Skip to main content
Review by Ambassador (ret.) Edward Marks

Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa by Orla Ryan, ZED Books: London & New York , 2011, ISBN-13: 978-1848130050, 192 pp., $14.95 (paperback)

Good investigative journalism depends upon judicious judgment or choice analogous to the question of how hot the porridge should be: neither too hot nor too cold but just right. Another way of putting it is the subject must be big and important enough to be manageable but not so cosmic that the investigator is tempted to indulge in cosmic speculation. It is, after all, supposed to be journalism not philosophy.

Fortunately Ms Orla Ryan, the author of “Chocolate Nation” has boxed this compass very nicely. At first glance, the subject of chocolate would appear somewhat doubtful, how interesting or important could it be except to chocophiles. Although undoubtedly a largish group spread around the world, their personal enjoyment of this delightful delicacy is not really a subject of much importance.

“Chocolate Nations” tells four stories. The role of chocolate in international trade, the role of chocolate in the economies and political life of a couple of African countries, the role of chocolate in the life of the chocolate farmers in those countries, and the efforts of well-meaning people to see that those farmers get a better share of the value produced.

The global trade in chocolate may not compare with, say petroleum, but it does amount to about $75 million a year and supports the consumer market for the world’s most popular sweets (from Nestles bars to Belgian truffles).

But the real focus in this book is about the major producing countries. Although chocolate is a serious enough commodity in world trade, it is a life and death economic and political matter in a small number of countries, especially the African countries of Ghana and the Ivory Coast who produce about 50% of the world’s consumption. Together with small producers in Cameroon and Nigeria, West Africa’s 2 million small producers account for two thirds of the total world crop of about 3.5 million tons. In these countries, to their governments and to their people, cocoa is not a luxury item; it is the staff of life. It is, for instance, Ghana’s largest export worth $1.2 billion in 2008. Ivory Coast’s chocolate exports support almost half the population.

The production of cocoa in West Africa was a colonial innovation and has dominated the political and economic life of these countries since independence. National management of the industry has varied in competence over the years, from regime to regime and the author’s discussion is dispassionate. There are numerous major industrial issues: diversification, land reform, rural banking, and scientific research. These matters affect how well governments have maximized their revenue from cocoa production, or not, or even how well they have used that revenue to meet national goals. “Chocolate Nations” provides an excellent survey and commentary on this history, largely in the post-colonial era, and as such is a very useful contribution to the political and economic history of West Africa. Even better, it is a very useful “briefing book” for anyone assigned to Ghana or the Ivory Coast, shortcutting the need to spend time to get up to speed on this crucial component of the local scene. And it is better written than most of the briefing material one usually gets.

The real focus of “Chocolate Nations” however is the question of remuneration to the actual small farmer. Cocoa is a cash crop, “so-called because it delivers cash to people’s pockets”.

This has remained low historically, which is not surprising given the colonial origins of the producing industry. Even today, according to the author, cocoa farmers in West Africa receive approximately 4 % of the final price of an average UK bar of milk chocolate, and their individual incomes remain low as they are all very small producers. Another major question is that of child slavery or child labor. Although a widely spread practice, it is one with difficult problems of definition and interpretation which raise complicated social problems. For instance what if the child labor in question is that of family members?

Yet cocoa, as the author clearly points out, has the potential to deliver real prosperity to people in rural areas “if it receives serious investment and is properly managed.”

For these various reasons chocolate has become a “target” for the ethical food movement. Known in the United Kingdom as Fairtrade and in the US as Transair, the Fairtrade Labeling Organization has tried to create global criteria for labels that would reflect producing and marketing practices that provide a “fair” return to the small producer. A Fairtrade label is supposed to mean that farmers receive a decent price, have better conditions, and operate sustainable production. In practice, to qualify as Fairtrade producers, smallholders have to join a co-operative and meet minimal social, economic, and environmental standards. (The movement actually started in the 1980s with respect to coffee production in Mexico.)

The movement has grown and a couple of significant cocoa co-operatives have come into being in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, most prominently Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana. With its 40,000 members and prominent European supporters (from Tony Blair to rock stars), Kuapa Kokoo is the model. The Fairtrade “model” has spawned other efforts, such as the Rainforest Alliance and Utz Certified. Several specifically “ethical” chocolate bar companies, such as “Divine Chocolate”, have come into being. Cadbury, the world’s largest chocolate product manufacturer, announced a company policy in 2009 to purchase Fairtrade cocoa.

However the author of “Chocolate Nations” claims that, despite the best will in the world, these efforts remain indecisive. She is too good a reporter not to note and report on the complexities of the overall situation. As she carefully documents, the going price for cocoa cannot be determined by the producing countries of the fairtrade movement. In addition, the governments of these countries have a fundamental interest in capturing a significant portion of the price for national purposes. These and other factors place real-world limits on how much income actually can flow to the small producer. The issue of child labor or slavery is extremely complex, involving difficult questions of migration and family members.

Ms Ryan is clearly sympathetic to these reform efforts but realistically understands that national government policies and global economic considerations cannot be wished away by good intentions. She emphasizes the important of democratic reform as crucial to the success of producer-owned cooperatives and other related efforts.

For many consumers, the subject can come down to a simple ethical question: whose chocolate is ethically produced so that I may enjoy it without guilt feelings? The author believes that properly informed consumers could provide impetus for construction change but “simply choosing one bar instead of another will not help resolve deep-rooted issues.” Developments in the international market on the one hand and political reform in the producing countries on the other are vital to bringing about change. And there is little question that if the producers are to enjoy better standards of living, chocolate lovers will have to get used to paying more for their pleasure.

“By all means buy Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Cadbury or Mars. But look behind the marketing, and don’t forget to read the small print.”End.

American Diplomacy is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to American Diplomacy.

Ed Marks
Ed Marks

Ed Marks served more than 40 years in the U. S. Foreign Service, including an assignment as ambassador to Guinea-Bissau. He graduated from Michigan and Oklahoma universities and attended the National War College. Retiring in 1995, he subsequently served on detail to the U. S. Pacific Command. He is currently a Senior Fellow at the Joint Forces Staff College and a member of the American Diplomacy board.

Comments are closed.