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Cleaning up cacao: making the chocolate business more sustainable

  • The cacao business has struggled with human rights, labor, and environmental issues.
  • Project Hope and Fairness problems in the sector by helping local communities produce higher value products.
  • Project Hope and Fairness was founded by Tom Neuhaus, a former Peace Corps volunteer.

While most people love chocolate, few are aware of the problems associated with the production of its main ingredient, cacao. The cacao business has traditionally been an ugly one, associated with child labor, debt bondage, water pollution, and deforestation. That has begun to change in recent years with the emergence of various certification standards and sourcing safeguards by some of the biggest consumer products companies, yet in many cases still too few benefits reach many communities.

Tom Neuhaus is working to change that in several villages in the West African countries of Cameroon, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire. Tom founded Project Hope & Fairness to help local people to turn low value beans into high value chocolate. The approach boosts local income and economic resilience, while offering new opportunities through improved education and infrastructure.

During a June 2015 interview with Mongabay, Tom spoke about his efforts and experiences in the West African cacao sector.

AN INTERVIEW WITH TOM NEUHAUS What is your background and what led you to start Project Hope & Fairness?

Dr. Tom Neuhaus bites directly out of a freshly opened cocoa pod.

Tom Neuhaus: In the early 70s, I started my culinary life working in four restaurants and hotels in France and Austria. I returned to the U.S. and finished a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology, then opened a restaurant and bakery in Austin, Texas. I taught the Chemistry of Cooking and Baking in the School of Hotel Administration, Cornell University from 1982 to 1998. I wrote a weekly column for the Washington Post from 1980 to 1988 called Answers. From 1998 to 2015, I was a professor in the Department of Food Science & Nutrition, Cal Poly, SLO.

I started Project Hope and Fairness in 2006 as a result of travelling annually in Ghana, Côte d’Ivoire, and Cameroon starting in 2003. My primary interest was to provide material for teaching a food and culture class, but I gradually developed an appreciation of the link between colonialism and the current poverty of the West African cocoa farmer. What are the main problems associated with the cacao trade in West Africa?

Tom Neuhaus: The main problems are associated with how farmers are locked into poverty. The lock is primarily colonial in nature; farmers are obliged to sell a commodity at a pathetic price and are offered virtually no opportunities to increase yields or to take care of their local environment. In short, they are stuck barely getting by. The lock is caused by Western nations and also by corrupt polticians who feed on the farmer. Cacao prices are historically high right now. Do smallholders see much of that upside?

Tom Neuhaus: Smallholders see very little of the benefits. Commodity prices are determined in London and New York by traders (millionaires) sitting at computers. In between the millionaires and the destitute farmers are all sorts of levels of “value adding”—those who come to the village in trucks, those who store the beans, those who dry the beans, and so on. Cocoa farmers, like the nineteenth century American wheat farmers who owed so much to the Southern Pacific Railroad, are just plain stuck at the bottom, slogging away with barely enough money to purchase antimalarial drugs for their children much less send them to school.

In Ghana, cocoa farmers are trapped by the Cocoabod, the government organization that controls all of the market. In Côte d’Ivoire, they are trapped by a variety of middlemen, companies, and government organizations. In Cameroon, they are similarlyt controlled by a mixture of middlemen, etc., all of which introduce barriers to exporting and providing the cocoa farmers with a reasonable income.

David Logbo makes chocolate in his factory in Depa, Cote d’Ivoire What is your organization’s approach?

