chocolate Nations. Zed Books, 2011.

Tiffen, Pauline. “A Chocolate-Coated Case for Alternative International Business Models.” Development in Practice, Vol. 12, No. 3/4, 2002. pp. 383-397.

Taza Chocolate: A Step in the Right Direction, but Still Room for Improvement

As you have probably discovered when looking through the chocolate display in various retail and grocery stores, five large players dominate the global chocolate market. Their prevalence allows them to dictate the rhetoric and information synthesized by chocolate consumers on a daily basis. However, the industry is fraught with serious issues that these companies are not taking drastic enough steps to solve. Instead, we must look to other companies, although less well known and smaller-scale, that are forging innovative paths to solve these very real problems, in order to learn from them but also recognize where there is room for improvement. One such company is Taza Chocolate. 

 Taza Chocolate is a bean to bar chocolate company based in Somerville, Massachusetts. It was founded in 2005 by CEO Alex Whitmore, who was inspired by the stone ground chocolate he had tasted on a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico. He apprenticed under a molinero in Oaxaca in order to learn how to make and work with traditional Mexican stone mills. The result of these unique mills and minimal processing is chocolate with bolder flavors and a grittier consistency than the smoothness that is usually expected from more mainstream companies. 

Summary of the Taza Chocolate production process

Taza chocolate can be bought online through its website or at Amazon and can be found at retailers such as Whole Foods. According to the Taza Website, “We do things differently. We do things better. We are chocolate pioneers” (Taza Website: Direct Trade). They are pioneers not just because of their unique production process and flavor, but also because of their commitment to addressing the problems that plague the industry today through supply-chain transparency. 

Problems: Slavery, Economics and Gender Inequality

In order to critically analyze Taza’s attempted solutions, it is important to first understand the problems, which unfortunately are not new but rather have plagued the industry for centuries. Slavery was an integral part of chocolate’s history, and can be traced back to the 1500’s when the Spanish Encomienda system forced natives in Mesoamerica to grow cocoa and perform labor without pay. The terrible working conditions and disease spread by the Spaniards ravished the native population, and Africans were brought in to replace them. From 1500-1900, between 10 and 15 million enslaved Africans were transported to the Americas and the Caribbean to grow cocoa and other commodity crops. However, even after slavery was abolished, it continued and continues to plague the industry today, mostly in the form of child labor. The International Labour Organization defines child labor as, “all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery… work which, by its nature or the circumstances in which it is carried out, is likely to harm the health, safety or morals of children” (ILO). Carol Off found evidence of such child labor in Cote D’Ivoire, with some farmers or their supervisors “working… young people almost to death. The boys had little to eat, slept in bunkhouses that were locked during the night, and were frequently beaten” (Off, 121). A 2009 study by Tulane corroborated Off’s discoveries when it found that more than half a million children in Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire were working in conditions that violated ILO guidelines as well as national laws on minimum wage and minimum hours (Berlan).

Another prevalent problem is the poverty that many cocoa farmers face, particularly in Ghana and Cote D’Ivoire, due to the economics of cocoa farming. Unlike many northern countries where jobs are salaried, wages for day laborers on farms are “neither guaranteed nor generally regulated” (Leissle, 106). Farm owners only receive cash when they sell their crop; thus, they earn 80% of their annual income in the six months of the main growing season, making budgeting for the rest of the year extremely difficult, especially because many inputs are needed at the start of the growing season when farmers are the lowest on cash. This can result in farmers having to take loans or credit, which often have incredibly high interest rates and can be impossible to pay back. The price fluctuations of chocolate also make it difficult to budget, as anything from bad weather to political turmoil can drastically affect chocolate’s price. Lastly, the prices farmers receive are often too low to support their costs. Farmers rarely sell their product directly to the big chocolate companies, instead selling to middlemen who have more negotiating power and can mislead them. Therefore, even if the price paid for chocolate goes up, there is no guarantee that the farmers actually receive this increase.  As a result of all of these factors, many farmers struggle to make a living.

Finally, gender inequality is an important problem that is often disregarded, in part because literature has minimized the role of women in chocolate production. Women are thought of as having only light and non-essential tasks, when in reality “female labor play[s] a central role in almost every aspect of cocoa production and sale… statistics undoubtedly underestimate the role of women” (Robertson, 100/104). But the industry is male-dominant, which has negative effects on women. For example, social norms dictate that even if women grow the cocoa, men are the ones that actually sell the crop and receive the cash (Leissle, 122). This means not only that women have no proof they are getting the right amount of money, but also that men of the household have control of the cash, which they often use to pay for needs they find most important before distributing the rest, if any, to women and children. Consequently, even though women contribute greatly to chocolate production, they have very little power. 

