Politics of Poverty

What does chocolate have to do with Ebola?

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cocoa Cocoa pods in the Ivory Coast. Photo: Peter DiCampo / Oxfam America

The chocolate industry has a moral and business imperative to address Ebola in West Africa, but the response is underwhelming.

As news broke Monday that the chocolate industry’s trade group, The World Cocoa Foundation, planned to announce a major initiative to combat Ebola in West Africa, the headlines screamed crisis:

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Rising prices and supply disruptions had fanned fears that the spreading epidemic could undermine the cocoa industry’s performance. Companies including Mars, Mondelez International and Nestle, which together buy more than one third of the world’s cocoa supply, were on board with the effort.

With just 25% of the UN’s $1 billion Ebola appeal funded, it was welcome news that large chocolate companies were recognizing their clear moral imperative and business interest to help address the spread of the disease in major cocoa producing countries. News outlets quickly aggregated the story, highlighting the industry’s planned efforts before many details were available.

But then the details came out. Twenty-nine cocoa companies had collectively committed $600,000, or 0.0006% of the global chocolate market’s $100 billion annual value, to fighting the epidemic. To put this in perspective, Mark Zuckerberg, whose company has little if any direct financial stake in stemming this crisis, donated $25 million personally. The cocoa industry’s response on the other hand is equivalent to buying 4.5 seconds of one 30 second Super Bowl commercial. In other words, it’s not much.

It’s important to remember that crisis did not appear overnight and the cocoa industry’s role goes way beyond charity. The spread of Ebola is the result of endemic poverty and inequality that has been allowed to fester across the region, particularly in rural communities where millions of families earn their living as farmers. Poor governments have been unable or unwilling to invest properly in health systems leaving communities vulnerable when the outbreak began.

Chocolate companies are not just bystanders to these problems; they are central players in the regional economy. Cocoa production accounts for about 5-7% of GDP in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana for example. Yet most of the more than 5.5 million small-scale farmers and workers who supply 90% of the cocoa used by major food companies live on less than $2 a day, often in communities without basic health services and infrastructure. Less than 3 cents of every dollar spent on chocolate makes it back to cocoa farmers.

So while the industry’s philanthropic response to this crisis has been less than awe inspiring, the real issue is how companies are doing businesses in West Africa. The World Cocoa Foundation says, “The best way to help West African cocoa farmers and their communities is to continue to buy the cocoa that they grow.” That’s true, but only if the industry is dealing with farmers fairly. Right now, it’s hard to argue that they are. The industry has taken small steps to try to improve the incomes and lives of cocoa farmers through initiatives like CocoaAction, but the spread of Ebola should be a wake-up call that these efforts are nowhere near adequate.

Companies need to be doing a much better job of using their economic power and influence to work with governments to strengthen public services for people producing their cocoa and to increase incomes for farmers. This means ensuring higher wages, yes, but it also means greater transparency when it comes to things like the taxes companies and their suppliers are paying in cocoa producing countries. Right now none of the major chocolate companies disclose much of anything about their taxes in poor countries, making it impossible to know if they are doing their part. If companies’ charitable contributions to the Ebola crisis are any indication, it’s hard to give them the benefit of the doubt.

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