Hope for a global cocoa sector at a pivotal crossroads in history

Perhaps the most striking comment among many standout moments of this week’s thoroughly excellent World Cocoa Conference came from Voice Network’s Antonie Fountain, who said: “If not now, when are we going to solve the problems within cocoa?”

His closing presentation struck a chord with the audience from across the industry, using some colourful movie analogies and references to put across his point that progress is being made, but the realities of the ongoing crisis within the sector is all too real. (See our exclusive video review of the 2024 event here).

Significantly, he stated that while it appeared to be the case that child labour numbers within the cocoa sector may potentially be reducing, it was also the position that ‘over the past 18 months, some businesses had rowed back on reporting the levels of child labour in their supply chains.”

This he observed, would no longer be an option for any company under the incoming EUDR and other related sector legal frameworks that will compel companies to raise their game. But the big question still hangs large over the initiative – who exactly is going to pay for all the monitoring and implementation that such major initiatives require?

Civil society groups have been clear in their view that it should not in any way fall on the farmers to subsidise the introduction of the hugely ambitious, yet vital legislation. Ultimately, its likely that companies and consumers will shoulder the brunt of such costs, but it would be incredibly hard to argue otherwise – considering that agricultural workers already receive less than 10% of the value of the products they are helping work to create.

It was clearly no accident that Antonie Fountain’s thought-provoking final musings, based upon twenty years operating in the industry, followed on the heels of the opening session of the final morning.

This came from Lieve Verboven, of the International Labour Organisation, who warned the conference that the sector needed something of a reality check.

As she explained with child and forced labour still remaining a factor within West Africa, hard solutions over a continual strain of rhetoric is what is needed at this stage.

Indeed, two decades on from the signing of the Harkin Engel protocol that put sustainability on the map with a voluntary code, has, by all accounts failed in its bid to eradicate the worst forms of child labour. This is despite the confectionery and chocolate business evolving individual sustainability schemes that have spoken of the need to place farming families at the centre of the business.

In speaking to a broad number of companies operating with the category over the years, there’s little doubting the sincerity of many these projects that have emerged with varying degrees of global fanfare.

They’re undoubtedly a step in the right direction, but the entangled web of conditions spanning everything from poor weather conditions and crop disease influencing harvests, through to a lack of access to (increasingly expensive fertilisers, and worsening threats of what is known locally as ‘galamsey’ illegal gold mining impacting the productivity of the industry, as volumes face ongoing crop deficits in Ghana and Ivory Coast.

However, it seems while there may indeed be some reduction in demand for some segments of confectionery, most notably within premium brand chocolate, there’s also the fact that certain markets are still showing resilience, including the US. But even that immense territory isn’t immune from global disruptions that have wrought a trail of uncertainty within the market, with the highly-elevated cost of cocoa now topping the seemingly unthinkable $12,000 barrier.

Significantly, as Antonie Fountain observed, when considering the potential response and solution to such conditions, he believed it was ‘not just price’ that should be factored in, as other issues such as buying practices, are something that could be collectively accounted for.

So, there was indeed a huge amount of food for thought, with the concluding icing on the cake entering stage right in the form of the World Cocoa Conference closing declaration.

While this has yet to be finalised in the next couple of weeks, the thrust of it, as read by Michel Arrion, executive director of the ICCO, are that companies very shortly must legally comply with a whole new raft of due diligence considerations. This is surely the best and only way forward given two decades of fragmented progress, as the ILO asserted in the view of its presentation to the conference. Change, as noted, is clearly possible, with combined, clear action to crack one of the most challenging tasks within the wider food and drink segment.

Neill Barston, editor, Confectionery Production

– Keep in touch at [email protected] or @confectionprod or via our Linkedin page.

Related content

Leave a reply

Confectionery Production