Skip to content Skip to footer

What’s Fairer Than Fair Trade? Try Direct Trade With Cocoa Farmers

Fair trade is good, but it still leaves cocoa growers in poverty. Hereu2019s how to do better.

Nestlé / Flickr)" width="637" height="424" />Dried cocoa beans in farmers hand. (Photo: Nestlé / Flickr)

When I was little, my grandfather fed me chocolate, mostly to keep me quiet—Hershey Bars, Three Musketeers, Kit Kats, Rolos, hot fudge sundaes. These chocolates of my childhood, fluffy candies molded into clever shapes and wrapped in colorful packaging, told no story beyond their branding, and while my grandpa’s quieting strategy worked, it also created a lifelong fixation with this luxuriant food. By adulthood, my love for chocolate had grown into such a fascination that I enrolled in a Ph.D. program to study its origins, trade, and politics, traveling the world to discover where chocolate comes from, who makes it, and the true costs behind everybody’s favorite sweet.

I first tasted cocoa beans in Hawaii, the only state in America that’s in the tropics, where cocoa can grow, and among the few locales where chocolate is actually produced on the farm. In the hills above Kona, I found the Original Hawaiian Chocolate Factory and marveled at the trees—short and crowned with oblong leaves, football-sized pods bursting from their trunks. I ran up and greeted one as if it were an old friend, laying my hand on the rough bark, tracing the grooves with my fingertips. Chocolate Factory owner Bob Cooper casually plucked a wine-red pod and hacked it open with a machete. Inside, lay rows of thick, pearly beans. Having longed to see the genesis of my favorite food, this was practically a reverential moment for me. But it is daily labor across the tropics, where millions of farmers pick ruby, orange, or bright yellow pods to satisfy the worldwide appetite for chocolate—a global market worth $100 billion.

Poverty and Cocoa

Cooper and his wife, Pam, can support themselves by making chocolate, but life is very different for cocoa farmers in West Africa, source of 70 percent of the world’s supply, where growers in Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Cameroon cultivate it exclusively for export.

Unfinished beans command a fraction of the value of processed chocolate. One sack (138 pounds) earns a Ghanaian farmer about $106, but can flavor more than 100 pounds of candy. Put another way: Ghanaian cocoa farmers are getting about 77 cents per pound, where a high-end maker selling 2-ounce chocolate bars for $9 apiece earns $72 per pound. Even your basic $2 bar brings in $16 per pound, about 20 times what the farmer gets. According to the Fairtrade Foundation, cocoa growers in West Africa earn, on average, about 6 percent of the final cost of a chocolate bar.

One of the most illuminating stops on my journey was Southeast Asia, where I got an up-close look at the labor involved in chocolate farming. In the lowland forest of Malaysia, a whip-thin grower led me through groves of lush green plantain and graceful coconut palms. They swayed above us, providing both fruit for the farmer and shade for his fragile, shade-loving cocoa trees. Such quiet walks were rare, however. Most of the farmer’s days were spent pruning, weeding, fertilizing, spraying, and grafting hybrids to ensure the highest-yielding trees, then studying his cocoa pods for the exact moment of ripeness. Neither he nor any of the other farmers I interviewed had ever savored the bittersweet taste of a chocolate bar. Fresh cocoa, often too bitter to swallow, has as much in common with the candy of my youth as a sunflower or blade of grass, and its transformation into a delicacy requires a chain of production so elaborate that the end product is far too expensive for most farmers to buy.

For their labors, most cocoa farmers I met in West Africa earn between $2 and $4 a day and struggle to meet basic needs. Many are barely literate. They live in mud huts or tin-roofed shacks, eating subsistence crops—cassava, yam, plantain—supplemented by white rice and processed foods like tomato paste from a can. Working conditions are generally miserable. In Ghana, for example, the average high is a humid 90 degrees during the prime growing season, when farmers walk forests laced with thorns, snakes, and scorpions.After witnessing such poverty up close, my initial response was to search for solutions friendly to both chocolate lovers and cocoa farmers. I’d long been familiar with the blue-and-green, yin-yang label of Fairtrade International, sometimes referred to as FLO (acronym of the organization’s former name, Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International), which unites various certification efforts under one umbrella. The largest ethical-trade organization on the planet, FLO certifies producer groups in 58 countries and requires that farmers adhere to rigorous production standards, including a democratic cooperative structure, environmental stewardship, and non-discriminatory labor practices. Individual farmers, however, are not certified; they form cooperatives, which are granted the Fairtrade imprimatur after paying an annual fee to the organization. It is the cooperatives’ responsibility to ensure that each member adheres to Fairtrade standards.

