Bitter Sweets

A special on-the-ground report from West Africa.
Photographs by Benjamin Lowy
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For a decade and a half, the big chocolate makers have promised to end child labor in their industry—and have spent tens of millions of dollars in the effort. But as of the latest estimate, 2.1 million West African children still do the dangerous and physically taxing work of harvesting cocoa. What will it take to fix the problem?


The boy with the machete is watching us. We’re sitting in an SUV in the middle of a rugged, red-dirt road about 10 miles outside the city of Abengourou, in eastern Ivory Coast. It’s just after 8 a.m. on a Saturday, and the early morning haze hasn’t yet burned off, so a mist hangs over the fields around us. We’ve been slowly bumping along on our way to meet some farmers in a nearby village called Appoisso but stop for a moment to take in the scene. Suddenly the boy is standing right next to us. He looks curious, but wary too.

We scramble out to greet him. In French my translator asks him his name. “Ibrahim Traoré,” he replies. How old is he? “Fifteen.”

Ibrahim is wearing ripped jeans, a worn, royal-blue Chelsea soccer shirt with the name of the team’s sponsor—Samsung—in large white letters across the front, and the same kind of clear plastic sandals that are everywhere in this part of West Africa. He holds his dusty blade casually against his left hip.

There’s a sign behind him that appears to have been erected by the Ivorian government as part of a campaign to educate farmers about children’s rights. Non it says in big, red letters. Then, again in French: “The worst forms of child labor.” Below that is a drawing of a young boy carrying a huge sack of cocoa beans with a big X over it. Underneath is another sentence: “The place for children is in school.”

Ibrahim tells us that he was born in Mali. He moved with his father to Ivory Coast when he was little—he’s not sure exactly how old he was—and he’s been working on cocoa farms ever since. What about school? No, he says, he’s never been to school. Is the work he does hard? “Yes,” he says deliberately. “It’s very hard.”

As we talk, a parade of younger boys, many holding machetes as well, walk by on their way to the fields. Ibrahim allows his eyes to follow them. After a few minutes he says it’s time for him to go and marches after the other children, the machete swinging loosely in his hand.

For the $100 billion chocolate candy industry, the story of Ibrahim represents a serious problem—one that it has been vowing to fix for 15 years without great success, and which has gained new urgency in recent months.

Child labor in West African cocoa farming first became a cause célèbre around the turn of the century when a number of pieces of investigative journalism focused the world’s attention on the plight of children who had been trafficked to Ivory Coast to farm cocoa, often from other former French colonies such as Mali and Burkina Faso, and held as slave laborers. In a documentary that aired on the BBC, filmmakers interviewed young boys in Ivory Coast who said they’d been beaten and forced to work long hours without pay. One who said he’d been working on a cocoa farm for five years was asked what he thought about people enjoying chocolate in other parts of the world. “They are enjoying something that I suffered to make,” the boy answered. “They are eating my flesh.”

A boy in Ivory Coast carries a basket of freshly harvested cocoa seeds. A boy in Ivory Coast carries a basket of freshly harvested cocoa seeds.

For shocked consumers in the U.S. and Europe, the revelation that the Kit Kat bars and M&M’s they were giving their kids for a treat might have been produced by boys and girls in Africa who’d been robbed of their childhoods was tough to swallow. Many channeled their guilt into outrage at the likes of Hershey (HSY), Mars, Nestlé, and Cadbury.

The main harvest season for cocoa is from October through December. When the yellow and orange pods are ripe... The main harvest season for cocoa is from October through December. When the yellow and orange pods are ripe…

The multinational chocolate makers are heavily dependent on West Africa. More than 70% of the world’s cocoa is grown in the region, and the vast majority of that supply comes from two countries: Ivory Coast and Ghana, which together produce 60% of the global total. The two nations have a combined GDP of around $73 billion, according to the World Bank—or significantly less than Nestlé’s $100 billion in sales last year. Yet the global chocolate business would be thrown into chaos without them. Last year, Ivory Coast alone exported nearly 1.8 million metric tons of cocoa, or two-fifths of the world’s production. And demand for chocolate is going up, as a growing number of consumers in countries like China and India have more disposable income. The price of cocoa surged 13% in 2015 even as prices for most raw materials were dropping. Meanwhile the average farmer in each country still lives well below the international poverty line. cut them off trees with machetes or sickles. Workers break them apart... …farmers cut them off trees with machetes or sickles. Workers break them apart…

