In their 2020 Cocoa Barometer report, the VOICE Network, a coalition of civil society and non-governmental organizations, outlines the systemic asymmetries in the political economy of the commodity market burdening cocoa farmers in West Africa. By analyzing the roots of the imbalances in the chocolate supply chain, the authors offer critical recommendations and strategic remediations for a long-needed change in the cocoa sector.
As it is, the whole chocolate production chain keeps being broadly unsustainable and unfair, especially for the people producing cacao beans. So far, the stakeholders who appear to hold accountability for discussing possible solutions to the dysfunctionalities affecting the cocoa value chain limit their efforts to pay lip service to initiate the necessary practices for the sustainability of the industry.
Despite two decades of increased rhetoric for sector-wide interventions, the challenges facing the cocoa sector remain as large as they have ever been. Extensive deforestation, human and labor rights transgressions, a lack of transparency and accountability are fueled by shady and inefficient interventions. The decisional and economic inequities mooted in the report are heartbreaking because they are systemic. Even if the authors have chosen to focus on West Africa—because of its dominance in cocoa production and the significant challenges it faces—the highlighted reality isn’t just about the cocoa commodity market. It is a pattern from which even the specialty cocoa and fine chocolate segment can learn lessons on approaching the big picture of the discussion for a truly prosperous and sustainable sector.
In order to promote and augment a positive impact, the cocoa sector must learn from its mistakes; else, it risks repeating them. The 2020 Cocoa Barometer report finds that the last two decades of interventions have failed for three reasons.
Firstly, efforts have only been voluntary, not mandatory, meaning that actors fail to do what they need across the sector. Within the multitude of government-driven covenants, national multi-stakeholder platforms, and sector-wide collaborations, there are no penalties for noncompliance, neither is enforcement to meet targets. Ironically, however, those at the bottom—cocoa farmers often living below the poverty line—lose their sustainable cocoa certification if they do not comply. While we have seen a significant increase in regulatory processes and commitments to due diligence, they are limited without accountability, transparency, and equitable enforcement.
Secondly, while bad farming practices have been addressed, the underlying problems that exacerbate extreme poverty—including low cocoa prices, lack of infrastructure, and no transparency and accountability as you move higher in the supply chain—remain unchallenged and unsolved. There needs to be the recognition that in its current form, the business model for high yields of cocoa means poverty for farmers and excessive profit for chocolate manufacturers.
Thirdly, efforts to solve complex issues of injustice and unsustainability in the cocoa sector have not been inclusive or holistic enough. Instead of inviting farmers and civil society to take a respected seat at the decision-making table, problems have been assessed using a top-down industry-based approach. This serves the interests of industry and government, rather than the producer farmers and their communities.
Recognizing that bad farming is not the problem but rather a symptom of a deeply unfair system, the report advocates for systems change and regulation that creates an enabling environment. Current forms of certification and farm-based standards increase pressure on farmers: instead, we need laws that hold the powerful accountable, rather than rules which demand that farmers change. Compliance criteria are imbalanced and need restructuring so that companies are held responsible for due diligence systems.