The global chocolate industry is largely divided into two groups: bean-to-bar and Big Chocolate. Major brands such as Nestlé and Hershey’s are part of Big Chocolate; companies that realize sales in excess of $100 billion per year, and the bulk of their profits come from chocolate bars that retail for a couple of dollars. The bean-to-bar segment consists of independent chocolatiers that sell very expensive confections from special recipes made with rare cacao beans.
Big Chocolate sources beans from African nations such as Ghana and the Ivory Coast. The Continent produces 70 percent of the world’s chocolate while bean-to-bar confectioners mostly get their beans from Latin America and the Caribbean. The global appetite for chocolate belies the dark socioeconomic situation of African cacao farmers and the massive industry that depends on them.
The African cacao industry faces several challenges, and they all stem from the economic disconnect between Big Chocolate and cacao farmers, most of whom live in poverty. To understand this issue, it helps to consider that Nestlé’s 2015 annual sales of $100 billion were larger than the combined gross domestic product of both Ghana and the Ivory Coast. It is estimated that African cacao farmers get less than five percent of the retail price of chocolate products such as the popular bars made by Hershey’s; this is part of a downward trend that started in the 1980s, when farmers were able to retain more than 15 percent of retail chocolate sales.
Aside from child labor issues and impoverishment, African cacao farmers are also affected by the consequences of single-crop agriculture. According to recent studies conducted by researchers in West Africa, the illegal cacao farming trade is devastating primary forest regions in the Ivory Coast. The World Cocoa Foundation has acknowledged research findings that indicate a loss of more than 290,000 acres of protected forest in the Ivory Coast; this occurs when farmers invade nature reserves and furtively plant cacao trees. Some farmers do this so that they can maximize their cash crop; others do it because they have no land and must somehow feed their families.
As can be expected, illegal and unethical cacao farming practices are taking a toll on ecosystems. Ghana has lost nearly 10 percent of its forest resources to cacao farming; this has deeply upset the habitats of elephants, chimpanzees and endangered arboreal creatures. More than 15 percent of the chocolate consumed around the world is made with cacao beans harvested in protected areas. Bean-to-bar confectioners tend to stay away from African cacao beans for the aforementioned reasons; these are small business owners who cater to people who are passionate about chocolate and willing to pay more for ethically-produced product.
Market analysts believe that cacao farming in Africa could greatly suffer unless reforestation efforts begin now. For this to happen, Big Chocolate firms may have to surrender some of their massive profits.