The media coverage of child labor attracted the attention of U.S. politicians, who pressured the industry to tackle the issue. Former Sen. Tom Harkin, a Democrat of Iowa, and Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, pushed the big chocolate makers to agree to eradicating the worst forms of child labor, as defined by the International Labor Organization’s Convention No. 182, by July 1, 2005. The deadline for meeting the goals of the Harkin-Engel Protocol was then pushed back to 2008, then 2010—and then it was really extended. The industry is now working on its pledge in 2010 to reduce child labor in Ivory Coast and Ghana by 70% by 2020. extract the gooey white seeds, which are then piled up to ferment for a few days.... …to extract the gooey white seeds, , which are then piled up to ferment for a few days….

Though the most sensational stories about child labor over the years have focused on boys and girls who’ve been held against their will and abused, the more common story is similar to that of Ibrahim. Hundreds of thousands of children are used as free labor by their own families and often asked to take on dangerous tasks like harvesting with machetes or hauling 100-pound bags of beans. For many, school is not an option.

Finally, the seeds are placed on drying racks. When dry, they’re ready to be exported and turned into chocolate. Finally, the seeds are placed on drying racks. When dry, they’re ready to be exported and turned into chocolate.

There’s been a lot of activity on the corporate side in the years since the Harkin-Engel Protocol was signed, much of it in just the past couple of years. Virtually every name-brand chocolate maker has created or expanded its own sustainability program aimed at tackling the child labor issue by improving the lot of farmers—from Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan to Mondelez’s (MDLZ) Cocoa Life to Hershey’s 21st-Century Plan. And through the World Cocoa Foundation, an industry group, 10 of the largest chocolate companies created an ambitious program called CocoaAction in 2014. The plan, which has more than $500 million in funding, aims to reach 300,000 farmers in Ivory Coast and Ghana with training programs to help them boost productivity—under the assumption that healthier economics for farmers will translate to better conditions for their children.

Unfortunately, progress has been slow—and by some measures the problem has actually gotten worse in recent years. Last July the Payson Center for International Development at Tulane University released the findings of a comprehensive survey of child labor in Ivory Coast and Ghana in the 2013–14 growing season. The research was funded by the U.S. Department of Labor as part of ongoing follow-through on the Harkin-Engel Protocol and built on a previous survey conducted by Tulane five years earlier.

The conclusions were not what the chocolate industry or the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana wanted to hear. Tulane found that 2.1 million children had been engaged in inappropriate forms of child labor in Ivory Coast and Ghana combined—a 21% increase over the 1.75 million identified in its survey five years earlier. Of those, 96% were found to be involved in “hazardous activity.” The number of children reported to be performing dangerous tasks fell by 6% in Ghana but jumped by 46% in Ivory Coast.

There was immediate blowback. A batch of headlines proclaimed that child slavery was on the rise. And in September three California consumers, represented by the same law firm, filed class-action lawsuits against Hershey, Mars, and Nestlé, claiming they wouldn’t have bought the products had they known the candy might be tainted by child labor.

Then, this February, the issue returned to the spotlight when the Supreme Court declined to consider whether to overturn a 2005 lawsuit brought against Nestlé, cocoa supplier Cargill, and Archer Daniels Midland (which got out of the cocoa business last year) on behalf of three unnamed boys who claim to have been trafficked to Ivory Coast and held as slaves. That cleared the way for the case to continue its slow progress toward a possible trial.

A Nestlé spokesperson says the company “looks forward to those proceedings in the lower courts and believes very strongly that the law and facts are on our side.”

Infographic by Nicolas Rapp

In a long statement to Fortune, a Cargill representative said that while the company is disappointed the Supreme Court chose not to review the case, it “believes strongly that this lawsuit is without merit.” ADM, which sold its cocoa and chocolate businesses to Olam and Cargill, respectively, in 2015, said it believes the lawsuit is “legally and factually meritless” and that it has a “strong defense and plan to vigorously defend the claims in court.”

