Behind the scenes: The World Cocoa Foundation’s goal securing a sustainable industry for future generations

Few sector subjects remain as vital as the ever-more complex issue of delivering a sustainable cocoa sector. Neill Barston speaks exclusively to Rick Scobey, president of the World Cocoa Foundation on the state of the industry

Striving to create fairer conditions for farmers in major producing nations serving the confectionery sector remains at the core of World Cocoa Foundation’s (WCF) values. It was 20 years ago this month that the not-for-profit organisation was bestowed with its present title, having been set up just a few years earlier by the US Chocolate Manufacturers’ Association and its related group, the American Cocoa Research Institute.

Together, they had worked with the cocoa sector since the 1920s, yet as the group acknowledges, it was not until the 1990s it was fully realised that driving sustainability directly within Ivory Coast and Ghana would be critical to the industry’s survival. Consequently, after becoming independent in 2002, the organisation established its present-day base in Washington DC, under the stewardship of Bill Guyton as president.

Speaking exclusively to Confectionery Production (see the video here), his successor Rick Scobey, who had previously spent three decades working for the World Bank, says it has been a memorable four years in post so far, noting there are plenty of challenges ahead to tackle.

Being based in the US, which is proving the coronavirus capital of the world, the organisation is all too aware that the present pandemic is posing significant tests across the industry that remains of considerable concern. However, the WCF has a membership of over 100, including those representing farming communities, cocoa processors, financial institutions, retailers and major confectionery businesses.

It is continuing with a strong unity of purpose in tackling vital issues of farmer payments, child labour and major deforestation that is linked directly to activities in the sector. “After a long slog in an international bureaucracy, I was very keen to return to my true passion of working more directly with farmers on issues of poverty reduction, and I felt that joining the WCF was an extraordinary opportunity to engage in public/private collaboration,” says Scobey, on his motivation for taking on his present senior role.

Significantly, he says the industry is unusual in that around 60 per cent of the market is dealt with through just two countries, Ivory Coast and Ghana, with around 10 companies at its heart. With this in mind, the president believes that making a difference to the sector really is possible, despite the immensity of the core issues that it is attempting to tackle. “This is an industry that’s extremely connected to smallholder farmers, with cocoa being a crop that’s grown 90 per cent by individual farmers in landholdings of three to five hectares in scale, there’s almost no industrial scale production. “So the companies who trade and process cocoa, or make chocolate bars like Mars, Hershey and Ferrero realise that their future is entirely linked with the health, safety and sustainability of cocoa farmers, so they spend a lot of effort and investment to work with those farmers,” adds Scobey, on the balance between those at the core of the business.

 

This year above all others is presenting heightened tests as the world continues in its bid to battle coronavirus, which has placed a huge strain on many aspects of the food and drink sector. Everything from production challenges, through to logistics and distribution issues over the past five months of the pandemic, are showing no signs of significantly easing-up in terms of business disruption. Clearly, Ivory Coast and Ghana are no exception to that rule, and although West Africa has reported few cases of coronavirus, the cocoa sector has been hit notably hard by a marked drop in cocoa prices over the past few months.

“The pandemic has hit both producing and consuming countries. There’s a global recession that is associated with slower consumption of cocoa products, with less demand impacting on prices. While there’s not much prevalence of the virus in rural communities, such areas are still vulnerable to health pandemics given the weak health infrastructure in those places. “While we are thankful that West Africa has not been too affected, unfortunately in Latin America, there have been problems in Ecuador in particular in cocoa growing communities there.”

He says the organisation is particularly heartened to see the efforts of individual companies and organisations that have given hundreds of millions to Red cross and UNICEF, with the likes of Unilever, Nestle and Mondelēz, playing their part. In addition to those responses, he says the WCF with its partners raised $835,000 from 30 companies for coronavirus education and prevention in cocoa growing communities – provided to Cameroon, Brazil, Ivory Coast, and Ecuador, with a broad range of assistance being offered including providing water supplies, protection equipment to cocoa growing communities.

Foundation strategy

Since his arrival four years ago at the foundation, Scobey says there continues to be a renewed attention on how best to deliver its core goals. While its key aims of helping some of the most vulnerable farmers in the world out of conditions that fall below UN definitions of poverty are indeed grand in scope, he says one of the most effective means of gaining success is through delivering joint projects. “We have put in place a new strategy that clearly focuses on three long term sustainability challenges.

The first is to promote prosperous farmers with sustainable livelihoods and ensure they have a living income, and secondly to support empowered communities that fully respect human rights and ending the problem of child labour in cocoa production. “Thirdly, we are aiming to address deforestation and climate change. Within the first two years of this we have worked up policies and launched partnerships of collective action with governments and companies to tackle those specific problems,” explains the president, who acknowledges it is such collaborations that will prove decisive to its work.

Crucially, he says the foundation is keenly aware of recent Fairtrade Foundation analysis, which highlighted a concerning trend of duplication of effort with many individual sustainability projects from companies and civil organisations. In his view, he says a strong degree of focus is now required in order to avoid this situation moving forward if its plans are to have a long-term impact.

Farming techniques

As Scobey notes, providing targeted, direct support to farming communities in West Africa is a vital element of the solution, describing the need for education on crop diversification and enhancement of agricultural methods in the region as a critical element towards resolving the farming communities’ issues. Equally, he stresses that providing a living income is a ‘building block of sustainability’ which is simply not presently being reached, with many workers still earning less than a dollar a day for their efforts. One of the key mechanisms that has emerged in the past year on improving remuneration levels has been the creation of the Living Income Differential payment to farmers – which the foundation believes could make a notable positive impact. “Cocoa companies operating in Ivory Coast have signed up to the Living Differential for the 20/2021 crop season in order to boost farmer incomes, in which each buyer has to pay $400 a tonne of cocoa. That equates to around $1.2 billion in additional revenue for cocoa farmers.  This is a key measure for ensuring the living income.”

Furthermore, on the matter of environmental protections – which is particularly important given the fact that more than 80 per cent of Ivory Coast’s and Ghana’s forests have been degraded, the WCF has been instrumental in establishing the Cocoa and Forests Initiative. As Confectionery Production has previously covered, more than 30 companies and governments of West Africa agreed this new partnership to tackle deforestation in 2017. While sector studies have revealed that in 2018, there were still major issues with forest losses, Scobey believes that progress with the scheme is gathering pace, and delivering on it remains one of his major passions.

Fighting child labour

With international research indicating there are still two million children working as labourers within the cocoa sector, this grim statistic stands one of the sector’s most pressing issues. It’s certainly something the WCF has actively targeted and has formed a core element of its joint operations. “Our view is that child labour has no place in the cocoa supply chain and we’re focused on addressing it. As a result of our initiatives, we’re in a much better position to understand the root causes of child labour and we have piloted programmes that have demonstrated impact, so we think we’re now at a turning point.

“We’re ready to build a partnership with the government, and financial and partners including UNICEF, the World Bank and EU, where we focus on scaling up these pilot programmes to national level,” explains the president. While concerns remain on the issue, in the context of cocoa production having risen by 60 per cent in the past decade, the president notes child labour is said to have actually comparatively reduced. With plenty on its plate in terms of major sector issues, he says the foundation is looking forward to exchanging views on these vital topics at the organisation’s annual partnership meeting, which will be held in a virtual format in November, where the issues that matter most to the sector will be truly under the spotlight.

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