Taza’s Solution: Direct Trade Model

In order to combat some of these issues, according to Taza it developed, “The first third-party certified direct trade cacao sourcing program, to ensure quality and transparency for all.” (Taza Website: Direct Trade). Because it is the first of its kind, Taza published five guidelines and commitments for its direct trade system that it holds itself accountable to. 

  1. Develop direct relationships with cacao farmers:  Taza began by purchasing cocoa from La Red Guaconejo cooperative in the Dominican Republic and shipping it directly to Boston so that there were no middlemen involved. This direct method shrinks, “a commodity chain that is often far-flung, [so that] no step of the trade exchange, from farm to factory, was unknown or untraceable to Taza’s founders” (Leissle, 154). They later expanded their sources to include other producers in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Ghana, all of which they have personal relationships with. Their single origin bars reflect and appreciate the uniqueness of each location. 
  2. Pay a price premium to cacao producers: Taza commits to paying at least $500 per MT above market price for its beans
  3. Source the highest quality cacao beans: Taza emphasizes fine flavor beans rather than bulk beans, and directs resources over the long term to assist producers in maintaining high quality output 
  4. Require USDA certified organic cacao: As part of its commitment to source only the best cocoa, Taza requires its producers to be organic certified. 
  5. Publish an annual transparency report: Taza was the first chocolate company ever to publish such a report. It includes the quantity of beans bought from each individual producer, the price Taza pays for these beans, and an intimate look at the individual producers they partner with. 
Overview of Taza’s Direct Trade Program in 2018

Pros of Taza’s Direct Trade Model

Taza’s direct trade model has improved the economics of farmers while simultaneously promoting transparency in the industry. In paying a large premium (15-20%), Taza ensures that the farmers do not have to worry about not being able to earn enough to survive fluctuations in cocoa price that are entirely outside of their control. This gives farmers much-needed predictability and visibility into future income and improves their standard of living. Furthermore, by publishing the exact prices they buy the seeds at and having all of their numbers and reports independently verified each year by the Quality Certification Services, Taza guarantees integrity and transparency. This is a stark contrast to the rest of the industry; many companies in recent years have introduced “even more ambiguity into the landscapes of its practice” by relying on internal certification and accountability schemes (Leissle, 147). For example, Cadbury recently stopped fair trade certification and instead initiated an in-house sustainability guarantee, which has decreased transparency because, “when a certification scheme is internal to a company, it is more difficult to assess whether they are rigorous and consistently applied. The only option is to take the company’s words that they are” (Leissle, 147-148). The same can be said for craft chocolate companies, who claim to pay several times the world market price for cocoa, yet there is no way for the consumer to verify. In publishing its prices, Taza has set a new standard for the industry, and others, such as Dandelion Chocolate, are following suit.

 Taza’s production process also allows for stronger relationships with producers and greater visibility into the company’s supply chain, ensuring no child labor is used to produce its products. In interacting directly with each of their producers, and visiting at least once a year, Taza can guarantee the use of fair labor. Furthermore, in Ghana, where, as discussed earlier, child labor is especially prevalent, Taza has invested in education programs for children and their family. For example, the local producers Taza partners with coordinate workshops in local schools for students and parents to “educate around age-appropriate farm activities… versus dangerous ones” (2018 transparency report). Additionally, Taza has patterned with the non-profit International Cocoa Initiative and its buyer Tony’s Chocolonely, to “proactively address any instances of unsafe work through a combination of family resources and training that rewards transparency and addresses core issues of poverty and lack of education” (2018 transparency report). 

Finally, Taza’s single origin bars promote consumer awareness about the countries where it sources its chocolate. Each bar, according to the website, “is minimally processed to let the bold flavors and unique terroir of our Direct Trade Certified beans shout loud and proud”  (Taza website: Origin Bars). 

Taza’s single origin chocolate bars

By indicating where the chocolate is grown, these single origin bars can help consumers learn that the taste of chocolate differs from place to place, and “invite shoppers to consider the politics and economics of exporting cocoa… By offering a range of chocolate experiences that can change even day by day, single origin chocolate reminds us that there are real people, institutions, and power structures behind every bar” (Leissle, 170). A more informed consumer is likely to make more informed decisions in the future, which can help promote sustainable, ethical chocolate production by creating demand for such products. 