Ethically minded chocolate companies—including some who use FLO’s label—have raised questions about this and other aspects of the Fairtrade system. At present, the organization sets minimum prices on each commodity it certifies; for cocoa, that’s $2,000 per metric ton. FLO-certified cooperatives receive this minimum, or the world-market price, whichever is higher. However, FLO does not detail the thinking behind its pricing standards, except to note—rather vaguely—that they are intended to cover the cost of “sustainable production.” In other words, despite the implications of its name, “Fairtrade” prices do not necessarily cover any of the basic costs of life—like housing, food, or education—for growers.

Moreover, the Fairtrade minimum barely differs from the current world market price, which since 2005 has generally been higher. And as large corporations like Mars and Cadbury (owned by Kraft Foods) increasingly jump on the bandwagon, using the Fairtrade label, long-certified firms worry that FLO’s standards may weaken—if they haven’t already. After all, the organization was established to promote more equitable trade than the world market provides, not as a stamp for multinationals to continue exploiting cheap agricultural goods.

Fairtrade-certified cooperatives do receive an additional $200 per metric ton of cocoa, known as the Fairtrade premium, some of which is paid to farmers as a cash bonus. Most growers I met, however, were more appreciative of the development projects—wells, pumps, schools—that a majority of the premiums go toward, and which benefit entire villages.

Better Than Fair Trade

While FLO standards provide an ethical-trade foundation for certified cooperatives, some companies using the label do more than others to support growers. The Ghanaian cooperative Kuapa Kokoo, for example, has a long and unique relationship with Britain’s Divine Chocolate that goes far beyond typical Fairtrade requirements. Most producers have little to do with the final product, but members of Kuapa Kokoo own nearly half the shares in Divine, which is publicly traded, and they benefit from the dividends. Kuapa Kokoo also promotes equitable distribution of cocoa income between women and men, and women farmers who participate say this has improved their standing at home, as well as their ability to support their children.

Divine Chocolate regularly invites members of Kuapa Kokoo to tour Britain and, increasingly, the United States. They meet with chocolate lovers, give public talks, and are often stunned at the abundance of chocolate in shops. Where these farmers live, a family would have to save up food money for three days to buy a single Cadbury bar. The closest most will ever come to tasting chocolate is a flavorless mug of Nestlé cocoa.

In 2001, when I began my chocolate studies, there were few sources of detailed information on the whys and wherefores of this delicacy; I had to travel to actual cocoa farms to learn about the industry. But by the time I returned to the United States in 2006, a burgeoning artisanal market was connecting consumers to cocoa growers in new ways. Oil-glossy and snapping into bite-size pieces with a pleasing crack, bars by Amano Artisan Chocolate, Rogue Chocolatier, Askinosie Chocolate, and Fresco Chocolate tasted of wildflowers or mushrooms, licorice or hay—nothing like the Hershey’s Kisses of my youth. Some artisanal makers were paying up to eight times the world market price for beans with unusual flavor profiles, shifting the socioeconomics of the cocoa exchange. And unlike multinational companies, artisan chocolate makers actually knew their growers. They featured farmers’ stories on their candy wrappers, putting a human face on cocoa production.

This was a focus they shared with the new, direct-trade chocolate companies, which wanted to cut out exporters and distributors. Small-scale coffee roasters were already doing this, but Taza Chocolate in Somerville, Mass., pioneered it for chocolate. Alex Whitmore, a Taza founder, had been intrigued by Mayan chocolate-making methods, and he envisioned a company that would honor this ancient culture while cultivating long-term relationships with growers. Unlike FLO, whose production standards and premiums are fixed for all certified cooperatives, Taza negotiates individual prices with each cooperative through ongoing dialog about quality and best practices.

Most of Taza’s cocoa beans have come from La Red Guaconejo, a cooperative in the Dominican Republic. Their first shipment, in 2006, was taken straight from the farm to a nearby airstrip, where it was loaded onto a plane headed to Logan Airport in Boston, and then driven the few miles to Taza’s factory. Without any middlemen, the entire payment for those cocoa beans went straight to La Red. Direct trade thus bypasses the standard supply chain and, in doing so, offers a meaningful alternative to business as usual.

There is today a far wider, more exciting range of chocolate bars available than we knew even a decade ago, and consumers can exercise a certain amount of ethical practice in buying them. Putting faith in a blue-and-green Fairtrade label alone is, perhaps, too simple. Through their different models, Fairtrade-certified companies, direct-trade companies, and artisanal producers are pushing each other to rethink standards for the entire chocolate industry.

We can encourage this by demanding that chocolate makers and retailers provide straightforward information about their products. Ask some hard questions about the chocolate on your store shelves—how much did farmers earn for the cocoa in this bar? Was it higher than the world market price, or about the same? What country did the cocoa beans come from? Expect to get correct information, and if someone answers you, “Switzerland,” start shopping somewhere else.