Slaves do not produce quality

Every child in Germany knows Ritter Sport – but most of the children harvesting cocoa on western African plantations have never even eaten chocolate. Can a chocolate manufacturer change the world? Conversation with Alfred Ritter about the power and powerlessness of a businessman.

(c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel

Tilman Wörtz

Tilman Wörtz studied politics and economics in Erlangen, Paris and Mexico City. Since 2000 he has been working as a reporter for Zeitenspiegel Reportagen. He is interested in the economic and political development of countries in crisis.

Mr. Ritter, you often say that you’re still unable to completely eliminate child labour from your chocolate. It takes a brave man to talk about this problem in such a way.

 

Alfred Ritter: Why should I deny something that can’t be eliminated? Most of the world's cocoa exports come from western Africa. Nothing can compete with the cocoa from there. As a high-volume manufacturer we can’t do without it. And it’s a well-known fact that children in West Africa also work on cocoa plantations. Lots of children are forced to work, or worse – they’re sold and they live like slaves. This is a problem of poverty in general that needs to be solved. Cocoa producers can make a contribution to this if they operate under humane conditions. A great deal has been done in the last few years in working towards this.

 

What exactly?

 

For a long time we couldn’t buy directly from cocoa producers, but instead had to go through government agencies. So we had no control over the working conditions on the plantations. It was all very obscure. However, the change of regime six years ago brought about a shift towards more democratic conditions. The market has become more transparent, and the authorities allow the involvement of more players, including foreigners.

 

(c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel
Alfred Ritter in his office in Waldenbuch, Germany. (c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel

What does that mean for your business in West Africa?

 

Now we can source cocoa that is certified as sustainable from the country through two partners: Fuchs & Hoffmann, a German company that we’ve been working with for many years, and Cémoi, a French family business. This cocoa can be traced back to the cooperatives producing it. We’ve been to the plantations to see them for ourselves. So naturally this guarantees that the chocolate was not produced using child labour.

 

Three years ago you were still saying that certification was too expensive for you. You preferred to monitor the cultivation of the cocoa yourself.

 

The supply of certified cocoa has increased so much now that we want to match these efforts with demand. At the start of 2017 we signed a contract with Trans Fair (Fairtrade), committing us to obtaining at least twenty per cent of our cocoa from certified sources within the next three years. Besides that we acquire and process larger quantities of cocoa with UTZ certification. We expect to achieve a rate of 100 per cent even before 2020. At the moment we’re around 60 per cent. We also want to influence the conditions of production – beyond exchanging ideas and information and cooperating with other suppliers, NGOs, traders and politicians – within the frameworks of the Sustainable Cocoa Forum and the World Cocoa Foundation. These initiatives are a reason why cocoa production is changing in Ivory Coast, too.

 

(c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel
The production of square shaped chocolate bars in the factory of Ritter Sport. (c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel

In Nicaragua you’re currently investing in one of the world's biggest contiguous cocoa plantations – 2,500 hectares. No other chocolate manufacturer is taking on the risks posed by the climate or by pest infestation in agriculture. How does that fit in with your plans in Ivory Coast?

 

It's not a contradiction. You only do something like that if you’re making very long-term plans. We want to produce our own cocoa, expand our own know-how and determine the conditions of production ourselves. But it takes time. Establishing a plantation takes long-term commitment. In 2013 we invested in the first roads and planted seedlings, and it’s only this year that we’re able to bring in the first small harvest. It’s only after 2020 that the harvest will be really relevant. The project won’t be a profitable business for years.

 

For now, then, you’re keeping your options open. But your own production is the ideal situation?

 

I’m convinced that Ritter Sport can only survive as a quality brand. Cocoa is the key raw material for us. If I only calculate the short-term costs and benefits of handling our own production, it’s not worth it. But if I can guarantee that the quality will be ensured in the long term, the investment makes sense. For years we’ve been trying to source enough cocoa, produced in accordance with our ideas, through cooperatives of small farmers. These farmers live in the mountains of Nicaragua and have small fields. But the quantities that they're able to produce are not sufficient. So now we’re investing in our own plantation in lowlands near the coast. The harvest yield from this, though, even at its maximum from 2022 / 2023, won’t meet our total needs, which is why we’ll continue sourcing certified cocoa as well. However, we want transparency that goes beyond just the certificate, back to its point of origin in the supply chain.

 

 

Cocoa has become an object of speculation. That's bad for the cocoa farmers and for us.

 

Cocoa prices have been fluctuating for years. Is that another reason why you've become a plantation owner?

 

Cocoa has become an object of speculation. That's bad for the cocoa farmers and for us. We need predictable prices. Because the price of cocoa fluctuates on the stock market, I can't say exactly whether my plantation is financially viable or not. Perhaps to some extent. On the other hand, our plantation costs are always the same, whether the price goes up or down. But cost saving isn’t our motive.

 

Will other manufacturers follow your example?

 

The supervisory board of a public limited company would surely never approve that. They expect quick profits from their Chief Executive. He’ll have a five-year term officially ... often they’re replaced before that. On the other hand, my family has had 102 years in office so far.

 

How far ahead do you plan?

 

A generation.

 

Up to now you haven’t really argued that you want to improve the living conditions of the people in Nicaragua.

 

That’ll follow. You can’t produce high quality with slaves. If you want good products, you need people who are well trained and enjoy their work. Otherwise there’ll be secret sabotage. You’ll tell from the taste of the chocolate if the people are all right.

 

Development aid workers criticise you for owning the plantation in Nicaragua yourself and not giving the land to the local farmers ...

 

That would be going too far. When all's said and done, I’m a businessman, responsible for ensuring that our activities are profitable. We’ve been involved in Nicaragua for 20 years and are still buying cocoa from small farmers. At times we’ve even worked with development aid organisations. I think, though, I’ll do better if I establish business connections there, deal with people on an equal footing, and don’t simply give them gifts.

 

(c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel
At the shop in the Ritter Sport museum in Waldenbuch, fans can buy all possible variations of the colorful Ritter-chocolates. (c) Christoph Püschner/Zeitenspiegel

How much organic chocolate do you have in the range?

 

A very small proportion. Much less than I’d hoped. I wouldn't like to say.

 

20 per cent?

 

No, it’s a measly single-digit amount. People who buy chocolate don’t pay much attention to organic labels. Besides, the retailers specialising in organic products don’t deal with us because we collaborate with normal food retailers – and so we miss out on half the market.

 

Will production on the plantation in Nicaragua be organic?

 

No, as newcomers to agriculture we don't want to take the risk, especially as cocoa is very sensitive and the plantation is very big. If we have trouble with pests, we want to be able to do something about it. We’re taking the approach known as integrated farming. That is, as little use of chemicals as possible, but fertilisation of the soil using by-products of the cocoa fruit. We’re afforesting the area at the moment. Tall trees will give the cocoa plants some shade. It’s an exciting combination, because the shade trees can be harvested, too, and sold at some point in the future. For example, mahogany.

 

Have you ever been to Ivory Coast?

 

Yes, once. And to the big cathedral in the capital – a copy of St. Peter's Basilica. There’s a statue of Mary inside. If you stand 15 metres away from the front of the statue, you can see her smiling. When you go up to her, she looks quite sad. I think the artist depicted his country well, and the contrasts between the rich and the poor.

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