Bitter fruit


Why aren’t bars of chocolate made where cocoa is grown? Author Frank Brunner analyses the industry’s fragile value chain from the plantation to the supermarket

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By Frank Brunner

Frank Brunner is a master of political science and a journalist. He works as an editor and writer for various daily newspapers in Berlin, and for Spiegel Online and Zeit Online. Later editor-in-chief in the science journalism department of W. Bertelsmann publishers. Currently a writer for Zeitenspiegel Reportagen and in the Baden-Württemberg office of stern.

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In the morning, Gerd Müller visited Adzopé-Akoupe, a region in the south-west of Ivory Coast. That’s the location of the cocoa cooperative, Coopaako Coopca, where the popular beans are not harvested by children. Not something to be taken for granted in western Africa. In the hope that this will serve as a model, the Federal Government is supporting a project called Pro-Planteurs, which is committed to the sustainable cultivation of cocoa. Now Müller, Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, is on his way to the Ivorian capital, Abidjan, where the only chocolate factory in Ivory Coast is based. It’s 1st March 2017, and the minister's car weaves through the heavy traffic.


As Müller reaches the production facility, Gunther Beger is still stuck in traffic. In the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) Beger is responsible for fundamental matters relating to development aid and is a member of Müller's Ivory Coast delegation. A little later, he arrives at the chocolate factory. He dons his headwear, ties his face mask on and marvels at the modern equipment. ‘It was all highly professional – the packaging, the hygiene standards – and the chocolate tasted excellent, too,’ says Beger. The French firm, Cémoi, has actually been manufacturing in Abidjan since 2016, not only for the domestic market, but also for export. 5,000 tonnes a year. This is not the factory’s maximum capacity.


Ivory Coast is the biggest cocoa supplier in the world. Every year almost two million tonnes leave the country – that’s 40 per cent of the amount grown worldwide. It would seem reasonable to produce chocolate where cocoa grows – especially as most of the money is earned from the end product and not the raw material. The people in Ivory Coast would profit from the manufacture of chocolate. But apart from a few backyard businesses, Cémoi is the only company in the industry in Côte d‘Ivoire. Why is that?


Anyone wanting to know why the world's appetite for chocolate leaves so little prosperity behind in the countries that grow cocoa, will have to follow the trail from the plant to the ready-to-eat bar. On the way they’ll encounter cocoa growers, confectionery companies and consumers. Then there are governments and non-government organisations.


The growers

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Cacao harvest in Ivory Coast

Cocoa growing is a laborious business. The trees grow only along a narrow tropical strip close to the Equator. Until they begin to bear fruit, the growers don’t earn any money for years. Instead, they have to pay for their lease on the land, buy fertilisers, or pay membership fees to their cooperative. About 5.5 million people around the world try to make a living in this way – mostly on just two to five hectares of land. On average, a grower harvests approximately two tonnes of cocoa a year. Friedel Hütz-Adams, research assistant at Südwind-Institut für Ökonomie und Ökumene (institute of economics and ecumenism), estimates that around 4.9 million tonnes of cocoa will be harvested worldwide this year.


First of all the growers open the fruits, separate the beans from the husks, lay them on the ground and cover them with banana leaves. Then the cocoa ferments for several days. Finally the growers transport the cocoa to local collection points, where local dealers buy it. In 2017, growers in Ivory Coast get roughly 1,300 US dollars for a tonne of cocoa. That's generally the income for the entire year. At the beginning of the 1980s, cocoa cost more than four times as much – more than 5,500 dollars. An income sufficient to secure a living is hardly possible after such a drop in prices.


It can’t be right that the cocoa growers are unable to make a living from their hard work


The growers often have only one other option: they must reduce their costs and produce more cheaply. That means, instead of seasonal workers, children work on the plantations. According estimates by the International Labour Organization (ILO), 1.4 million children work on cocoa plantations in Côte d‘Ivoire alone.


During his visit to Abidjan, the Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development, Gerd Müller, was critical of the situation. ‘It can’t be right that the cocoa growers are unable to make a living from their hard work, and children, instead of going to school, have to slave away on the plantations,’ said the CSU politician.


The chocolate manufacturers

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Sorting cacao beans

Once the growers have sold their harvest, the beans soon arrive at the port in Abidjan. From there they go to Europe, where they are roasted, ground and made into cocoa butter or cocoa powder. 75 per cent of the cocoa used in Germany comes from the two most important cocoa-growing countries, Ivory Coast and Ghana.