How Taza can Improve

Although the Taza model has many strengths, there are areas where it is still lacking. For example, the prices listed in the transparency reports indicate the amount paid per metric ton to producer organizations, but they do not indicate the farm gate price, or how much the individual farmer receives. The farm gate price is distinctive from the price paid to the producers, but by not including both, the reports can mislead the consumer into thinking the listed price is entirely received by the farmers. In only one year, 2016, Taza reported the price that was actually received by farmers, which ranged from 51-76% of the price that was received by producer organizations (2016 transparency report). However, no other transparency report published these numbers, and this percentage could have changed substantially in the years since, especially because a few of the producer organizations they work with have changed. While Taza is exemplary in its transparency, there is room to be even more transparent by consistently publishing the farm gate price in its reports. 

Additionally, even though gender inequality is an important problem in cocoa production, Taza does not explicitly address it in its transparency reports. Photos of women farmers have been featured in some of the past reports, and the number of women farmers is included in each report (ranging from 15% to 45% of each producer organization). These inclusions are important in disproving the misconception that women are not involved in cocoa production. However, there is no reference to the struggles women face due to the power dynamics of the industry. Taza had the opportunity to do so in its 2018 report, when it mentions that its partner in El Majagual, Dominican Republic donated his chocolate factory to an association of local women. However, they do not even name the women’s association or delve into what it does, and it seems as though the sale was a decision made independently by the producer with no help or influence from Taza. This is an area where Taza can really improve and learn from organizations such as Kuapa Kokoo, a Ghana based company that sets gender quotas for elected representation at the community and district levels of governance and organizes conscious-raising women’s groups and women’s literacy programs (Leissle, 149). An essential next step for Taza is to acknowledge the unequal distribution of power and wealth due to gender, because according to field work and research by Kristy Leissle and Stephanie Barrientos , “Apart from explicit, well-directed efforts to empower women, most assistance…[goes] directly or indirectly to men” (Leissle, 173). 


In summary, Taza Chocolate is changing the way chocolate is sourced, produced and consumed. In addressing the economic problems farmers face, ensuring its producers do not use forced labor, and investing in programs that combat child labor, Taza is making a positive impact on cocoa production. However, there are many areas where Taza can still learn and grow— the transparency reports would be greatly improved if they included farm gate prices, and just as the company has invested in programs to fight against child labor, it should invest in programs that are actively looking to support women.  That being said, Taza’s direct trade program is truly innovative, and its transparency reports are challenging other companies to improve their own practices. Although the direct trade model is not feasible for the larger scale companies that dominate the industry, consumers must demand the same level of commitment to ethical production that Taza demonstrates.  

Works Cited

Berlan, Amanda. “Social Sustainability in Agriculture: An Anthropological Perspective on Child Labour in Cocoa Production in Ghana.” Journal of Development Studies, vol. 49, no. 8, 2013, pp. 1088–1100. 

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018. 

Off, Carol. Bitter Chocolate: The Dark Side of The World’s Most Seductive Sweet. The New Press, 2006.

Robertson, Emma. Chocolate, Women and Empire: a Social and Cultural History. Manchester University Press, 2013.





Images Cited




Producing what they don’t consume

West African farmers rarely consume the finished product despite producing the largest proportion of the cocoa beans. The video below shows N’Da Alphonse, an Ivory Coast farmer who has never seen or tasted the finished product.

The inaccessibility that West African farmers experience, as seen in this video, serves a reminder that despite providing the raw materials to fuel the industry, farmers remain marginalized from the finished product. The last line said by the workers in the video perfectly summarizes the injustice:

“We complain because growing cocoa is hard work. Now we enjoy the result. What a privilege to taste.”

This lack of access to chocolate is a common theme among West African producers and their respective countries. For example, Ghana is the second largest producer of cocoa beans capturing 18.7% of world share (Leissle 80). Despite this, Ghana’s yearly chocolate consumption is 0.5kg per capita, which is extremely low compared to European countries like Switzerland who consume 5.7kg per capita and the United States where consumption is 2.3kg per capita (“The Challenges Facing West Africa’s” 1). Why is it the case that Ghana, like other West African countries, has low chocolate consumption?

One commonly cited reason is the economic constraints that prevent West African populations from consuming chocolate (Leissle 84). The daily minimum wage in Ghana is 10.65 Ghanaian Cedis (GHS), which is roughly $1.91.The average cost of a chocolate bar in Ghana is 5.84 GHs (Haden 1 ). This means that buying a chocolate bar requires a Ghanaian to set aside 54.84% of a days salary. To put this into perspective, the average daily minimum wage in the United States is $7.25 per hour and the average cost of a chocolate bar is $1.59. Comparatively, a U.S worker needs to work around 13 minutes to be able to afford a chocolate bar. The differences in economic constraints are quite evident.

