Indranil Ghosh - Deputy MD at SOLEA (Subsidiary of KKO International)

CoVid-19 in Africa : impact on cocoa

African populations have suffered and are suffering epidemics far more deadly than that of CoVid-19, violent like Ebola or rampant like malaria and HIV, and they know only too well the stigmas left in their wake by these natural disasters: bereaved and impoverished families, fractured societies, feelings of abandonment by governments and the international community.

In many ways, the pandemic we are going through seems to be distinguished, not by its lethality or even virality, but by its egalitarian nature. By hitting all continents, all social classes and all economies, CoVid-19 has brought the whole world to a standstill. And it is to be feared that sub-Saharan Africa will pay a heavy price in the crisis we are living.

Cocoa cultivation is African: more than 73% of the world’s cocoa volume grows there, led by Ivory Coast, the world leader with 42.2% market share. Production is highly fragmented with more than 6 million farmers, nearly 90% of whom grow on small plots of between 1 and 5 hectares.

Unsurprisingly, the share of farmers’ remuneration in the selling price of the finished product is extremely low, generating endemic poverty that feeds on the precariousness of the farmers, forced to work to survive and deprived of any bargaining power with the companies that buy the beans from them.

The resulting negative externalities are unfortunately all too well known: child labour, illiteracy, deforestation, and environmental destruction.

Today, the CoVid-19 epidemic is likely to deal a severe blow to the already struggling cocoa farming families in West Africa.

Indeed, while disruptions in the food supply have so far been limited, United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation recently warned of an impending food crisis if measures are not taken to protect the most vulnerable, including smallholders. The recession announced by the World Bank is likely to increase pressure on government budgets and on already limited spending on essential services and social protection. At the household level, sick farmers, higher food prices, lack of access to school feeding for children and possible disruptions in the supply of fertilizers and pesticides could put unsustainable pressure on farmers’ incomes.

The social consequences, especially on children, are difficult to assess. The example of Côte d’Ivoire shows that a 10% drop in income due to a decrease in cocoa prices has led in past years to a 5 percentage point increase in child labour, which will mechanically lead to a decrease in school enrolment.

Finally, the pressure on the price is likely to deal a severe blow to initiatives promoting more « sustainable » production. National and international programmes in this direction, which are already facing great difficulties in getting adequate indicators to measure the impacts of their investments back on the ground, risk seeing their funds dwindle, with the risk of losing the benefits of years of painstaking effort.

In this sad landscape, the chocolate industry remains quite alien to the rise of « fair trade » agri-food products, which has prompted many global companies to reform, as Starbucks did for coffee. Consumers themselves seem to have little awareness of the « ethics » of producing their favourite delicacy. As a result, it is (very) rare to find cocoa plantations that have applied « ESG » criteria to their production.

At a time when the world is facing an economic crisis, cocoa workers are facing a humanitarian crisis. This crisis must be both an opportunity to enhance the value of ESG-compliant production and to promote the emergence of best practices common to all farmers.

It is essential that consumers take part in this change, by favouring labelled and controlled products, attesting both to the preservation of the environment and to the protection of farmers and their families.

The epidemic we are going through reveals the flaws in our development model. We are already thinking about how to overhaul this model. It must involve new ways of consuming food, so that the only bitterness of chocolate is its taste.