Article rédigé par Indranil GHOSH

Hard to conceive? Impossible to achieve?

Par Indranil GHOSH, Deputy MD at SOLEA (Subsidiary of KKO International)

Why are we talking about slavery in 2021?

In an age of heightened rhetoric around environmental and social consciousness with a need for a balanced lifestyle, chocolate buyers are evermore exigent of the quality and sustainability in their supply chain. Yet concurrently, they are being fed images of genteel folks, engaged in ostentatious display of refinedness and well-being, thereby bestowing chocolate with a benign air of fine living.  Some of the iconic ads that come to mind are Lindt “Do you dream in chocolate?”, Ferrero RocherThe Ambassador, Bounty – “The Taste Of Paradise or Cadbury’s“Flake in a bathtub”.

But the dark reality on the ground cannot be further from what is portrayed above.

It is disheartening to constate the continued chasm between monies invested, time spent and results achieved. Newsreels are still being dominated by large chocolate firms being dragged to courts for failing to eliminate undeclared, notably child labour from their supply chains. Yet in the larger court of public opinion, they seem to escape admonishment and immediate sanction as the sector continues to pay lip service to the problems on the ground.

So after decades of initiatives, we have failed to deliver on our promise of ethics and justice. Is it due to a lack of resources? Is it political or does the status-quo suit year-end results?

It’s about the bottom-line…

In 2019, the world’s largest cocoa producer, Ivory Coast, generated more than 3 billion USD in exports followed by Ghana (almost 2 billion USD). The largest importer was Netherlands at more than 2.2 billion USD. Germany, is the biggest exporter of chocolate products (more than 4 billion USD). These jaw-dropping numbers are evermore stark in their disparity, when you note that farmers receive less than 6 percent of the overall revenue. The retailers at 44% and manufacturers at 35% make up for the largest chunks. Even marketing costs, at over 4%, is almost as much as what farmers make!

Unless we are able to dramatically unravel the above disequilibrium that gangrenes the sector, not much can be achieved. Half heartened attempts won’t eradicate, let alone reduce slavery which is a direct result of poverty. Corporate avarice and a fantastic ability to ignore, what we cannot witness first-hand, has allowed the rot to set in.

What can we do about it?

Any impetus for durable change will not come from the corporations or governments but from consumers. It starts with targeted pedagogy, educating the end-consumers to help them see beyond the veneer to decorticate fads and persistent myths.

“Certified is NOT sustainable”

Large firms continue to invest substantial resources into sustainability programs. Mars will invest upwards of 1 billion USD while Mondelez has a 400 million USD program. These companies procure their “certified” cocoa from cooperatives who in turn rely on largescale adhesion of farmers. Rampant financial mismanagement and opaque functioning render these structures unreliable and the veracity of their certification, doubtful.

“Certification labels DON’T suffice”

Initially, players like FAIRTRADE, UTZ and RAINFOREST had monopoly over the certification process. Customers took refuge in the idea that these labels vouched for justice and fairness within the supply chain. However, this trend is on a downward spiral with the advent of in-house labels. True monitoring and accountability can only be achieved when processes are handled from within.

“Bean-To-Bar is NOT the answer”

It might be incendiary – but the aforementioned moniker isn’t always a surefire gauge of quality. Through astute marketing, terms like “handmade, artisan and single-origin” are espoused with Bean-To-Bar although they can’t be further apart in terms of traceability. The myth of a master chocolate maker, who roams the remotest corners of the world, often working on-site with indigenous tribes is just that – a myth. In reality, most professionals resort to acquiring their couverture from “lumpers”2 who profess traceability. This cannot suffice.

So, if we can’t trust labels, certification programs and sustained trends, how can we access a slavery-free product?

As recently as January 2021, the EU Ambassador to Côte d’Ivoire said “The European consumer wants to eat chocolate without having to think about child labor, deforestation or the poverty of those who grow cocoa”. But with over 1.4 million cocoa farmers living under the extreme poverty line, slavery-free chocolate, under current circumstances, remains an ephemeral dream.

The answer lies in an often-underused term, traceability.

Beyond Sustainable – Be Traceable.

What’s better than being able to pinpoint the very origin of the cocoa – its germination in the nursery? Can we ensure that all phytosanitary products and fertilizers used are homologated? Can we accurately measure the forest footprint3 of the finished good? Is it possible to elevate the farmer’s income from the current pittance? Is better land management possible to prevent expropriation?

The answers point to an integrated model. A disruptive move away from the fragmented, farmer-based approach as seen today towards that of haciendas, farms with measurable sustainability protocols, directives and controls in place. Data from these farms can then be collated using technology like Blockchain to preserve data veracity (by design, a blockchain is resistant to modification of its data) and further curated for large public appraisal.

No more placing our trust in glossy marketing campaigns. Let’s reduce our tolerance to corporate discourse that consists of promises and lofty goals (e.g., aim to eradicate farmer poverty within a decade…). Can we adhere to a grass-roots movement, a sustained momentum, with ambition to strike corporate bottom-lines through a profound change of consuming habits?

A success in the above approach would translate to large corporations investing and building stakes in local operations. It would consist of placing their employees on the ground, insourcing and being firmly accountable for every hit or miss. Go-betweens like cooperatives need to be pulled to the side, bringing chocolate firms closer to farmers and their realities.

As of today, this is contrary to their ethos. But investors, shareholders and the general public need to ask tough questions and demand precise answers – resultantly pushing some of the actors to adopt these measures.

How much longer do we wait for things to turn? No more roundtables or exhaustive studies or gatherings that serve up photo opportunities. Only through disruption, a resounding éclat can we help erase the inertia that has crept in. We cannot afford to stumble back to familiar gripes, into the same quagmire in which it the subject of slavery within the cocoa supply chain has wallowed for years but which this time, we must swear to avoid.

Indranil GHOSH