Child labour remains problem in cocoa-producing countries

Child labour remains problem in cocoa-producing countries

Cadbury owner Mondelez International has pledged US$400m to try to improve the lives of cocoa farmers and, crucially, help shore up future supplies of the commodity. The investment is the latest by a number of suppliers and, while their work should be welcomed, the use of child labour in cocoa farming remains a tough nut to crack.

Mondelez has launched Cocoa Life, a programme that will try to achieve a number of challenging targets - boost cocoa yields, promote the protection of the local environment and reduce the use of child labour in farming the crop.

Speaking at the World Cocoa Conference in Cote d'Ivoire, the world's largest producer of cocoa, Tim Cofer, president of Mondelez's European operations, described Cocoa Life as "a distinctive, holistic approach to cocoa sustainability that will create a cycle of growth from bean to bar".

He added: "Our mission is to create thriving cocoa communities and help secure the future of the cocoa industry."

The money flowing into cocoa-producing countries (Mars and Nestle are two other major global chocolate makers that are putting up cash in Africa) has two aims.

Effective campaigns by NGOs have raised awareness among consumers of the use of child labour in chocolate production and brand owners have reacted by pledging to tackle the problem.

Second, the recent volatility in cocoa prices underlines the business case for investing to create a more sustainable cocoa sector with better yields.

Programmes like Mondelez's Cocoa Life will, so the argument goes, help teach farmers how to better cultivate cocoa, improve yields and their returns for the crop and so discourage them from switching into other commodities. A more stable supply for processors means less volatility in cocoa prices.

Companies like Mondelez, aware they are operating in the glare of public scrutiny (and no doubt run by executives moved by the plight of children used on farms), also seek to discourage farmers from using such labour. Improve returns and the need for children to work farms diminishes.

Improving yields, protecting the environment and reducing the use of child labour are just three elements of what the industry calls a sustainable cocoa sector. And perhaps it is the third element that will be the toughest to achieve.

The industry will need to grasp the nettle on this issue to really make cocoa sustainable and, as such, announcements from the likes of Mondelez should be welcomed.

However, we need to look to Nestle for perhaps the most progressive work on child labour. In June, an investigation into Nestle's supply chain (set up by the food giant itself) found "numerous violations" of the company's "labour code" and publicly confirmed child labour was being used.

Nestle's work should be applauded. It has the potential to act as a catalyst for other players in the cocoa and chocolate sector to look into their own supply chain.

Indeed, labour activists hope cocoa giants like Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland - key players in the whole supply chain - could be encouraged to follow Nestle's example and make further progress on what many have long seen as an intractable issue.

Processors like Cargill are making some strides. The agribusiness giant has launched a training programme for farmers in Cameroon, for example.

However, creating a truly sustainable cocoa sector will, as Mars pointed out last month, require billions of dollars of investment across the industry - and require competitors to work together as well as with other stakeholders - to really make lasting progress.