Only a handful of international companies monitor the processing and trade. At the end of the value chain are large retail companies and discount stores. It's mostly he latter that force prices down. Because of this, the Federal Government’s development aid expert, Gunther Beger, feels that companies also have an obligation. ‘We tell the industry, you need cocoa, so it must be in your best interests to improve conditions locally.’ An initial approach involves the ‘Forum nachhaltiger Kakao’, a joint initiative of the Federal Government, industry, commerce and NGOs, with the aim of improving living conditions in cocoa-growing countries.


The non-government organisations

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Cacao harvest in Cameron

At the moment it's mainly various NGOs that are trying to help the cocoa growers. Organisations such as Fairtrade and Rainforest Alliance issue certificates if growers or cooperatives provide evidence of sustainable growing methods. This includes dispensing with child labour. According to the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, so far 40 per cent of Germany’s cocoa has been rated as sustainable. This can be identified by a seal displayed accordingly on the packaging of the chocolate. Head of division, Gunther Beger, says, ‘Our target is 100 per cent sustainable cocoa.’


Friedel Hütz-Adams also sees room for improvement. However, the cocoa expert has a fundamental problem with certification. ‘The premiums for sustainably produced cocoa – 180 dollars per tonne through Fairtrade – are far too low,’ he complains. This cannot guarantee an income sufficient to secure a living.


The Federal Government

For the coalition that consisted of the CDU/CSU and SPD until the autumn of 2017, Ivory Coast was one of the countries that Germany was working with and helping to build up its economic structures. One of its aims is for cocoa to be processed there, thus giving the growers a larger share in the value chain.


Our target is 100 per cent sustainable cocoa


Agricultural expert, Beger, doesn't think that international confectionery manufacturers in Abidjan produce chocolate on a large scale. ‘We can hardly make the industry set up major production facilities in Ivory Coast.’ But he believes that intermediate steps are possible to enable cocoa powder to be produced on site.


Nor does Südwind’s Friedel Hütz-Adams think that there are any significant quantities of chocolate ‘Made in Ivory’. In principle it would be right for the growers to be given a bigger share in the value chain, but at the moment the infrastructure is totally inadequate. Chocolate has to be cooled, but electricity is expensive in Ivory Coast. Even worse, because of the obsolete and overloaded grids, the lights often go out in Abidjan and elsewhere. The situation is similar in Ghana. Poor roads and obsolete ports are also locational disadvantages. ‘An upgrade would cost billions. What companies would invest that much just because it makes sense in terms of development policy?’ asks Hütz-Adams.


The consumers

One Wednesday morning in October 2017 in a branch of Lidl in Berlin-Steglitz. The chocolate shelf is a good ten metres long, directly in the entrance. Opposite the checkouts the sales assistants have another display stand with chocolate on it. Meanwhile the discount store is also offering certified products, such as ‘Fairglobe milk chocolate’ (containing 32% cocoa with cocoa beans from Ghana). If you enter the code from the back of the packaging on the Fairtrade website, you’ll discover that the cocoa comes from the Ghanaian cooperative, Kuapa Kokoo. Clearly happy growers smile at visitors to the home page, while the boss assures them that the money from the cultivation of cocoa benefits the local community. How much money, she doesn’t say. A bar (100 grammes) costs 1.29 euros in Lidl.


We must make consumers aware that sustainably produced chocolate cannot cost 50 cents


Customers can pick up an own brand Fin Carré alpine milk chocolate, with Fairtrade and UTZ labels, for only 49 cents. The cocoa comes from Ivory Coast. On the back, Lidl advertises its support for the ‘sustainable and viable cultivation of cocoa’.


For the Südwind expert, Hütz-Adams, that's far too cheap. ‘We must make consumers aware that sustainably produced chocolate cannot cost 50 cents,’ he says. The Federal Minister for Economic Cooperation and Development agrees. ‘As consumers, we have the power to enable cocoa growers to make a living from their hard work,’ said Gerd Müller during his visit to Ivory Coast.


Über den Autoren

Frank Brunner

Frank Brunner is a master of political science and a journalist. He works as an editor and writer for various daily newspapers in Berlin, and for Spiegel Online and Zeit Online. Later editor-in-chief in the science journalism department of W. Bertelsmann publishers. Currently a writer for Zeitenspiegel Reportagen and in the Baden-Württemberg office of stern.

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