As for the recent California class actions, the chocolate makers seem equally unruffled. Nestlé calls the suit against it meritless. Hershey did not address the specifics of the case but said it has “no tolerance for illegal practices, including children used as forced labor in cocoa farming.” Mars did not respond to our request for comment.

Despite the swirl of negative press, the chocolate industry argues that real gains are being made, and that the long lag time in producing results is understandable given the nature of the challenge. “I think your main question is, ‘Why is this hard to fix?’ ” says Nick Weatherill, executive director of the International Cocoa Initiative, a Geneva-based nonprofit funded by major chocolate makers that focuses on addressing child labor in cocoa in West Africa. “It is clearly a complex problem that has its roots in poverty, and rural poverty no less. And if the problem is rooted in poverty, then the solution, in a way, is as complex as poverty eradication. And in the grand scheme of things, you know, 15 years on a journey of poverty eradication isn’t actually that long.”

Engel, who sees both “reasons to be encouraged and to be disappointed,” doesn’t disagree. On the positive side, he points to a rise in the number of children in both Ivory Coast and Ghana who are attending school. (In Ghana the attendance rate is up to 96%.) But Engel says he’s “not happy that so many children still seem to be working in hazardous conditions.” While he’s generally pleased with the efforts of the chocolate manufacturers, calling the industry “a good partner,” he says that “they need to be leaned on and prodded.” Given the results of the Tulane survey, he adds, “I need to prod them more.”

Are Nestlé, Hershey, Mondelez, and other chocolate companies really doing enough to fix the child labor problem? To try to answer that question, I traveled to Ivory Coast and Ghana in December to visit farming communities during cocoa’s peak harvest season. I saw examples of how investment in communities by companies and government can have a positive impact. But it’s also clear that much still needs to change.

I can hear the machetes before I can see them. About 20 minutes after leaving Ibrahim, I’m following 41-year-old Bakary Koné down a path through his family’s cocoa farm outside Appoisso, past coffee, avocado, and plantain trees to the spot where the harvest is going on. As we get closer to the cocoa trees, I can make out the rhythmic percussion of blades breaking flesh. Soon the source of the sound reveals itself. Nearly 50 men are sitting on logs in a circle around an enormous pile of yellow, orange, and brown cocoa pods. They methodically wield their blades to spear, break, and empty the fruit of the cacao trees, then toss the shells over their shoulders.

The men are local farmers who have gathered to help Koné break pods in return for a meal, as is the local custom. Cocoa has two harvest seasons. The main one happens from October through December, and farmers typically harvest ripe pods every two weeks or so during the season. There is a second, smaller harvest season in the late spring. When the pods are ready, farmers cut them off the trees with their machetes. For pods on higher branches they use a sickle, or faucille, with a long, wooden handle (in Ghana it’s often called a “go-to-hell”). The manual nature of the work makes it hard to automate. There are no industrial-size threshers in West African cocoa farming, or industrial-size farms for that matter. There are nearly 2 million cocoa-growing households in Ivory Coast and Ghana, and the average farm size is less than 10 acres. But the Koné farm is much bigger, about 120 acres, which explains why such a large group has assembled for this pod-breaking party.

A farmer wearing a small khaki hat and a purple long-sleeved shirt beckons me over. His name is Daouda Ouattara and he’s 45 years old. Ouattara says he’s a tailor, but he’s been farming cocoa for four years. He gestures at me animatedly to sit down next to him and hands me a machete and a big yellow pod. “It’s time for you to do some work,” he says in French, smiling, and demonstrates how to break the cocoa pod with one swift stroke. My efforts to imitate him are decidedly less confident. Worried about sinking the blade into my wrist, I take a few uncertain whacks at the fruit before my new friend, cackling with laughter, tells me to stop. He jumps up and comes back with a stick for me to use instead.

Machetes are ubiquitous in rural areas of West Africa. At first it can be a bit unnerving to be surrounded by men, women, and children casually walking around with the swordlike tools. As culturally ingrained as the use of machetes is, it’s one of the main factors that makes the process of cocoa farming dangerous for children. The Tulane survey found that 71% of children working in cocoa were exposed to sharp tools, and in Ivory Coast 37% of kids farming cocoa had suffered “wounds” or “cuts.”

