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The Price of Chocolate

March 24, 2015

It was 18th century Swedish botanist, Carolus Linnaeus, who gave cocoa its scientific name, Theobroma Cacao, meaning “food of the gods.” It was a fitting name. Cocoa, like coffee, is processed from beans of an originally South American plant. In the 18th century, cocoa was such a rarity that it featured only in royal and high society homes.

It made sense to call this utterly delicious and unquestionably prestigious drink the food of gods.

But Carolus Linnaeus would be shocked today at how wrong he was. The food of the gods has gone through a traumatic couple of centuries and come out looking anything but godly. In fact, no other large-scale food crop has caused, and continues to cause, so much pain and suffering.

The Strange Economics of Chocolate

The supreme irony in the story of cocoa is that it owes both its fame and infamy to one country: Belgium. The small European country produces 270,000 metric tons of chocolate each year – about 20% of the world’s industrial chocolate – and has more than 2,000 chocolate shops. It is the global centre of chocolate culture with brands and varieties of chocolates like none other. And, by most accounts, Belgium makes the best creamy, wholesome chocolate.

Belgium became the chocolate capital of the world because that is where chocolate began its transformation from a luxury good to a mass product accessible to millions of middle and low-income earners. The credit goes to the most infamous Belgian the world has ever known: King Leopold II. As the King of a relatively small country at a time when the more powerful European powers – Britain, France, Germany and Italy – were curving out Africa amongst themselves, King Leopold II managed to persuade the European powers to grant him the crown jewel of African colonies, the Congo. The feat elevated his small nation to the league of big powers. That is until he proceeded to reign over the massacre of over ten million Congolese over 23 years in a colonial system so brutal that it incredibly scandalized the world at a time when brutal treatment of Africans was accepted colonial behavior.

The irony is that it is also this King who introduced cocoa to Africa, in effect laying the foundation for an agricultural sector that today produces 70% of the world’s cocoa and is the economic mainstay of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire. Unfortunately, the King’s terrible sense of labor management in the Congo also sowed the seeds that today make cocoa, and by extension chocolate, the cause of terrible suffering in West Africa.

The cocoa story is remarkable both for its economic and social impact. Until the mid-19th century, a cup of cocoa was a luxury beverage not only in Europe but also in its native South America. The main problem was that the cocoa plant was, as it still is, naturally adapted to defy mass-market economics. That is because one cocoa tree produces between twenty and thirty pods in two harvests a year – just enough to make a single 450 grams bar of chocolate. In other words, a good birthday party with enough chocolates to go round can consume an entire year’s cocoa harvest of a small-scale farm in West Africa.

That makes cocoa completely unlike the two other mass-market crop-based beverages, coffee and tea, both of which come from plants that produce prodigiously. In fact, on economic considerations, cocoa should not, and should never have become a mass-market product.

The Belgian Chocolate Story

It is not like King Leopold II invented a new way of producing cocoa. He merely paved way for it. After getting the Congo in 1885, the King never set a foot in his new dominion, but he did send a generous supply of cocoa seeds, on the reasonable calculation that the plant would thrive in the virgin tropical lands of his new colony.

The plan did not work out as intended because the Congo proved better in producing a more lucrative product, rubber. The King, however, still managed to use rubber as the template to invent a new and terrible business model of turning a luxury good into a mass-market product. It all rested on crude brutality. The King dispatched a private army – because, officially, the Congo was his personal possession not a colony of Belgium – to run his new state.

This private army, Force Publique, was confronted by a problem when it landed in the Congo. The local population was, naturally, not interested in any job the King’s men had to offer, and therefore threatened to render the King’s new enterprise still-born. So, in keeping with the warped logic of the time, the King’s soldiers embarked on a massive labor recruitment campaign of burning and starving entire villages, and kidnapping children, to force the locals to join the King’s rubber plantations workforce. The more athletic children were forced to join the King’s private army and unleash terror on their own community – not unlike what would happen in the civil wars that would break out in the neighboring countries in the 1990s.

And when the Africans responded by resorting to an informal go-slow, that is by going to work for the King diligently every morning but doing as little work as good manners would allow, the king’s men took to cutting off their hands and genitals, or on a good day, simply flogging them to death, for not meeting their daily quota of rubber sap. Again, that set a precedent for the conduct of militias in the civil wars of the 1990s. In the civil wars that ravaged Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Sierra León and Guinea, the competing militias not only forced children to join the war by forcing them to kill their own parents and other relatives, but also cut off the limbs of anyone they suspected of opposing them. While the world was rightly shocked by this behavior, it was in fact the manifestation of King Leopold’s legacy.

In the end, King Leopold’s men in Congo massacred over ten million Africans in the name of raising free labor for the King’s rubber business, and in the process made the king a tidy $100-plus million fortune.

To be fair to the Belgian king, he did not invent colonialism, forced labor or child–soldiers. His royal peers in Europe were all in the business too. King Leopold II merely took the new agricultural business model to grotesque extremes.

It is that economics defying business model that eventually spread to cocoa production in West Africa. As the colonial era unfolded, plantations of cocoa began sprouting across the region. Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, then called the Ivory Coast, quickly emerged as the main producing countries. In all instances, cocoa production was only successful as a business because of the colonial quasi-slave labor. And, as the world got used to the infectious taste of cocoa – made even more popular and universally romantic by the invention of chocolate – the pressure to keep production prices low became a self-reinforcing imperative.