In recent years, this lack of local consumption has come to the attention of the Ghanaian government as well as to entrepreneurs. What are these actors doing to increase chocolate consumption in the area?

School Feeding Programme

In September of 2018, the Ghanaian government announced that chocolate drinks would be included in the school feeding programmes worldwide. The Minister of Food and Agriculture, Dr. Owusu Afriyie Akoto, believes this program will expand the local appetite for chocolate. Dr. Owusu affirms that the consumption of a food item is a result of developed taste and preference. This program would seek to introduce young kids to the taste of chocolate from an early age (“Cocoa Drink Now Part” 1).

Niche Chocolate

Niche chocolate is an entrepreneurial solution to the low consumption levels of chocolate seen in Ghana and other West African countries. The company was founded on the premise of producing chocolate locally that is also accessible to the Ghanaian population. Niche provides high-quality chocolates at affordable prices. This effort, in turn, seeks to eliminate the economic constraint that historically marginalized West Africans from chocolate consumption (“Niche Cocoa to Increase” 1).

World Cocoa Day

The Ghana Cocoa Board was founded on the premise of supporting and increasing production, and processing and retailing quality chocolate among other products in Ghana. This board launched a World Cocoa Day in Ghana in an effort to increase local consumption of chocolate through a marketing campaign. The iteration of the event in 2017, featured the president of Ghana who thanked farmers in the region for their hard work that has kept this cash crop growing (“President Akufo-Addo” 1). The visibility given to chocolate and to this event was a means to market the economic and social importance it holds in Ghana.

The three distinct propositions explained are a good step towards spreading the desire for local community members to consume chocolate. However, local consumption in the case of schools, may not be the best approach. Primarily because chocolate does not have the highest nutritional value. The Ghanaian government should consider investigating whether chocolate can be given to young kids on a daily basis. Furthermore, the government should provide further insight into what chocolate products are being introduced into the school programme. With regards to the company Niche, it is clearly an innovative company that is having a favorable impact in Ghana. Niche is increasing processing capacity in the region while maintaining fair pricing to capture the local market. In the coming years, we may start to see the spillover effects of lowering chocolate prices for locals in increased consumption levels. It is important for farmers and the populations in the countries which they reside to not be marginalized from the consumption of chocolate.

The process of harvesting cocoa beans is a labor-intensive one but as the farmer said in the beginning video one that yields an end product that is  “a privilege to taste.” For this very reason, it is important that Ghana and the other major West African countries make it an effort to promote the local consumption of the cocoa crop.

Works Cited

Scholarly Sources

“Cocoa Drink Now Part Of School Feeding Programme.” Modern Ghana, Modern Ghana, 21 Mar. 2018, http://www.modernghana.com/news/842871/cocoa-drink-now-part-of-school-feeding-programme.html.

“Cocoa Farmer Income: the Household Income of Cocoa Farmers in Côte d’Ivoire and Strategies for Improvement.” Fair Trade International , 2018, http://www.fairtrade-deutschland.de/fileadmin/DE/01_was_ist_fairtrade/05_wirkung/studien/fairtrade_international_response_study_cocoa_farmer_income_2018.pdf.

“President Akufo-Addo Celebrates Cocoa Farmers On World Cocoa Day.” The Presidency Republic of Ghana, 2 October 2017, https://presidency.gov.gh/index.php/briefing-room/news-style-2/391-president-akufo-addo-celebrates-cocoa-farmers-on-world-cocoa-day.

Haden, Alexis. “ South African Food Prices from 2008 vs 2018.” The South African, 31 Aug. 2018, http://www.thesouthafrican.com/south-african-food-prices-2008-vs-2018/.

Leissle, Kristy. Cocoa. Polity Press, 2018.

“Niche Cocoa to Increase Local Cocoa Consumption.” Citifmonline.com, 14AD, 2017, citifmonline.com/2017/02/14/niche-cocoa-to-increase-local-cocoa-consumption/.

“The Challenges Facing West Africa’s Chocolate Industry.” Ghana Talks Business, 26 Sept. 2017, ghanatalksbusiness.com/challenges-facing-west-africas-chocolate-industry/.