A worker takes samples inside a greenhouse in Nestlé’s R&D center in Abidjan. Since 2009, the company and its partners have given 5.2 million plantlets to farmers. A worker takes samples inside a greenhouse in Nestlé’s R&D center in Abidjan. Since 2009, the company and its partners have given 5.2 million plantlets to farmers.

As the farmers relentlessly move through the pile of pods, they fill wooden baskets with the gooey white seeds drawn from each pod. Put one in your mouth straight out of the shell and suck on it, and it tastes a bit like lychee. But to turn them into proper cocoa beans requires a two-step process. First the seeds are piled up and typically covered with plantain leaves, then left to ferment for four or five days. After that they’re moved to a drying rack and left for six or seven days. At that point they can be bagged and sold. If you bite them, they taste like very pure unsweetened chocolate.

Once the baskets are filled, boys line up and place them on their heads, carrying them about 75 yards to a clearing to dump them in a pile on a plastic sheet for the fermentation. On this morning it’s about 90° F, and the humidity is sapping. Five boys, ranging in age from about 10 to 16, are making continual roundtrip journeys to the fermenting pile with little rest. At one point a younger kid in a Los Angeles Lakers shirt falters while trying to stand and lift the heavy basket above his head; a man helps him get his balance.

How, I ask Daouda, do they decide what is the right age for adults and children to do different jobs? He says that it’s up to the workers, not the farm owners, to decide. “Here in Africa, the ones who are young and strong have to use their legs,” he says. “The older ones get to work sitting down. But when it’s time to sell the crop, the ones who are sitting down get to keep all the profits.” He laughs at his joke as it’s translated.

Daouda takes me over to a basket full of seeds and urges me to try carrying it. He gives me his hat, and I hoist the basket onto my head. It’s heavy, easily 25 pounds, and I wobble at first. Walking to the seed pile over uneven ground is no easy task in the heat.

Just before we leave I notice that a couple of young boys have joined the circle of men and are splitting pods with machetes. I point this out to Daouda and ask him if it’s okay for boys that young to use machetes. “They have to learn how it’s done properly,” he replies. “Not like you.” He chuckles again.

The senior policeman isn’t sure what to do about the two boys. We’re sitting in his office in Abengourou as he works the phones, trying to sort through their story and his options. “This issue is really complex,” he says in French, shaking his head.

Children join farmers in breaking cocoa pods on an Ivory Coast farm in December. Nearly four in 10 kids on such farms suffered wounds or cuts during the 2013–14 growing season. Children join farmers in breaking cocoa pods on an Ivory Coast farm in December. Nearly four in 10 kids on such farms suffered wounds or cuts during the 2013–14 growing season.

While we were visiting the Koné farm, our local guide got a call tipping him off that a pair of young men were passing through town in a taxi alone, and might be victims of trafficking. He alerted the police, who brought them in. The senior officer has come in on his day off to deal with the situation. He’s wearing fashionable black glasses and a blue-white-and-gray plaid shirt buttoned all the way to the top. He has the two boys brought in. They claim to be 19 and 22, but, to our eyes, look a few years younger. Neither has any kind of ID. One is wearing a Barcelona soccer shirt and the other a Chelsea jersey. They stand defiantly, leaning against the wall, as the policeman ponders their fate.

It is notoriously hard to get accurate figures on trafficking. The International Labor Organization has estimated that about 21 million people in the world are victims of forced labor, and that some 5.5 million of them are children. Around the time of the Harkin-Engel agreement, it was frequently reported that some 15,000 children from neighboring West African countries were being held as slaves on farms in Ivory Coast. A survey overseen by the ILO in 2002 concluded that there were roughly 12,000 child laborers in Ivory Coast who had been trafficked.

Today activists and law enforcement officials broadly agree on two things about trafficking in West African cocoa farming. First, the traffickers have gotten much less brazen about it, and the numbers of children affected have probably fallen. Second, trafficking and forced labor in cocoa absolutely still go on.