Tom Neuhaus: We have four missions:

1. To expose people to the realities of the cocoa business—realities that often remain unreported by the press. We purchase tools in each country’s big city (Douala, Cameroon, Accra, Ghana, and Abidjan Côte d’Ivoire) and drive them to villages in the main cocoa-growing regions of the three countries.
2. To build mini-factories of chocolate. We have a factory in Depa, Côte d’Ivoire and another in Frami, Ghana. Our main focus is to bring the cocoa farmer higher up the value chain. Instead of selling dried beans at 65 cents per pound, they convert that pound of beans into chocolate selling at $16 per pound. For example, the Frami plant could sell bars to tourists for $1 per 1 oz bar, which amounts to $16 for that pound. This means a 25-fold increase in capital flowing into village coffers.
3. To build cocoa study centers. Our first center will be in Ekona, Cameroon. The University of Buea has a relationship with Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania to provide an academically based African experience for their students. Included in this experience is 3 days learning to make chocolate and to visit local cocoa farms.
4. To enhance infrastructure. We built a well for the village of Tetia in Côte d’Ivoire. We supplied the village of Zereguhe with a cargo trike so they can make money carrying agricultural product to the neighboring towns. We are hoping to build an $18,000 bridge in Monatele, Cameroon so that neighboring villages can ferry bags of cocoa across the raging torrent without fear of falling in. What is the profile of your typical partner in West Africa? Are they growing cacao as a primary source of income? Do they grow other crops? Are there food security issues?

We visit the following villages:

Our partners are villages, typically of 200 inhabitants. The Ghanaians are mostly Fante and the Ivoirians we visit are Bété, Baoulé, or Djoula.

They grow cacao as a cash crop as well as coffee and palm fruit that are sold either to the government or to middlemen. They grow bananas, plantains, sweet potatoes, yams, rice, okra, and cassava for either sustenance or for sale in local markets.
Food security is only an issue during times of war, when opposing groups engage in raids. This is no longer a problem except during the civil war in Côte d’Ivoire. The land is rich and the rainfall is plenty, although that is changing because of global warming.

Cocoa farmer in Mmaniaye, Ghana. Companies in the palm oil, soy, and beef sectors have been establishing zero deforestation commitments that include social and labor safeguards. Are you seeing that in the cacao sector?

Tom Neuhaus: I have seen no evidence of this in the three countries I visit. The only social and labor safeguards are Fair Trade, which involves the annual visit of an inspector. In Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana, local or regional chiefs determine whether they will sell some of their few remaining forest giants. In Cameroon, the best road in the country extends from Yaounde to Bertoua. I doubt that the quality of this particular road, designed to provide easy shipment of former forest giants, is a coincidence.

At the midpoint of the road is a square mile of land covered with the stacked logs of forest giants, waiting to be exported. A powerful image of a system that reigns unfettered by any form of control over our planet’s future woodland resources.

Products going to market in Cape Coast, Ghana. Sales staff eating product before it gets to the market.

Regarding child labor, Worst Forms of Child Labor exemplified by children spraying trees, wielding machetes, dragging heavy bags of cocoa, working rather than studying, continues unabated. The Harken-Engels Protocol signed in 2001 designed to abolish such practices has had minimal effect on the situation.

If anyone really wants to make change, it won’t happen with protocols and logos. It will happen only if consumers really care and get involved. But evidence points resoundingly to a lack of caring; American and European academia who should lead social changes have instead done little to document the situation or to encourage student involvement. For example, a mere 21% of American university students have an overseas experience and 70% of them study English in England. There is very little effort to involve the considerable brain power of our universities to tackle the very real problems of extreme poverty in the West African village.

Regarding deforestation commitments, the land across from the entrance to one of our partner villages is Rainforest Alliance, owned by a consortium of Lebanese capitalists in Abidjan. The land consists of a few spindly trees of no value other than for charcoal “saved” by having cocoa trees planted under them.

A third example. The village of Ebekawopa borders one of Ghana’s last stands of forest. As you drive the two miles from the paved road to the village, you occasionally meet a mammoth log truck parked along the road. One villager told me once that loggers sometimes drag the vestiges of the behemoths right through a cocoa stand, knocking down fruit-bearing trees. Since the land belongs to the local chief, the villagers sometimes have no voice as the relationships are basically lord and serf.

Chief of Frami flanked by his spokesman and the queen mother Last fall you gave a talk on “The Connection between Ebola and Chocolate”. What were the main points of that presentation?