Multimedia Sources

Niche Cocoa Bars. Digital image. Graphic Online. 14 February 2017, https://www.graphic.com.gh/business/business-news/niche-cocoa-to-increase-local-cocoa-consumption-introduces-chocolate-on-valentine-s-day.html.

Ghana Cocoa Board Banner. Digital image. Ghana Cocoa Board. 10 May 2017, https://www.cocobod.gh/news_details/id/125/COCOBOD%20MARKS%202017%20WORLD%20COCOA%20DAY.

“First Taste of Chocolate in Ivory Coast – Vpro Metropolis.” YouTube, VPRO Metropolis, 21 Feb. 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zEN4hcZutO0.

An Interview with a Chocolate Lover: Issues within the Chocolate Industry Revealed

Curious about people’s relationship with chocolate, I interviewed a young female adult about how her relationship with chocolate has changed from childhood into adulthood. The interviewee has never learned about chocolate, but she alludes to various historical, economical, and social issues within the chocolate industry throughout the interview. Specifically, she raises ethical issues about cacao farming practices, and explicates how business transactions harm chocolate producers. The interviewee is a college-educated individual, and demonstrates significant knowledge about these issues presumably because of her enrollment in a course about the sociology of food. Based on her responses in the interview, it is clear that this course changed her relationship with food and influences her current food decisions. Through the interview, the interviewee illuminates glaring issues within the chocolate industry related to the production of cacao, exploitation of cacao farmers, and chocolate advertising. First, she raises issues that about the production of cacao by demonstrating awareness about the economic difficulties cacao farmers face, and by discussing logistical issues about certifications that attempt to combat those economic issues. Second, in describing her chocolate preferences and perceptions, she alludes to issues regarding chocolate marketing strategies, and demonstrates the immense influence that chocolate advertisements hold over consumer purchasing decisions.

Before evaluating the historical, economic, and social issues within the chocolate industry revealed by the interviewee, it is necessary to explain the similarities between cacao and coffee bean production. The interviewee learned about coffee production in a course at a prestigious university, so this section purposes to provide legitimacy to the issues she raises about cacao production by emphasizing that the coffee and cacao industries experience the same problems, thereby qualifying her arguments about coffee production as applicable to cacao production as well. First, the working and economic conditions of coffee and cacao farmers are almost identical. Most coffee farmers produce beans on small, family-owned farms, and live in poverty.[1] Coffee farmers typically rely on bean sales as their primary source of income, but it is extremely volatile because it responds to any fluctuation in bean market prices and sales.[2] Second, coffee farmers can obtain Fair Trade and Organic Certification. Fair Trade promises the same benefits to coffee farmers as it does to cacao farmers, including minimum price premiums, social development, better labor rights, and long-term trading partnership.[3] Third, a large gap exists between coffee producers’ farming practices and coffee consumers’ purchasing decisions. There are stark differences between farmers that produce specialty coffee, and farmers that produce conventional, non-certified coffee. Demand for specialty coffee is on the rise because consumers, particularly those that identify with the ethical eating, Slow Food Movement, are willing to pay more for certified, eco-friendly coffee.[4] Higher quality coffee beans are sold at a higher price in the market, but most coffee consumers are unaware of the implications of their coffee-purchasing decisions.[5] Lastly, similar to the chocolate industry, a few select big coffee companies – less than 10 – control more than half of the coffee market.[6] These similarities are important to recognize, as the interviewee recalls this knowledge in the interview, and subsequently reveals that the economic and social issues afflicting coffee farmers and production are the same issues that exist in relation to cacao farming and production.

coffee beancacao bean

Image 1: Coffee Bean                                                                             Image 2: Cacao Bean

The interviewee brings attention to the importance of the raw coffee bean product to the existence of the entire coffee industry. Through this observation, she emphasizes the complete disconnect between coffee production and coffee consumption, revealing that the same issue exists within the chocolate industry. The interviewee comments, “without the farmers, you wouldn’t have the product. They’re the ones creating the base product to make coffee. They’re often the most forgotten. That’s like with any food product.”[7] This remark deserves close evaluation, as it perfectly describes the fragmented functioning and separateness of the different sectors of the coffee industry, also applicable to the chocolate industry. With that remark, the interviewee astutely explains that these complex industries rely wholly on the raw product, the bean, and without which, coffee and chocolate might not exist. This comment is interesting because it offers a simplistic vision that connects the necessity of the raw product to the consumer industry miles and miles away. This perception also illuminates how coffee and chocolate consumers are highly unaware of the implications of their purchasing decisions on the economic livelihood of the producers. Pictured in images 1 and 2 are a coffee and cacao bean, respectively (Image 1 and 2). These visuals purpose as a reminder to consumers that the coffee they drink from Starbucks, or Lindt chocolate they eat from their local supermarket, are products that begin with coffee and cacao beans, harvested and cultivated by farmers. Production and consumption are inherently connected, however, farmers are often naïve about the final product and consumers are often uneducated about the raw product process, both of which exacerbate the separateness between different players within the coffee and chocolate systems.

