These Ivory Coast Cacao Farmers Had Never Tasted Chocolate

Originally published on August 1, 2014 1:04 pm

A bittersweet YouTube video is making the rounds this week showing cacao farmers — some of the most impoverished in the world — enjoying chocolate for the very first time.

"Frankly, I do not know what one makes from cocoa beans," farmer N'Da Alphonse tells Selay Marius Kouassi, a reporter for Metropolis, an international news website. He's heard it's turned into food, but he's never tried it. That's because chocolate isn't easy to find in Ivory Coast, and when it is, it's sold for around $2.70 — a third of what a farmer like Alphonse makes in a day.

But when Alphonse tries chocolate, he immediately gets why people the world over are buying it. "Ooh! It's nice ... and very sweet!" he exclaims. He and Kouassi speed off on a motorbike to share it with other cacao farmers and the young men who help him on his plantation. "This is why white people are so healthy," Alphonse tells the other farmers as they pass a chocolate bar around a circle.

What makes this report, which was first published on YouTube in February and then went viral this week, so compelling? Metropolis, which is backed by Dutch broadcaster VPRO, has exposed the stark disparities of the global food system with a light touch.

More than a third of the world's cocoa comes from Ivory Coast; it produces more than any other country in the world. But most of the farmers are small producers like Alphonse, cultivating less than 12 acres and struggling to survive. He's supporting 15 family members on $9.40 a day.

Some of the Ivory Coast cacao workers are even children. As we reported in 2011, child labor is a persistent problem in the West African cocoa industry.

What's also fascinating is that cacao clearly isn't a traditional food in Ivory Coast — it's a commodity crop. And it takes a lot of work to turn those bitter cacao beans into something as delicious as a chocolate bar.

The Mesoamericans first invented chocolate but consumed it as a drink. It took several centuries for humans to figure out how to ferment, roast and process the beans to turn them into cocoa. And eventually we figured out that adding sugar and cocoa butter was the winning combination for those melt-in-your-mouth bars that have ballooned into a $110 billion a year industry.

Many, many cacao farmers like Alphonse (and not just in West Africa) reap practically nothing from their participation in the cocoa supply chain while retailers and companies like Mars and Nestle are pulling in the billions selling chocolate bars. (For more on cocoanomics, check out this infographic by CNN.)

But a lot of people have noticed this imbalance and are trying to change it.

As OZY reporter Rashmee Roshan Lall noted in her recent story on cacao in Haiti, there's a new generation of chocoholics in emerging economies causing global demand for cacao to rise 3.1 percent a year. So there's still a lot of opportunity for impoverished farmers to make a better living from the bean.

As Nancy Shute reported, a growing number of bean-to-bar chocolate entrepreneurs, like Madécasse, which works with cacao farmers in Madagascar, are helping to redefine the chocolate business. Among other things, they're giving farmers a chance to get in on processing and higher profits.

If you're hungry for more from Metropolis, its series on chocolate also features an Australian chocolate addict, a chocolate theme park in China and Dutch consumers seeing cacao fruit for the first time.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.