Tom Neuhaus: The main points were that the NPR piece claiming that Ebola would cut into cacao harvesting was based on false information. Throughout West Africa, there are 2.5 million cocoa farmers most of whom tend on average 10 acres of land. Of this acreage, they grow as many as 10 different crops at a time. They are subsistence farmers and have no money to hire outsiders from Liberia. The average family has 8 children, all of whom are expected to work every day. The story of child labor has once again been ignored in favor of something more provocative.

In that talk, I also showed how news reports about Ebola crescendo-ed up to the election and then diminuendo-ed in the second week of November. The price of cacao, which like every other commodity is a bellwether of current news stories, followed the trend and dropped. A smart investor would have noticed the relationship between Ebola and the price of cocoa.

I also mentioned that Ebola was killing a few thousand while malaria and dysentery kill far more—especially children. And long after the Ebola outbreak winds down, malaria and dysentery continue to kill many thousands. All diseases originate in poor sanitation, a direct consequence of poverty. A student of American history knows that diseases were rampant in American cities in the 19th century because sewer water was not treated.

It seems the solution is obvious but the public and politicians are oblivious. To solve poverty, we cannot afford to merely engage in charity. Instead, as Gandhi said, “We have to BE the change we want to see in the world.” Or, quoting another great Indian, Vandana Shiva, “If you want change, you have to dirty your hands.” We need to build small business in West African villages and we need to drop the crippling tariffs against imported chocolate so West Africans can trade with us. As President Paul Kgame of Ruanda said, “There is bad aid and there is good aid. Bad aid creates dependencies.” Project Hope and Fairness wants to promote good aid by making the farmer independent.

Bars and disks in production—Frami, Ghana. A joint project of 5 villages: Gyaware, Ebekawopa, Frami, Adiyaw, and Mmaniaye. What products do you make and who are your customers?

Tom Neuhaus: Mama Ganache Artisan Chocolates makes more than 100 chocolates, most of which are organically and Fair Trade certified. We have more than 50 flavors of truffles, bars, barks, peppermint and coconut patties, peanut butter cups and much more. There are 6 facets to our business: retail (store in San Luis Obispo), retail online, wholesale, and bulk.

I would like to add a bean-to-bar component once I set up a commercial relationship with the villages we visit. I am currently working on a new product, the Seven Villages Bar, made from the beans of 7 villages that we visit annually. A portion of the profits would go directly toward building chocolate factories in those villages.

I am also developing Worldly Chocolates, an assortment of chocolate disks made in our store from beans of six different countries: Venezuela, Bolivia, Peru, Dominican Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, and Uganda.

Our customers are found in all 50 states and Canada. Most of them are people who want to support Fair Trade or organically certified products. We also sell to vegan stores, as we have a number of items that contain no milk-derived ingredients. How can people in the U.S. help your efforts?

Tom Neuhaus: Donations to Project Hope and Fairness would be very helpful. My projects for this year include: 1), making the factory in Depa capable of manufacturing chocolate bars; 2), building a cocoa press facility in Pezoan so Depa folks don’t have to drive 6 hours south to pick up cocoa butter; 3) developing the Frami, Ghana facility so that interns from the local ProWorld facility can earn school credits; 4) installing a cocoa butter press in Ebekawopa, Ghana so it can supply cocoa butter to the Frami facility instead of driving 4 hours to Accra; 5) building the cocoa study center so that students at the University of Buea (Cameroon) can learn how to make chocolate and work with cocoa farmers; and 6), building a bridge in Monatele, Cameroon so that neighboring villages can cross the river with fear of drowning.

If you are a school teacher, we are hoping to work with you to provide informational kits about the current situation in West Africa. One class in Indiana raised $400 so we could purchase a scale for Soualika, Côte d’Ivoire. They held a competition for best bar wrapper, we provided the bars, and they sold them to raise money.

You can also purchase Project Hope and Fairness bars. Or, we can put your logo on a label and use the bars to promote your oranization. Finally, feel free to contact me directly.