Inside threat to African chocolate production, Nestle’s plan to tackle child labour

It has been one of the world’s most popular treats for centuries – but there’s a growing “threat” plaguing the global chocolate industry.

Around 7.5 million tons of chocolate will have been consumed globally by the end of the year, with the average Aussie indulging in 5.1kg of the sweet stuff per annum.

In other words, we can’t get enough of it – but behind the shiny packaging and sugar highs are a string of very real challenges facing the entire sector.

‘There’s no solution’

One of the most obvious – and escalating – problems is the emergence of cocoa swollen shoot virus disease (CSSVD), one of the most devastating diseases affecting the crop.

While it was first discovered decades ago, the disease is spreading and poses a worsening risk every single year.

It is a major problem in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, the top two producers of cocoa on the planet, accounting for more than 60 per cent of global production.

While Cote d’Ivoire – which produces about 2.2 million tons of cocoa beans annually – has not yet seen the disease significantly impact its cocoa yields, it’s a different story in neighbouring Ghana, which reported in July that its 2021/22 cocoa crop fell by 35 per cent year-on-year.

That represents the smallest crop in 12 years – and came down to a combination of drought – and CSSVD.

Nathan Bello, Nestlé Cocoa Plan manager, told the disease was evolving – and making industry insiders nervous.

“There’s no solution … we cannot cure it, we can just stop the expansion, but we do not really have a treatment. Since some years now, it has been developing and increasing,” he said.

“To be sure it’s a threat and we don’t know to be honest what extent it’s going to affect the production in the country. Every year gets worse.

“For now we don’t have a big issue about reaching our target in terms of volumes … But it’s something that is there, we don’t know to what extent. To be honest … if someone asked me what is the real threat, I would not say climate change, I would not say money for fertilisers, I would say basically it’s swollen shoot, because we don’t have any way to treat it. That is my worry.”

The virus can spread easily between trees and across farms, and once it takes hold, it kills trees with alarming speed.

At the moment, the only way to combat it is by aggressively quarantining and destroying affected trees to stop the spread, with the government providing some compensation for affected farmers and supplying replacement crops such as rubber.

Nestlé’s global sustainability manager Stephane Detaille told the disease was “definitely spreading”.

“We are discussing with suppliers on the ground and definitely there is a spread of the virus, so there is a risk,” he said.

While the virus poses a problem for the cocoa industry and chocolate production more broadly, so far, it has not significantly affected overall volumes.

But for the individual farmer, it can be catastrophic – and is yet another worry for cocoa producers in developing countries that already face immense challenges.

Radical plan

Besides CSSVD, child labour is another major problem associated with cocoa farming, with the industry also at risk from climate change and deforestation, poverty, inflation, geopolitical issues and changing demographics.

In January this year, confectionary giant Nestle announced a new program designed to improve the lives of cocoa farmers, their families and the broader community.

The income accelerator program, which is implemented by a range of stakeholders and organisations, was launched to combat those child labour risks and reach a living income for farmers, and while it wasn’t specifically designed with cocoa swollen shoot virus disease in mind, it is helping farmers reduce the many risks to their livelihoods.

Under the program, farmers receive cash incentives when they meet certain standards, including having all children in the household aged between six and 16 in school, implementing efficient agricultural practices, such as pruning, which increases crop productivity, performing agroforestry activities to increase climate resilience, like planting shade trees, and generating diversified incomes, for example through growing other crops, raising livestock or running small businesses.

Mr Detaille told that Nestle was committed to supporting farmers and creating real change within rural communities.

“Definitely there is a necessity to work on this, it’s a question of being faithful to the cocoa families we are working with … and we’re really investing in that,” he said.

“We have a CEO that is extremely committed so we will absorb the cost.

“It is very important to embed sustainability in the way you do business because it has to have value for the business, and also ensure we have a supply of cocoa in the future.”

He said the cocoa industry was vulnerable to a range of threats including geopolitical issues, diseases like CSSVD and environmental problems like deforestation, as well as a declining interest in farming.

“One of the things is how to build the next generation of farmers – how to create that interest … the average age of the farmers is close to 50, and definitely we have to bring young blood,” he said.

“What will be important in the future will be to have a coalition approach of companies to be able to work together. Systemic issues will not be solved by Nestle alone. We have to bring our competitors and other players together.”

It’s still early days, but for farmers involved in the program, the impacts are already very tangible.

Cocoa farmer Yao M’Badama, from Tafissou village in central Cote d’Ivoire, has seen his yields increase dramatically this year as a result of pruning, and he is also saving a small fortune that used to be swallowed up by fertiliser and pesticide costs as a result of better agricultural practices.

And for him, the decision of how to spend that extra cash was simple.

“Scholarships for my children,” he said, with obvious pride.

This reporter travelled to Cote d’Ivoire at the expense of Nestle

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