USDA organic labelImage 3: USDA Organic Certification Label

The interviewee discusses logistical issues with the Fair Trade and Organic Certification protocols, revealing that these labels harm rather than benefit cacao farmers and production. Fair Trade, Organic, and Direct Trade certifications share a common goal to compensate cacao farmers that produce their beans in adherence to specific environmental and social standards at a higher price than the conventional market offers.[8] The United States Department of Agriculture divides organic products into three categories, “100% organic,” “organic,” and “made with organic ingredients,” where each category is defined based on strict agricultural practice regulations.[9] Agricultural products that adhere to these standards are labeled with the “USDA Organic” logo, pictured in Image 3 (Image 3). In viewing this image, it is apparent that the USDA Organic label is not informative, as the certification seal does not specify whether the product is made with 100%, 95%, or at least 70% organic ingredients. The lack of information on this label raises questions about the authenticity of these certifications, and how organic certification guidelines are monitored. In probing about her knowledge regarding Organic Certification, the interviewee says “there are requirements…You can still use pesticides, but [the farmers] use “organic” or “natural” pesticides that are “better” for the environment…I know there are loopholes in the organic certification process.”[10] Here, the interviewee identifies the major criticisms of the USDA Organic Certification process in relation to cacao farming and production practices, alluding to claims of product quality issues and loose surveillance of organically certified cacao farmers’ adherence to USDA guidelines.[11] As revealed through her remarks, the vagueness of this label generates confusion among consumers. Furthermore, these observations illuminate the need for tighter institutional regulation of USDA Organic protocols, both for the benefit of consumers – ensuring that cacao farmers are following certification standards, guaranteeing that consumers are purchasing actual organic cacao – and for the benefit of the producers – that they are properly compensated for producing cacao beans using environmentally-friendly farming practices.

The interviewee circles the debate about the effectiveness of Fair Trade certification’s impact on cacao farmers’ economic situation through her advocacy for Fair Trade coffee bean farming and production. Similar to organic certification, Fair Trade certification encourages sustainable farming practices, while also promoting social welfare and establishing long-term trading partnerships.[12] In explaining the benefits of Fair Trade for coffee farmers, the interviewee says, “the farmers work long, laborious hours and they don’t get paid very well unless they are in the Fair Trade system…more money goes to the farmer when it’s a Fair Trade transaction.”[13] Through this comment, the interviewee reveals two similarities between coffee bean and cacao production that are problematic for the farmers. First, she describes the difficult working conditions that coffee bean farmers endure, such as long and physically fatiguing hours, and subsequently suggests that the farmers are underpaid considering their strenuous working conditions. She alludes to a prominent issue that cacao farmers face in that they are not properly compensated for their grueling laborious efforts, and that their contributions to the chocolate industry are severely under-valued. Second, she asserts that Fair Trade certified coffee farmers are more economically stable than non-certified coffee farmers, referencing minimum price premiums and prompt payments promised by Fair Trade to certified farmers. This suggests that consumers perceive Fair Trade as an impactful certification that improves farmers’ economic situation. However, in reality, there is no strong evidence that the Fair Trade system is effective in combatting farmers’ economic crises, particularly that of cacao farmers.[14] This misconception is problematic, as consumers’ might purchase Fair Trade products hoping to improve farmers’ income situation, unbeknownst to the faults of Fair Trade.