“I think it’s very clear that it’s not as bad as I first experienced it down there in the sense that it has probably gone more underground,” says Mick Moran, Interpol’s assistant director in charge of human trafficking and child exploitation. But if you know where to look, says Moran, finding examples of children being held as forced labor in cocoa in each country is still like “shooting fish in a barrel.”

A young boy uses a machete to break cocoa pods at a farm near Abengourou in eastern Ivory Coast in December. A young boy uses a machete to break cocoa pods at a farm near Abengourou in eastern Ivory Coast in December.

Moran applauds the chocolate companies for pumping money into sustainability programs. But he’s frustrated by a sense that the companies want to dismiss trafficking as a problem that is mostly solved. “I am disappointed lately in the cocoa industry,” he says. “Who do they think they’re fooling? They’re not fooling me, anyway, that’s for sure.”

Last year Interpol and the International Office of Migration worked with the governments of Ivory Coast and Ghana on a six-month operation focused on trafficking called Project Akoma. In June the authorities announced that they had liberated at least 48 children, ages 5 to 16, in raids near San-Pédro, a major cocoa region in the western part of Ivory Coast. Overall, Akoma has led to the freeing of more than 150 children and the arrests of 25 people accused of putting them in extreme work conditions.

Ivory Coast has passed legislation in recent years to make trafficking illegal, but people I spoke with in law enforcement in the country say that the government’s intentions haven’t yet translated into widespread education for prosecutors and police on how to recognize it or what to do about it. The U.S. Department of Labor’s 2014 report on the worst forms of child labor in Ivory Coast found that the national police’s anti-human-trafficking unit had an operating budget of just $7,700, which it called “insufficient.”

Poverty is clearly the main driver of trafficking. Farmers are in desperate need of cheap, controllable labor. But cultural issues are a factor as well. It’s not uncommon across West Africa for children to leave home at an early age, whether on their own or at the behest of their family, to seek better circumstances somewhere else. This is particularly complicated in Ivory Coast, which for decades has received a steady stream of migrants from other French-speaking countries such as Burkina Faso, Mali, and Togo.

The boys at the police station are from northern Togo. As far as the policeman can tell, they were brought to Ivory Coast through Ghana a few years earlier. Most recently they were working as household servants for the mayor of a city outside Abidjan. When they were intercepted in the taxi, the boys were on their way to work for Togolese migrant farmers in a village near Abengourou. But the big boss, says the police officer, is the chief of the village, who owns the land. The policeman says that the chief is known to bring in a lot of young people from outside the country to work on his farms.

What would it take, I ask the officer, to bring charges against the chief if there was evidence that he was involved? The officer smiles ruefully. “You don’t take a chief like this to prison,” he says. “There’s also the social order to maintain. It’s a fine line.”

When our SUV rolls into Gazolilie, the welcoming committee is waiting. A group of about 20 women, many wearing brightly patterned dresses or skirts, quickly surrounds us and begins clapping and singing while one of them bangs out the beat with a stick and a pot. It’s a catchy tune, and the meaning of the lyrics, I’m told, couldn’t be more positive: “It is good to love your children.”

I’ve traveled to this tiny farming village outside the city of Lakota—about 120 miles from Abidjan in south-central Ivory Coast—to see how Nestlé is implementing its Cocoa Plan. One of the core strategies of the program is to empower women. And the farmers’ wives who have greeted us in song have formed their own group, with support from the International Cocoa Initiative, to grow cassava as a cash crop separate from the cocoa fields that their husbands control.

Nestlé gets cocoa from dozens of farm co-ops across Ivory Coast encompassing tens of thousands of farmers. But the chocolate giant doesn’t buy the beans directly. Farmers sell to a government-licensed buyer, usually a big commodities supplier. The farmers in Gazolilie, for instance, are part of a union of cooperatives in the Lakota area with about 4,100 members, and U.S.-based Cargill buys their beans. Nestlé says its Cocoa Plan has three “pillars”: to enable farmers to run more profitable farms; to improve social conditions and thus eliminate the factors that lead to child labor; and to boost the long-term supply of sustainable, quality cocoa.

