Inside Story

Current affairs & culture from Australia and beyond

2109 words

Guilty pleasure

11 May 2011

West African countries supply two-thirds of the world’s chocolate, but spreading the benefits might take more than Quaker capitalism or Fairtrade, writes Brett Evans


Alexander Pajak/Flickr

Chocolate Wars: 200 Years of Sweet Success and Bitter Rivalry
By Deborah Cadbury | HarperCollins | $35

Chocolate Nations: Living and Dying for Cocoa in West Africa
By Orla Ryan | Zed Books | $29.95

IF THE processed foods in your kitchen cupboard could talk, what stories they might tell: of civil wars fought in equatorial jungles and voyages halfway round the world, of sixteen-wheelers thundering through the night and vast modern factories.

Take the chocolate bar you scoffed guiltily on the way home from work, while strap-hanging on the bus. There’s a good chance its key ingredient was grown in West Africa by an impoverished cocoa farmer, who sold his beans to a giant American-owned agribusiness, which shipped them to a multinational food-processing corporation based in Europe, which turned them into the brand-name chocolate bar that you probably shouldn’t eat because you’re trying to lose weight. It’s an interesting thought as you lick your fingers and look for somewhere to throw away the wrapper.

But there’s more. The world being what it is, your after-work snack might also have helped to generate the national income of Côte d’Ivoire – which, after all, is the world’s largest producer of cocoa beans – and it could have helped pay for the Kalashnikovs that brought down its president, Laurent Gbagbo, a couple of weeks ago.

So roll the wrapper into a ball and lob it gently into the bin at your bus stop and consider this: if you were to take just about any packaged product in your larder – coffee, sardines, pasta – and write its biography, you are pretty much guaranteed to write a history of the modern, globalised, interdependent world.

THE AZTECS were the first to cultivate Theobroma cacao, or cocoa. Just before ripping out the still-beating heart of a human sacrifice their priests would offer them a drink of what they called “the food of the Gods.” But it wasn’t the sweet, creamy stuff we know and love today – though aromatic and dark brown, it had a bitter taste. Modern chocolate is a product of the industrial revolution. And it took the combined efforts of Dutch engineering, Swiss know-how, and the marketing skills of Anglo-American capitalism to create it.

The story of modern chocolate is the story of how a new industry came into being: how tenacious entrepreneurs pounced on the opportunities offered by the power of Empire to open markets, and used the vaulting advantages of technological innovation, to market mass-produced confectionary to the world. And its narrative is littered with family names that have now become global brands: Nestlé, Lindt, Hershey, Mars and Cadbury.

Deborah Cadbury is a distant cousin of the family behind the world’s most famous chocolate brand. In her fascinating and thoroughly researched book, Chocolate Wars, she tells the story of the Cadbury dynasty as it battled the competition on its long march to market domination, only to see the family firm gobbled up in a hostile takeover in early 2010 by the food-processing giant Kraft Foods, for nearly US$22 billion.

The Cadbury story has an unusual starting point: in a Society of Friends, whose members would “tremble at the word of the Lord.” The Society, also know as the Quakers, are Christian, devout, pacifist, liberal and altruistic. Forbidden by their beliefs to run for parliament, join the armed forces or enter the professions, middle-class Quakers in the Victorian era became bankers and manufacturers. Who hasn’t heard of Barclays bank, Bryant and May matches, Wedgewood china, Clarks shoes and, of course, Cadbury chocolate. It was this generation of “Quaker capitalists” who formed the backbone of Liberal England.

When Richard and George Cadbury took over their father’s failing chocolate-drink business in Birmingham in 1861 their future looked none too bright. Many times in the company’s early days they seemed on the verge of disaster, but they persevered. By buying a chocolate press from their Dutch competitors, Van Houten, they were able to improve the quality of their product, but it would be decades before they would acquire the necessary techniques to rival the milk chocolate produced by their great Swiss rivals, Lindt and Nestlé.

Nevertheless, the Cadbury brothers were rapidly on their way to becoming the equivalent of modern-day multimillionaires. They excelled at the art of advertising, then in its infancy. The omnibuses of London were soon carrying brightly coloured signage extolling the delights of the firm’s Cocoa Essence and Fancy Boxes. That these righteous and somewhat austere men could rise to wealth and social prominence with the aid of something as sensuous as chocolate proves once again just what a mysterious old character God really is.

In keeping with the tenets of Quakerism, the Cadburys chose to use their burgeoning wealth to improve society, starting with their own workforce. To this end they built a new factory on the outskirts of Birmingham. It featured dining rooms for the staff, gardens for relaxation, playing fields for games, and eventually a medical clinic and swimming pools. Then around the factory the Cadburys constructed Bournville – a model village of their own design, inspired by Ruskin’s Arts and Crafts Movement. The modest but comfortable houses were then sold to Cadbury workers, who were given low-interest loans.

It might have been paternalistic, but I’m sure it was a lot better than living in the soot-covered slums of industrial-age Birmingham. When George Cadbury said, “Doing good is good for business,” he meant it. Can you say as much for the CEOs of twenty-first-century businesses?

By the early twentieth century the next generation of Cadburys was hard at work in the family firm. In 1904 George Cadbury Junior – the company’s in-house Willy Wonka – cracked the problem of making milk chocolate and Cadbury had a product to challenge the Swiss: Dairy Milk, with its famous “glass and a half of full-cream milk.”