The interviewee explicates that some of her food decisions are based on the ethicality of food production practices, but names high prices of Fair Trade and Organic products as a barrier that prevents her from always purchasing certified products. In regards to the cacao industry, attempts to improve the ethicality of cacao farmers’ working conditions by consumer advocacy groups more often than not fail.[15] Chocolate consumers are often uneducated about the complexities of the chocolate industry, making it difficult for consumers to grasp how their purchasing decisions impact the economic and/or social situation of cacao farmers. Therefore, consumers cannot be responsible for initiating change of the exploitative economic and social conditions endured by cacao farmers. Surprisingly, the interviewee demonstrates a deep consciousness about the relationship between production and consumption, explaining that she became a vegetarian because “I don’t like the treatment of farm animals on conventional farms…Also, I don’t like the growth hormones and antibiotics.”[16] This reasoning suggests that she chooses the type of food she consumes based on the ethicality of food production practices. She further explains that she prefers to consume organic food, as “It’s more environmentally friendly.”[17] Again, she adopts an ethical argument to support her preference to consume organic over conventional farm products. However, she subsequently mentions that she does not always purchase certified Organic or Fair Trade products because they are “more expensive.”[18] This confession reveals a common misconception among consumers that certified products are always more expensive, which is false, as Organic and Fair Trade farming practices can actually cost the same or less than conventional farming practices.[19] Through her remarks, it is clear that the interviewee is a conscious consumer, as she chose to become a vegetarian because of inhumane treatment of animals on conventional farms, indicating her care for ethical farming and production practices. However, her perception that Organic, Fair Trade, and Direct Trade products are more expensive than non-certified products alludes to major critiques of certification organizations, commonly accused of corrupt practices and falsely promising cacao farmers fair payment. Through the interviewee’s comments, she illuminates a significant issue that Organic, Fair Trade, and Direct Trade are actually more harmful than beneficial to cacao farmers’ economic and social conditions.

woman eating chocolate     Image 4: Gender in Chocolate Advertisement

Through the interviewee’s description of her chocolate perceptions and preferences, she reveals an issue rarely addressed, that of the immense control chocolate advertisements exercise over consumer choice. Chocolate advertisements commonly portray chocolate as an aphrodisiac, and as a luxurious product, through women’s sexuality.[20] Image 4 exemplifies this theme, as it pictures a woman, seemingly wearing no clothes, holding a piece of chocolate to her lips, with a seductive facial expression (Image 4). The image portrays chocolate as a desirable food through the sexual presentation and nature of the woman. The brightly colored lipstick brings focus to her lips, and accompanied by the sensual facial expression, the ad attempts to associate chocolate with love and romance. Furthermore, the woman is highly manicured, adorned with extravagant accessories, which contributes to the depiction of chocolate as a decadent and highly valuable product. Several times throughout the interview, the interviewee references chocolate as a “luxurious item.”[21] This association of chocolate with luxury precisely demonstrates the strong influence of chocolate advertisements, such as image 4, on consumers’ perceptions of chocolate. When prompted to reflect about chocolate advertisements, the interviewee pauses and appears puzzled, admitting a moment later that she only notices chocolate ads around Valentine’s Day.[22] Again, this emphasizes the effectiveness of chocolate marketing strategies to portray the product as an aphrodisiac, as consumers evidently associate chocolate with romance and love. The combination of a presumably seduced woman and a chocolate product, exampled in Image 4, contribute to this representation of chocolate as desirable. Most importantly, the interviewee illuminates that consumers are highly unaware of two issues related to chocolate marketing. First, the strong influence chocolate ads possess in forming their perceptions of chocolate, and second, the exploitation of female sexuality to deliver this specific representation of chocolate products. Based on the interviewee’s susceptibility to the impact of chocolate advertisements on her perceptions, and her unawareness of gender exploitation that litters these ads, it suggests that the chocolate industry should be taking action to enforce regulations that will reduce the influence of chocolate marketing on consumer perceptions and regulate chocolate marketing content.

Trader Joe's dark chocolate bar     Image 5: Trader Joe’s Dark Chocolate Product

The interviewee’s description of her chocolate preferences further demonstrates consumer susceptibility to the influences of chocolate advertisements. The interviewee reveals she favors dark chocolate, offering “I buy it at Trader Joe’s…I like the pure flavor of their products.”[23] First, Trader Joe’s is a grocery store that advertises the sale of organic, natural, fresh food at low prices. Second, recall that the interviewee prefers organic food, but high prices prevent her from purchasing organic products. Keeping these two pieces of information in mind, the interviewee’s comment suggests that she purchases chocolate at Trader Joe’s because it is both organic and affordable. In addition to these conscious reasons, the packaging of the chocolate may also contribute to the interviewee’s decision to purchase dark chocolate bars from Trader Joe’s, though she is unconscious of this influence. Image 5 exemplifies a dark chocolate bar product sold at Trader Joe’s, one that the interviewee might encounter (Image 5). This package exercises marketing strategies to influence consumer choice by emphasizing a high cacao content of “61%,” indicative of pure chocolate. Additionally, printing “Imported from Belgium” carries connotations associated with Europe, such as fantasy and romance. Lastly, the package pictures a crown, presumably representative of chocolate’s historical association with royalty in Europe. This suggests to the consumer that the chocolate is luxurious and highly valuably, and implies that the chocolate will taste rich and pure. All of these elements on the package impact the consumer’s decision to purchase that product by manipulating her perceptions, thereby prompting the consumer to imagine the chocolate will taste special over other chocolate products. Similar to an issue already discussed, the interviewee reveals that consumers are naïve to chocolate marketing strategies, and make unconscious purchasing decisions based on the effectiveness of chocolate ads and their ability to influence consumers’ perceptions and taste preferences of chocolate.

