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Power & politics in cocoa: Are chocolate’s colonial roots moulding sustainability?

By Oliver Nieburg

- Last updated on GMT

Kristy Leissle, author of new book 'Cocoa', speaks about power in the cocoa market. ©GettyImages/Irina Karpinchik/Blair Strong
Kristy Leissle, author of new book 'Cocoa', speaks about power in the cocoa market. ©GettyImages/Irina Karpinchik/Blair Strong

Related tags Cocoa Chocolate Sustainability Ghana Africa

The European and US chocolate industry holds power in cocoa and is able to set the agenda for sustainability on its terms, says Dr. Kristy Leissle.

Speaking in this podcast to former ConfectioneryNews editor Oliver Nieburg, now a sustainability analyst for new insights business Lumina Intelligence, Leissle, a lecturer at the University of Washington Bothell, discusses the themes of her new book ‘Cocoa’.

The book explores the history and current state of the sector, including who yields power in the market.

Leissle said colonization of Côte d’Ivoire by France and Ghana by Britain in the 19th​ century helped shape the power balance in cocoa.

Colonization saw cocoa thrive in West Africa, mainly for the benefit of the emerging chocolate industry in Europe, she said.

‘You eat chocolate, we don’t eat chocolate’

The academic, who lives in Accra, said cocoa farmers hint the legacy of wealth shifting from developing cocoa nations to developed chocolate consuming nations is to some extent still playing out today.

“[Farmers] are growing cocoa for a living, they don’t make that much from it, they struggle, they live on the margins…they see a disparity and they’ve described it to me as a racial disparity: ‘White people overseers who came here and colonized us, you eat chocolate and we don’t eat chocolate.’”

Leissle said for the market to be truly sustainable farmers’ priorities must be part of any definition.

Industry has set the terms of sustainability: Leissle

However, those wielding power in the market set the agenda, said the academic.

“One of the exertions of power in the cocoa industry recently has been the largest companies – by that I mean the five biggest manufacturers of chocolate and the three largest processors – which have driven the conversation and have set the terms of what sustainability means,” ​she said.

According to Leissle, this has led to a skewed definition of sustainability.

“Frankly, it’s hard to see how their priority could be anything but keeping supply high and price low.”

And farmers are often side-lined in defining sustainability, said Leissle.

“The people who are on stages [at industry conferences] speaking on behalf of the largest players have got some pretty tough work in empathizing with farmers and also recognizing maybe they don’t know it all,” ​she said.

Decision makers must meet real smallholder farmers

To up farmer participation in sustainability, Leissle said decision makers in cocoa purchasing and quality at large companies, not only sustainability teams, must regularly meet and speak to farmers to ensure their voices are heard.

“By that I don’t mean the farmers who are large land owners…who have built up wealth and political power themselves in the industry because those are the farmers that are present – if any farmers are present in industry conversations,” ​said the author.

Leissle said decision makers should rather engage in conversations with smallholder farmers on the fringes as well as the most vulnerable people in cocoa households, such as women, migrants and children.

These conversations will help decision makers see the realities of life for a cocoa farmer, helping to inform the direction of sustainability, she said.

What is Lumina Intelligence?

Lumina Intelligence​– a new insights company from ConfectioneryNews’ publisher William Reed – will launch a sustainability service for brands, suppliers, investors, consultants organizations and NGOs in late 2018

Our sustainability analysis includes impact assessments of company programs in cocoa and coffee and tea against the UN Sustainable Development Goals, as well as the latest science, technology, industry commitments and ethical labelling & marketing for more than 300 brands in 20 countries. 

See HERE​ for further details or contact Oliver Nieburg

lumina sustainability
[Jingle credit: Lee Rosevere]

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