That last point is not insignificant. As demand rises, the industry is concerned about being able to source enough cocoa in the future, for a variety of reasons. One is urbanization: More older children and young adults in West Africa are moving to cities and giving up on the agricultural way of life, including cocoa farming—a trend that was highlighted in the Tulane survey. A second factor is disease. Each year up to 40% of the global cocoa crop, by some estimates, is lost to pests and diseases like swollen shoot and black pod.

A third problem is aging trees: Cocoa plants have their peak production between the ages of five and 25, and then begin to decline. The average small farmer has no means for purchasing new trees. Nestlé operates an R&D center on the outskirts of Abidjan that, along with its partners, since 2009 has given 5.2 million plantlets to farmers in its supply chain and now has the capability to grow more than 1.5 million plantlets per year. The new trees are bred to produce yields three times bigger than existing trees.

Like most of the major chocolate companies, Nestlé has been increasing the amount of beans it buys that are “certified” as sustainably grown. The farmers in certification programs are trained in best practices—how to properly use pesticides and fertilizers, for instance—and sign a pledge not to exploit child labor. In 2015, Nestlé says, it purchased 121,000 tons—or 30% of its total—from farmers in its Cocoa Plan, and 83% of it was certified. The company says it trained 32,000 farmers last year. The co-op in Lakota works with UTZ Certified, one of the biggest certification organizations (others include Fairtrade International and Rainforest Alliance). More than half of the farmers in the co-op have gotten certified and those who are can earn bonuses on every ton of beans sold.

Children in a school built by Nestlé near Divo in Ivory Coast Children in a school built by Nestlé near Divo in Ivory Coast

ICI has been helping the Lakota co-op implement a child monitoring and remediation system funded by Nestlé. The union employs a child labor agent to educate farmers and keep an eye out for abuses. To “sensitize” farmers about the possible downsides of putting their kids to work, the agent goes door to door with a flip board with colorful illustrations showing children engaged in dangerous activities (burning fields, swinging machetes, hauling heavy bags) and the potential injuries (horrible hernias, back pain). It appears to work.


Source for chocolate sales: Euromonitor International

A farmer named Armand Gnekpie tells me that before he joined the co-op a few years ago and went through the education, he had no idea that people from outside Ivory Coast were worried about children being put to work in the cocoa fields. Gnekpie is sitting with his wife and five children, ages 2 to 10, on the front porch of the cement-block house his father built. There is a mud hut kitchen nearby. Gnekpie, 32, grew up farming cocoa but says he moved to Abidjan for a few years before returning to take over his family’s land. He has about 10 acres and grows mostly cocoa and a little coffee.

Did it ever occur to him before, I ask, that doing heavy work might not be healthy for children? He pauses before answering, a pained expression on his face. “Nobody hates his own kids,” he says. “We learned from the training that we have to do things differently.”

The sensitization work may be effective in communities where it’s implemented, but there is a question of scale. When Tulane conducted its first survey in 2009, it found that less than 5% of children in farming communities had benefited from an outreach project. That line of inquiry was dropped in the more recent survey. Even if Cocoa Action reaches its goal of engaging 300,000 farmers, it will fall well short of touching the majority of farm households in West Africa.

Since 2012, Nestlé has built six new schools in the Lakota area and a total of 42 in Ivory Coast. In a village called Gnakpililie it funded a three-classroom addition to an existing school. Inside the cream-and-black concrete building, 30 or so students per room sit at wooden desks. The boys wear khaki uniforms, and the girls are in blue and white dresses.

The results of some informal polling are informative. More than half of the kids in one class have heard of Beyoncé, but just one can name the U.S. President. I ask another class how many of them have ever used the web; none raise their hands. How many of their parents are farmers? Almost every hand goes up. How many of them want to be farmers? None volunteer. After a moment, one young boy raises his hand and says something in French when called on. “I want to sit in an office,” he says. “It’s too hot to be a farmer.”

Last October, voters in Ivory Coast handily reelected President Alassane Ouattara to a second term. The pleasant surprise was that there was no tumult in the wake of his victory. When Ouattara won his first term in 2010, it plunged the country into months of civil crisis. His predecessor and longtime rival, Laurent Gbagbo, claimed election fraud and refused to leave office until being captured by pro-Ouattara forces. The chaos of the conflict—which followed a civil war in the country that lasted from 2002 to 2007—wasn’t exactly conducive to addressing the tough societal problems that lead to child labor abuses.

