A Different Perspective on Child Labor in West Africa

As you may already know, the chocolate industry has a long and terrible history of using slave labor, including forcing children to work in ways that can harm them. Part of the driving force behind Tangle Chocolate and many other fine chocolate makers is to end such practices. But this issue is more complex and nuanced than it seems at first glance. I recently attended a panel discussion on child labor in west Africa that presented the issue in a cultural context and from the point of view of cacao farmers and the children themselves, and want to share what I learned. 

The panel was hosted by the Fine Chocolate Industry Association, our trade association, which, by the way, has many excellent resources for chocolate fans on its website. Dr. Kristy Leissle, a longtime cocoa researcher and author, moderated the discussion between the following guests: Kwabena Assan Mends, a cocoa farmer and founder of Emfed Farms in Ghana, which supplies laborers to cocoa farms; Dr. Amanda Berlan, a social anthropologist who has been researching child labor in the cocoa industry for twenty years; and Leonard Agyemen, who grew up on a cocoa farm in Ghana and is now a PhD candidate studying the cocoa industry.

Dr. Kristy Leissle introduced the idea that the West’s concern about child labor swelled more than twenty years ago due to reports in the media and documentary films about specific horrific cases of what we would call child abuse. Human rights attorneys have brought a number of such cases to court, including to the US Supreme Court (as reported in Tangle post here and here). While these cases are real, the panelists believe that the vast majority of cocoa farms are run in a humane way and shared why, based on their personal experiences.

Growing Up on a Cocoa Farm

Leonard Agyemen grew up helping run the family cocoa farm, as is common in Ghana. “It was exciting,” he said. Families tended to have small farms and pitch in to help other farmers so that it was very much a “communal experience,” according to Agyemen. The day started as early as 6 a.m., depending on the age of the child—and the variable of age was an important one. The amount of work and the tasks done changed as children matured not just chronologically but also physically and psychologically. A small or young child might be asked to take food to the men on the farm, to bring the machete sharpening stone to where it was needed throughout the day, or to run errands for the elderly family members to help keep things running smoothly. An older, stronger, or more psychologically mature child might fetch water from the well, empty baskets of wet cacao beans into containers for fermentation, take care of younger children, or carry wood to their home for domestic use. On Agyemen’s farm, no children were ever allowed to handle pesticides, which can be harmful to children. Agyemen explained that he and the other children did not see this work as hard labor, but rather as a responsibility to help their families and help pay for their education.

What the Children Say

Dr. Amanda Berlan emphasized how much she has learned from talking to the children themselves, and now has a vastly different understanding of what the problems in the industry are. For example, we in the west are often concerned about children using machetes, and categorize that practice as being harmful to the child. But Berlan reframes the whole story. Children tell her that their machete is what makes them feel safe, not what harms them. There are scorpions and venomous snakes on cocoa farms, and without a machete, they wouldn’t be able to defend themselves. Berland advocates not for getting rid of the machetes, but instead for giving the children shoes so that they are less vulnerable to insects, reptiles, and accidental cuts to their feet. 

Solving One Problem Can Cause Another 

Kwabena Assan Mends addressed the damage that has been done to the cocoa industry by the reports of children being mistreated. The government of Ghana has responded to the negative press by issuing guidelines, such as that children can’t use the harvesting knife. Farmers are sometimes wary of allowing their children on the farm at all, especially when a visitor is around, because they worry that the visitor will think they are mistreating their children and will give a bad report to the government. As a result, Mends points out, children are not learning how to farm, which is a very real problem with vast consequences. Mends, like Berlan, thinks that the emphasis should be on addressing the root of the problem, which in this example is to formalize training in farming methods, including teaching children how to use knives and other tools safely rather than ban children from using them. 

The panelists reminded me of a conversation I had last year with an American who has lived in Congo for some years and works closely with cacao farmers there. When I questioned him about child labor in Congo, he replied by saying (and I’ve paraphrased his response here), “I had a newspaper route in Massachusetts when I was ten years old, got up at the crack of dawn and rode my bike all over the place slinging papers. How is that different from what these children are doing who are contributing to their families’ incomes and learning responsibility?” 

What Should Be Done?

While there are definitely some bad actors who are, in fact, abusing children, as children and their attorneys will attest, the speakers on this panel underscored that not all children on cocoa farms are mistreated; in fact, this panel’s experience is that good farmers are far more numerous than bad ones. Additionally, these panelists agree that putting our resources into practical solutions that will make farming better and safer for everyone will do a lot more to eradicate the problem than spending a lot of money on studies that attempt simply to quantify it. 

And, speaking as someone who is a world away from west Africa, both geographically and experientially, I don’t know what I don’t know. I have been reminded how important it is to pursue every learning opportunity I have to guide me in my efforts towards equity and sustainability. 

To learn more about the speakers on the panel, go to:

Leonard Agyemen:

Dr. Amanda Berlan:

Kwabena Assan Mends:;

Dr. Kristy Leissle:

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