The Closing of the Cocoa Frontier

Adam Tooze

This Valentines day, Americans gifted each other in the order of 58 million pounds of chocolate, much of it wrapped in 36 million heart-shaped boxes. It was a particularly busy period for the global chocolate industry, which in 2020 processed c. 5 million tons of cocoa beans into chocolate confectionary, generating around 130 billion dollars in revenue. The cocoa-chocolate business is an agro-industrial complex that has emerged from millennia of human ingenuity and entrepreneurship mixed with commerce, political power and violence. At the front end are well known chocolate brands, the likes of Cadbury, Mars, Lindt and so on. Behind them are the grinder-traders, giant agro-industrial trading corporations like Cargill.

There would be no chocolate, however, without the cocoa beans and they are grown overwhelmingly on small peasant plantations, most no larger than 3 hectares, yielding 300-400 kg in beans per hectare and worked by c. 6 million farming families. Together with their families, perhaps 50 million people are directly involved in cocoa cultivation and processing, including many youths and children. A rough calculation suggests that the cocoa-farming dependent population worldwide outnumbers the entire farming population of the United States and Europe. At 14 million the main workforce on the cocoa farms significantly outnumbers the 9 million workers engaged in motor vehicle production worldwide.

Recently, Indonesia has emerged as a major grower. Both Central and South America, the original home of the cocoa bean, still contribute to global supplies. But 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans come from West Africa and 60 percent from the farms of just two states, Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire (CdI). In a year of good harvests, CdI with a yield of well over 2 million tons of beans, can account for 40 percent of the global production. De facto the global pyramid of chocolate confectionary balances on the peasant producers of Ghana and CdI who have been the drivers of a production revolution of huge scale….

What first catches the eye about this supply chain are the spectacular hierarchies of power. For journalistic purposes and in NGO campaigns, these hierarchies are commonly dramatized in two clichés. The first is the contrast between the tiny peasant producer and the agro-industrial multinationals. The second is that between Western consumers of chocolate and child labourers in the cocoa plantations. By 1950 Ghana entirely dominated the world market, having increased the global supply tenfold. As Órla Ryan records in her excellent book Chocolate Nations:

one British colonial official described the Ghanaian cocoa boom as ‘spontaneous and irresistible, almost unregulated’. In a government report in 1938, he wrote: We found in the Gold Coast an agricultural industry that perhaps has no parallel in the world. Within about forty years, cocoa farming has developed from nothing until it now … provides two fifths of the world’s requirements. Yet the industry began and remains in the hands of small, independent native farmers.

Source: Adam Tooze: Chartbook