‘Cocoa farming is a tradition, and there aren’t really any alternatives’

In the West, chocolate consumption is increasing, a trend that only intensified during the pandemic. But in Africa, this is not translating to more welfare for producers of cocoa as a raw material. The approximately 3 million, mostly small farmers have been facing serious problems for decades.

Especially in the West African countries Ghana and Ivory Coast, where 70% of the cocoa comes from, three quarters of cocoa farmers does not earn a decent income. ‘They spend their meagre income on basic needs such as food, medicine, and school fees. There is little left to invest in the much needed improvement of the cultivation process,’ concludes Senior Economist Yuca Waarts of Wageningen Economic Research.

 ir. Yuca Waarts, senior economist at Wageningen University & Research
ir. Yuca Waarts, senior economist at Wageningen University & Research

Old trees and depleted soil

As a result, cocoa farmers persist in harvesting from old cocoa trees that should have been replaced ten to twenty years ago. The soil is also becoming depleted because there is no money for fertiliser, and composting is complicated. Farmers often create more acreage by cutting down bits of the rainforest. As a result, according to an estimate of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the world’s largest cocoa-producing country, Ivory Coast, has since the 1970s cut down 80% of its tropical forests for cacao farming. Add to this a general rise in temperature and changes in precipitation patterns as a result of climate change, all of which can have negative consequences for cocoa farming. In particular longer periods of draught are disastrous for cocoa trees, which thrive best in the humid climate of a tropical rainforest.

Two-thirds certified

One solution for improving the situation of small-scale cocoa farmers has been to introduce more quality labels. Consumers are apparently willing to pay more for responsibly-grown chocolate. One popular brand is Tony’s Chocolonely, developed in 2012 by the journalist team of the Dutch TV programme Keuringsdienst van Waarde with the goal of improving the position of cocoa farmers. Their characteristic chocolate bars are not only popular in supermarkets, but also in demand on the promotional gift market. In the 2019-2020 fiscal year, the brand represented 16% of the Dutch market.

Cocoa price is not increasing to match the growing demand

It is expected that economically fast developing countries such as China and India will further boost the global demand for cocoa from four to five million tons per year. According to economic laws, this should lead to a price increase, which is unfortunately not what is happening, concludes Yuca Waarts. ‘In fact, it is quite the opposite, with a growing oversupply of cocoa, as more small farmers cultivate cocoa. We have been talking about reducing poverty among cocoa farmers for decades, and huge amounts of money have been invested in the sector,’ but statistics are showing that the problem is nowhere near being solved, she says.

All the profit goes to big farmers

Why would a globally wanted product like cocoa remain on the back burner both agronomically and economically? ‘The price of cocoa fluctuates constantly, with a general downward trend, and it is not a profitable crop. And yet, even with decreasing prices, farmers still opt to plant a few extra trees if they can afford it. Most farmers have too little land or money to invest to be able to earn a decent income. But cocoa farming is a tradition that provides at least some certainty. Plus, there aren’t really any alternatives,’ explains Waarts.

In the Balancing the Living Income Challenge report published last November, she calculates that even if we were to pay twice as much for chocolate, this would indeed increase the income of small farmers in Ghana and Ivory Coast (which is really important in view of their extreme poverty), but that many farmers would still not be earning a decent income. The reason for this is that approximately 70% of all farmers only produce 30% of the total cocoa. ‘It would only slightly increase the income of the poorest farmers. The price increase would mostly benefit bigger farmers growing larger volumes. And higher prices can also lead to overproduction.’


This is why she is more in favour of diversification in cocoa production. ‘In addition to cocoa beans, farmers can also grow cashew nuts, coffee, or palm oil trees. But the poorest farmers also have to generate income from other sources, since they can earn too little from farming. And a basic income from governments and corporations, as well as payments for ecosystem services and carbon credits for carbon sequestration in trees can also help to contribute to a decent income’