Since assuming office the President has taken steps to boost cocoa production and reduce the risk of a boycott or embargo on his nation’s leading export. Ouattara, 74, who holds a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Pennsylvania and is a former senior official at the IMF, clearly recognizes that a healthy cocoa industry is key to growing Ivory Coast’s economy. (Cocoa beans accounted for 20% of exports in 2013.) He formed a new Coffee and Cocoa Council to manage the export of beans and offer a guaranteed price to farmers each year. Stability has helped. In the five years between the two Tulane surveys in 2009 and 2014, cocoa production in Ivory Coast surged 40%.

Ouattara has gotten an assist from world markets, too, which have driven prices higher. “If the people reelected President Ouattara with 83% of the vote,” says First Lady Dominique Ouattara, “it is mainly due to the fact that farmers are very happy.”

To address his country’s child labor image problem, the President chose his most high-profile and trusted adviser: his wife. In 2011 he named her chairperson of a new committee in charge of supervising efforts by the chocolate industry and coordinating them with government programs. Having the First Lady take on the child labor problem as her top priority sent a clear signal that the new government was treating the issue seriously. (For a Q&A with First Lady Ouattara, click here.)


“When we started, we realized that the chocolate industry had no coordination,” says Mrs. Ouattara, speaking in French. “Each company had its own program. At the government level also there was no coordination.”

We’re facing each other from opposite ends of a blue sofa in a perfectly appointed sitting room in the President’s residence, located in a leafy section of Abidjan known as Cocody. Through sliding glass doors a large pool area flanked by white columns is visible, and a couple peacocks wander by as we talk. The First Lady, who was born in Algeria, is wearing an elegant, long navy gown, and her blond hair is perfectly coiffed. In addition to being a political spouse, Mrs. Ouattara is a successful businessperson and the founder of a multinational real estate firm.

Mrs. Ouattara heaps praise on Tom Harkin and other U.S. officials for bringing attention to child labor and helping instruct her on the issue. “Before I had the feeling that the big companies didn’t really care much about this issue,” says Mrs. Ouattara, who has an infectious laugh. “Now I can tell that they have changed the way they think about it, and they’re cooperating very much.”

She says that she and the President have focused on education as a way to create options for children. “When I took over this job, I was surprised to learn that school was not mandatory in Ivory Coast,” she says. The government has built more than 17,000 new classrooms since 2011, and in 2015, Ivory Coast passed a law making school compulsory for children between 6 and 16. The effort has worked: The Tulane survey found that 71% of children attended school, up from 57%.

When other aspects of the Tulane survey come up, the First Lady’s eyes darken a little, and she purses her lips. Mrs. Ouattara is not happy with the headline numbers in the study or the way it was conducted, despite the fact that Tulane partnered with ENSEA in Ivory Coast and conducted its research using International Labor Organization definitions for child labor. She points out that a child who was found to have engaged in hazardous activity for one day in the previous year was counted the same as one who was working in the same conditions every day. The numbers in the report don’t give an accurate picture, she argues, and says that the survey “brought a lot of confusion.”


I ask her if she plans to push for changes in the methodology when Tulane conducts the next survey. “If they do it next time,” she corrects me in English. Shortly after, I learned that Tulane had lost the contract for the next survey to the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. William Bertrand, the Wisner Professor of Public Health at Tulane, who led the previous surveys, believes his group lost out on the next one largely because of politics. “We try to avoid politics in science to the extent that we can,” he says.

The N6 highway north from Accra to Suhum might as well be the road to salvation. Ghana is a heavily Christian nation—more than 70% of the population identifies as one type of Christian or another—and the spirit of the times feels distinctly evangelical. Billboard after billboard advertises mega-sermon events (“Night of Bliss With Pastor Chris,” “Night of Prophecy and Power”), and taxis display religious sentiments on their rear windows in ornate yellow letters ranging from celebratory (Jesus Jesus Jesus) to humble (It wasn’t me but God). A sky-high youth-unemployment rate and erratic electrical service, among other factors, have people here searching for answers of late.