The system spawned huge agricultural multinationals and steadily grew to the $60 billion a year industry that it is today. And Belgium, better than other countries, gradually curved itself a niche as the unofficial global capital of the chocolate culture.

Slavery and Child Labor in Modern Cocoa Production

Today, West Africa produces over 70% of the global supply of cocoa, and the largest chocolate companies – Hershey’s, Mars, and Nestlé – have operations here. The problem is that cocoa production is still a business oxymoron. While the industry’s products, particularly chocolates, have acquired a universal brand image of love and goodwill, its production system is stuck in the colonial era.

The first plank in the system is the dismally low farm gate prices, with the average cocoa farmer earning less than the international recognized poverty income level of $2 per day. The low prices are partly a result of deregulation of agriculture in West Africa. Commodity boards which, for a while, protected farmers from exploitation by agro-businesses were abolished in 1980s, leaving small farmers at the mercy of the market.

Secondly, and partly because of the low farm gate prices, poverty, and civil war in Cote d’Ivoire, the pressure to make a profit at the farm level has led to a deterioration in labor conditions. The BBC and the International Labor Rights Forum, for example, have both reported widespread poverty, child trafficking for labor and the apparent connivance by local governments and the chocolate multinationals to protect the system.

The situation is horrific. Some of the children are sent to work in cocoa farms by their own parents because of poverty. But many others, some as young as twelve, are enticed or forced into the cocoa farms. Cases abound of children abducted from small villages in the poorer countries that are not cocoa producers such as Burkina Faso and Mali, and taken to cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. There are, too, reported cases of children whipped for working slowly or trying to escape, and of children and adults locked in at night to prevent them from escaping. It is not the King Leopold’s Congo but it is as close as it can be in the 21st century.

The work involved is tough even for adults. The children have to gather cocoa pods, delicately using large knives attached to poles so as not to damage buds and flowers flourishing alongside the mature pods. The pods are then carried in large baskets to a central point, where the kids have to go on their knees to split each pod, again using large knives or machetes, to get to the tiny, two cm beans. Inevitably, the combination of a tired, twelve-year old child and a large, sharp knife all day leads to accidents.

Current estimates are that 1.8 million children in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, the two largest cocoa producers, work on cocoa farms.

Moreover, children are not only put to work on harvesting the pods, but also to spray the plants with industrial chemicals without protective gear.

How to Wean the Chocolate Industry off Child Labor

The chocolate industry has not been particularly enthusiastic in fighting child labor in West Africa. In fact, the big multinationals remain notoriously secretive about where their cocoa supplies come from in an obvious strategy to evade responsibility for encouraging child labor.

Still, it is increasingly clear that the chocolate industry is feeling the heat of increasing consumer awareness of the darker side of the cocoa industry. The big cocoa multinationals, for example, have, at least on paper, agreed to support efforts to eliminate ‘the worst forms of child labor’ as defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO).

They have also taken to branding their products as free from child and slave labor as way of assuaging consumers. Labels on chocolate bars today include Fairtrade certifications and the Rainforest Alliance Certification. And, indeed, not all chocolate is tainted by child labor and slavery. There are, for example, no reported cases of child or slave labor in Latin American cocoa farms, the source of most organic cocoa.

Overall, however, most of the chocolate in the global market today is tainted, if only because West Africa is by far the leading producer. There is also an element of deception by the big chocolate makers. For instance, Fairtrade organization had to suspend several West African supplies of big multinationals because they were found to be using child labor even as they proudly carried the Fairtrade label.

It would certainly help if the governments in West Africa – and the multiplicity of donor countries that have influence there – made policy interventions to eradicate child labor in cocoa farms. But that would probably only have limited effect as long as the global demand for cheap chocolate and the vested interest of chocolate companies remain. That essentially leaves consumer awareness as the most promising route to forcing the industry to exert its considerable influence on the child-abusing sources of raw cocoa in West Africa.

In other words, if you must buy a chocolate bar, insist on a brand that has a clear Fairtrade or the Rainforest Alliance Certification.


BBC. March 24, 2010. “Tracing the bitter truth of chocolate and child labour.” (3/01/14)


  1. Gottlob

    I will think twice before buying a bar of chocolate! Although I heard of child labour in chocolate industry, I never knew that scale was this large. It is a gruesome thing that we have this kind of ruthless capitalists who suck the blood out of the defenceless. The chocolate my grandchildren love eating causes great pain for the children not as lucky. I want to tell them how chocolate is produced, but I don’t want to shatter their pink dreams about the world by depressing them. Fairtrade chocolate seems the best option, but knowing that they are relatively more expensive, it would not be a radical solution.

  2. Henry

    I don’t think that, after reading this well-written essay, I will be able to eat chocolate with clear conscious. It is terrible to know what the children in Africa go through for us to have the sweet pleasure of eating chocolate. I am actually a person who loves going to Belgium, not only for its chocolate but also for the wide variety of beer that is hard to find anywhere else. All countries did something terrible in the past, so in this case, Belgium is not alone. But still, I don’t think that I will be able to be eating chocolate as nothing happened after this influential essay. Maybe Fairtrade is the solution, who knows.

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