The interviewee reveals major historical, economic, and social issues that persist within the chocolate industry through her comments about coffee production, and in describing her chocolate perceptions and taste preferences. Historical issues, such as the under-recognized efforts of cacao farmers and their contributions that permit the existence of the chocolate industry – i.e. they provide the raw product to make chocolate – are evidently issues that exist within the coffee industry as well. Economic issues, such as volatile income and impoverished livelihoods, partially the fault of certification organizations like Organic and Fair Trade, are also issues within both the cacao and coffee industries. Lastly, social issues related to the use of sexualized images of women to control consumers’ perceptions and taste preferences of chocolate are seemingly unnoticed by consumers. This is problematic in that consumers are unaware that these ads contribute to the proliferation of stereotypical gender roles, and in that consumers are also unaware that they possess little agency in their chocolate purchasing decisions.
[1] Christopher Bacon, “Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Can Fair Trade, Organic, and Specialty Coffees Reduce Small-scale Farmer Vulnerability in Northern Nicaragua?,” World Development 33 (2005): 497-511.
[2] Joni Valkila, “Fair Trade Organic Coffee Production in Nicaragua – Sustainable Development or a Poverty Trap,” Ecological Economics 68 (2009): 3018-3025.
[3] Valkila, “Fair Trade organic coffee.”
[4] Julie Guthman, “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of “Yuppie Chow,” in Food and Culture, ed. by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik (New York: Routledge, 2013), 496-509.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Bacon, “Confronting the Coffee Crisis.”
[7] Anonymous, interview by Ashlee Korsberg, April 24, 2017.
[8] Carla Martin, “Alternative trade and virtuous/localization/globalization” (lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, April 5, 2017).
[9] “USDA Organic Labeling Regulations,” USDA, accessed April 30, 2017, https://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&sid=c4e0df8f46a4f4b6f56d80be31f95ed3&rgn=div6&view=text&node=7:
[10] Anonymous.
[11] Martin, “Alternative trade.”
[12] Ibid.
[13] Anonymous.
[14] Ndongo Samba Sylla, “On the Inequalities of the International Trade System” and “The Fair Trade Universe,” in The Fair Trade Scandal: Marketing Poverty to Benefit the Rich, translated by David Clement Leye (London: Pluto Press, 2014).
[15] Carla Martin, “Modern day slavery” (lecture, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, March 22, 2017).
[16] Anonymous.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Martin, “Alternative Trade.”
[20] Emma Robertson, “A deep physical reason’: gender, race and the nation in chocolate consumption,” in Chocolate, women and empire: A social and cultural history (Oxford: Manchester University Press, 2009), 18-63.
[21] Anonymous
[22] Anonymous.
[23] Anonymous.


Anonymous. Interview by Ashlee Korsberg, April 24, 2017.

Bacon, Christopher. “Confronting the Coffee Crisis: Can Fair Trade, Organic, and Specialty Coffees Reduce Small-scale Farmer Vulnerability in Northern Nicaragua?.” World Development 33 (2005): 497-511.

Guthman, Julie. “Fast Food/Organic Food: Reflexive Tastes and the Making of “Yuppie Chow.” In Food and Culture, edited by Carole Counihan, and Penny Van Esterik, 496-509, New York: Routledge, 2013.

Martin, Carla. “Alternative trade and virtuous/localization/globalization.” Lecture at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, April 5, 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Modern day slavery.” Lecture at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, March 22, 2017.

Martin, Carla. “Race, ethnicity, gender, and class in chocolate advertisements.” Lecture at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, March 29, 2017.

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Image sources

Image 1: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Coffee_Beans_Photographed_in_Macro.jpg

Image 2: https://pixabay.com/en/photos/cocoa/

Image 3: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:USDA_organic_seal.svg

Image 4: https://www.flickr.com/photos/orofacial/8219609037

Image 5: https://chocolateihaveknown.wordpress.com/category/acquired/trader-joes/