The company was soon to become Britain’s largest manufacturer of chocolate and the Cadburys began using their wealth and prestige to do good on a bigger stage. They were eager philanthropists, funding orphanages and schools. During the Boer War, George Senior spent a large part of his fortune funding the Daily News to act as a counterweight to the British press’s barking jingoism at the time. The family also supported the nascent labour movement and advocated in favour of the age pension. Several members of the family published influential studies of poverty in Britain. But their Quaker values and liberal credentials would soon suffer a severe blow.

COCOA is a plant that likes to grow near the equator. From its original home in South America, it spread around the world as a cash crop, most notably to Africa. In the early twentieth century, Cadbury sourced much of its supply from one small island off the coast of West Africa, a Portuguese colony called São Tomé. But there was a problem. Many of the workers who laboured in the cocoa farms on São Tomé were slaves. Despite their religious beliefs, the Cadburys chose not to boycott the island’s beans; instead, they set out to gather independent evidence of slavery and lobbied both the Foreign Office and Lisbon to investigate.

Inevitably, the story broke in the press and difficult questions were asked. Were the chocolate barons of Bournville hypocrites? Were they Quakers at home, but rapacious businessmen abroad? When the Standard newspaper accused the family of being just that, they sued for defamation. Though victorious in court, the Cadburys famously received just one farthing in damages. The episode must still rankle with the family. When confronted with a clear choice between the moral precepts of their religion and the needs of their business, they prevaricated.

Other than recording the company’s disappointing reliance on bonded labour, Chocolate Wars has relatively little to say about the history and conditions of the chocolate industry’s primary producers. For that part of the story there is Orla Ryan’s Chocolate Nations.

THE COCOA tree is a finicky plant, unsuited to cultivation in large plantations. “With cocoa,” according to Jan Vingerhoets of the International Cocoa Organization, “the farmer has to care about each tree; he has to see the tree as an individual.” This means, of course, that the crop can never be produced with any economies of scale, but on the other hand it also means a lot of farmers in the Third World can get in on the action.

The world’s production of cocoa is dominated by West Africa, where the plant was introduced in 1879. About two million small producers in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Cameroon and Nigeria supply almost two-thirds of the world’s annual crop of 3.5 million tonnes. The global market for all this chocolate and cocoa is worth US$75 billion a year. Yet, according to Orla Ryan, a Financial Times journalist who lived for four years in Uganda and Ghana, “cocoa farmers receive just 4 per cent of the final price of an average UK bar of milk chocolate.”

It’s an injustice that would have George Cadbury spinning in his grave. Cocoa can only be grown in certain parts of the world by poor farmers operating on small parcels of land, but they receive a relative pittance for their hard work, risk-taking and comparative advantage.

As an imported cash crop, cocoa has no special place in the culture of West Africa. In fact, very few of its growers would even have tasted one of the brand-name chocolate bars made possible by their work. But make no mistake; their lives depend on it. And it’s a hard scrabble being a cocoa farmer. The plant is susceptible to disease and insect damage, yields are often low, and quality is hard to maintain. To some, the problems of cocoa producers will only be alleviated by something called Fairtrade.

Fairtrade was first developed by a Dutch development worker called Nico Roozen. When the price of coffee collapsed in the late 1980s Roozen convinced Dutch consumers to pay a premium price for beans produced in Mexico by a small democratically run cooperative that met some minimum environmental and social standards. Roozen was asking coffee lovers to add a spoonful of altruism to their morning heart starter. And it worked. Within months this new brand – based on conscience, not flavour or price – had captured between 2 and 3 per cent of the Dutch market.

The Fairtrade idea soon caught on in other markets, including chocolate. These products are accredited, and guarantee to return a fair price to producers. Today several Fairtrade chocolate brands are available, including Divine in Britain, and Just Organic and Scarborough Fair in Australia. You can even buy Fairtrade Dairy Milk from Cadbury if you want.

But Orla Ryan is sceptical about the real benefits of Fairtrade to the farmers of Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire. In fact, she says, choosing a Fairtrade product won’t make much of a difference. “Properly informed consumers could provide an impetus for action,” she writes. “But simply choosing one bar instead of another will not help resolve deep-rooted issues. Other forces, such as the balance of industry power and regular elections are just as important in bringing about change.”

Fairtrade won’t do any harm, and it might do some good, she would argue, but it doesn’t deal with the big structural problems keeping cocoa growers living in poverty. For Ryan the growers’ best hopes lie in making their nations’ Cocoa Marketing Boards as transparent and democratic as possible, because if they can only grow their beans in small operations then their only hope of getting a good price against such powerful buyers is by acting in concert when they sell their beans.

If George Cadbury Senior were alive today and still running the firm he salvaged with his brother over 150 years ago he would probably be a believer in Fairtrade. The man who built Bournville would be willing, I’m sure, to forgo some of his company’s healthy profits in order to pay a higher price to the producers he relies on. Unfortunately for Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire’s cocoa farmers, George Cadbury’s Quaker capitalism has been well and truly superseded by the hyper-capitalism of the twenty-first century, where shareholders expect rapid and regular returns on their investment and CEOs get paid millions to see that it happens. •

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