Most cocoa-growing is a family affair.
Today’s cocoa is still raised by hand, not by machine, through labor-intensive processes. Because the delicate cacao tree needs a narrow range of growing conditions and careful tending to thrive, large-scale cocoa production is not common. (See more about how cocoa is grown.)
The world's cocoa supply is grown by 5 million to 6 million farmers, according to the World Cocoa Foundation. Most cocoa comes from small family-owned farms.
On these farms, the whole family works together with varying roles to plant seedlings, clear or thin the forest canopy, prune and watch over the cacao trees, harvest and crack the pods, ferment and dry the beans, and carry the bags of beans—on their backs or on their heads—to the buying sheds, which may be far away.
At the sheds, cocoa merchants grade and weigh the beans, ready them to be shipped overseas and pay the farmer—providing an important source of income for the entire family.
The size of a family’s income often is beyond their control: weather and diseases affect the trees’ yield, and what families are paid for their beans fluctuates with world market prices. Money is often in short supply, and the work on a tropical farm involves physical labor. Family members also must grow their own food, tend their animals and make their clothes. They complete these and other household chores as a team.
Farmers gather in the village—the center of the community—to discuss farming techniques, cocoa prices or village affairs. Villagers come together to dry their cocoa beans in the tropical sun, spreading the beans on mats or on the ground and keeping each other company as they rake and sort through their results of their harvest. People also head to the village to celebrate a fruitful harvest or other important events.
On most days, children from surrounding farms walk to the village school, where they sit together in a large classroom and learn math, history and English. Once class is out, they play soccer and other games with their friends before starting their journeys back to the farms.
Through programs such as the World Cocoa Foundation's (WCF) Empowering Cocoa Households with Opportunities and Education Solutions (ECHOES) Alliance, children, youth and young adults living in cocoa-farming communities in West Africa have additional educational opportunities.
They learn about leadership or entrepreneurship in or out of school, help plant school gardens or cocoa demonstration plots through agriculture clubs, take functional literacy training or participate in activities to raise awareness of child labor, HIV/AIDS and malaria. ECHOES also offers Family Support Scholarships that help mothers increase family income and support children's education.
Children on Cocoa Farms
As in many other countries and for many other crops, children on cocoa farms help their parents as part of cultural tradition. The extra pairs of hands are needed to bring a successful harvest, and learning farming tasks serves as a first step in transitioning children to one day take over the family farm.
However, during the last 10 years, surveys commissioned by the governments of Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana found that too many children participate in unsafe farming tasks: using dangerous farm tools, applying pesticides or carrying heavy loads. The research also uncovered that children sometimes were injured or skipped school to work on the farm.
In response, the global chocolate and cocoa industry has focused significant resources and developed important partnerships in this area. The industry has worked for more than 10 years and spent $75 million with partners in Cote d'Ivoire and Ghana, and in other international organizations, to help families and children in cocoa farming communities. In the West African cocoa sector, some 40 industry and individual company programs focus on social and economic issues.
In the fall of 2010, the industry joined the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Senator Tom Harkin, U.S. Representative Eliot Engel and the governments of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire in a new partnership.
The industry has pledged $7 million toward this effort to foster safe, healthy and productive environments for children and families by addressing hazardous labor practices, improving the livelihoods of farming families and ensuring that children have access to quality education.