We exit and twist around a series of dirt roads for about 10 minutes. But it’s just after we pass a hut with a sign identifying it as the God Is Love Fashion Center that we realize we’re officially lost. My host for the day, Matilda Broni, the community development manager for Mondelez’s Cocoa Life program here, makes a phone call for directions, and pretty soon we arrive in a farming village called Otwebediadua, which in the local dialect means, “The antelope will eat the fruit and also plant it.”

The 1,500-person hamlet is one of the 446 farming communities in Ghana, comprising 28,000 farmers, where Mondelez has implemented Cocoa Life since launching the effort in 2012. More than half of those communities (237) were added just in 2015. Mondelez has a long history in Ghana—at least indirectly. Cadbury has been sourcing cocoa from the former British colony for more than 100 years. In 2010, Kraft Foods acquired the chocolate maker. Then, in 2012, Mondelez (including its Cadbury unit) was spun off from Kraft as the world’s biggest chocolate business. Similar to Nestlé’s Cocoa Plan, the approach of the Cocoa Life program is to invest in training farmers in farming practices and supplying them with resources while at the same time educating them about the proper roles of children.

Roughly 30 men and women are assembled and sitting on blue-and-green plastic chairs under a sheet-metal roof at the village’s community open-air gathering spot. To one side, some 15 students are sitting in wooden desks they’ve hauled out from the nearby schoolhouse. Speaking in their local dialect, the elders explain that the training and support they’ve received has helped them improve crop yields and think of farming as something other than a subsistence living. “Before Cocoa Life came, we didn’t think about cocoa as a business,” says one man.

A farmer in Ghana inspects sacks of dried cocoa beans that are stored in a small locked structure. A farmer in Ghana inspects sacks of dried cocoa beans that are stored in a small locked structure.

When the subject turns to child labor, the conversation becomes more spirited. The concept has become controversial here for a surprising reason. One older man in a faded black suit jacket and a yellow T-shirt becomes extremely animated and begins complaining that ever since the village went through the sensitization program, the children claim that every chore is “child labor”—sweeping, fetching water, etc.  “It’s causing problems,” he says. “What exactly is child labor?” Amid laughter, he demands that I define it for the students so that they’ll hear from an American journalist what they are and aren’t allowed to do.

It’s a lighthearted moment, but raising awareness is only part of the formula for solving child labor. I think of my visit to another village in a different part of Ghana the day before. When I asked the farmers there if the rise in the price of cocoa had made life easier, they began talking about all the things they needed—a health clinic, a computer for the school, electricity. “If you are talking to the chocolate company,” one of the elders says, “tell them we are suffering here.”

That’s a fact that can be substantiated with more than anecdotes. According to the 2015 edition of the Cocoa Barometer, a biennial report examining the economics of cocoa that’s published by a consortium of nonprofits, the average farmer in Ghana in the 2013–14 growing season made just 84¢ per day, and farmers in Ivory Coast a mere 50¢. That puts them well below the World Bank’s new $1.90 per day standard for extreme poverty, even if you factor in the 13% rise in the price of cocoa last year.

And in that context the challenge of eradicating child labor feels immense, and the chocolate companies’ newfound commitment to expanding the investments in cocoa communities not quite sufficient. “The thing is, if you add up all of the work these projects are doing and the work by governments and development agencies, it actually doesn’t even scratch the surface of the size of the problem,” says Antonie Fountain, managing director of the Europe-based Voice Network and a co-author of the Cocoa Barometer. “Best-case scenario, we’re only doing 10% of what’s needed.”

Getting that other 90% won’t be easy. “It’s such a colossal issue,” says Sona Ebai, who grew up farming cocoa in Cameroon and is the former secretary general of the Alliance of Cocoa Producing Countries. “I think child labor cannot be just the responsibility of industry to solve. I think it’s the proverbial all-hands-on-deck: government, civil society, the private sector.” He pauses, taking in his own thought for a moment. “And there, you really need leadership.” 

A version of this article appears in the March 1, 2016 issue of Fortune.