Using Mobile to Help Eradicate Child Labor on Ivorian Cocoa Farms

5 min read

West African farmers use child labor to cost-effectively scale production of the cocoa used by chocolate companies to make chocolates. Out of the sights and minds of consumers, this matter is often unable to garner the visibility that it deserves. Some 2.1 million children must come to terms with this dark reality while working on cocoa farms in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana.

Côte d’Ivoire produces 32% of the world’s cocoa, a key ingredient in the chocolate that we eat. Unfortunately, Ivorian farmers are plagued by structural poverty, with the average cocoa farmer household earning only 37% of the living income for rural Côte d’Ivoire. In order to minimize the labor costs associated with cocoa farming, Ivorian cocoa farmers resort to hiring children. While most child laborers have a family relationship with the farmer for whom they work for, there are still others who are trafficked or recruited through middlemen. In the direst situations, children on cocoa farms are forced to work or even enslaved.

While serving their role as field hands, children perform hazardous work in unhealthy environments, including burning and clearing fields, spraying pesticides, using sharp tools to break cocoa pods, and transporting heavy loads of cocoa pods and water. At the very least, engaging in this line of work can distract children from their schooling. Access to educational institutions for these children is further limited by the fear of sexual and physical abuse in school, lack of faculty, inability to present proper identification documents (e.g. birth certificate), demanding transportation needs, poor sanitation facilities, and prohibitive school expenses. Without an education, children are deprived of the opportunity to advance themselves, entrenching the household’s impoverishment for subsequent generations.

In light of this situation, many chocolate manufacturers—including Mars, Nestlé, and Mondelēz—have pledged to eradicate child labor from their supply chains. Unfortunately, chocolate companies are struggling to deliver on their promises because they are having difficulty discerning cases of child labor on cocoa farms. The ages of farmworkers can only be estimated based on physical appearances in many situations because workers may not have birth certificates. Furthermore, by conducting random farm inspections and audits, chocolate companies risk antagonizing cocoa farmers and making child labor hidden, but no less prevalent.

To make matters more complex, family farm culture and tradition and ingrained attitudes about the roles of children in rural areas can conflict with what chocolate manufacturers define as child labor. These cultural differences along with the cost savings unlocked by using child labor can dissuade cocoa farmers from participating in chocolate companies’ efforts to identify and eliminate child labor.

In order to tackle this conflict of interest and achieve their objectives, chocolate manufacturers need to divert their focus from attacking child labor as an institution to identifying and remedying the circumstances that compel cocoa farmers to use child labor. This will require chocolate companies to invest in a relationship-centered around open communication and mutualism with the cocoa farmers contributing to their supply chains.

Promoting Open Communication

“The problem, in part, according to some industry consultants, is that the companies have not done enough to fully investigate the depth of the problem.” –Washington Post (Peter Whoriskey, Rachel Siegel, Salwan Georges)

By relying solely on in-person visits, chocolate companies risk making communication with cocoa farmers sporadic for a variety of reasons. Engaging with farmers on farms situated in difficult terrain or disconnected to transportation infrastructure can be especially challenging. Moreover, keeping in mind that chocolate companies still cannot geographically pinpoint all of the farms contributing to their supply chains, extending in-person outreach to many cocoa farmers is currently impossible.

Figure 1: Simplified supply chain for cocoa. Currently, many leading chocolate manufacturers cannot physically trace a significant portion of the cocoa shipments that they receive down to the farm-level. Naturally, they cannot visit farms that they do not even know contribute to their supply chains. The image is an original creation.

Fortunately, chocolate companies can leverage mobile communication as a workaround to the limitations imposed by physical visits. Through a mobile connection, they can stay connected with farmers for as long as farmers have network coverage. This can provide farmers more opportunities to voice their thoughts, questions, needs, and concerns. To make farmers feel more comfortable discussing sensitive topics, such as child labor, chocolate companies could create a separate helpline that anonymizes the farmers’ contact details.

Using the information that they gather from these conversations, in conjunction with surveys and questionnaires that they can administer through mobile, chocolate companies can learn how to view the world through the lens of an Ivorian cocoa farmer. By doing so, they can better their understanding of the difficulties that cocoa farmers endure and the underlying forces that contribute to the use of child labor.

Launching Mutualistic Arrangements

Once chocolate manufacturers gain a solid understanding of the root causes of child labor, they can develop mobile services that are specifically targeted to erode them. By doing so, chocolate companies can simultaneously improve the overall quality of life in cocoa farming communities, make progress towards eliminating child labor, and prove to cocoa farmers that their focus is not on penalizing farmers for using child labor, but instead on providing access to remedy to them.

As an example, chocolate companies can develop mobile applications that reduce the costs of accessing information for cocoa farmers. What may be a simple Google search for most Americans could be inaccessible and unaffordable intelligence for cocoa farmers that do not have the Internet. In order to address the financial drawbacks associated with this information deficit, chocolate companies can use voice and text to periodically inform cocoa farmers of the current world market price for cocoa, yield-enhancing production techniques, market trends, and weather forecasts. This will allow chocolate manufacturers to improve the profit margins for cocoa farmers and address the issue of poverty, a driving force behind the use of child labor, in parallel.

Figure 2: MLouma. MLouma is a mobile platform that sends real-time updates to Senegalese farmers on the market price, location, and availability of farm products through the Internet, SMS, or a call center. Chocolate companies can invest in a similar service to increase profit margins for cocoa farmers. Image by MLouma.

As an additional example, chocolate companies can deploy a mobile birth registration service for cocoa farming communities. With a national birth registration rate of only 65%, Côte d’Ivoire is one of the many nations in West and Central Africa that has a low birth registration rate due to the lack of efficient communication between national birth registration offices and rural villages. To register births, village chiefs frequently have to travel long distances, which can make it a costly and time-consuming venture. In communities in which this is an insurmountable problem for village chiefs, children may not be able to access state healthcare services, enroll for school, or claim rights to an inheritance simply because they do not have a birth certificate. In addition, they are more likely to fall victim to child labor because they are unable to prove their ages. By deploying a mobile service that allows cocoa farming communities to register births through mobile, chocolate companies can allow communities to overcome the barriers to registration, extend new privileges to farmers’ children, and improve their own ability to verify the ages of farmworkers.

Figure 3: Mobile birth registration. In order to address the low birth registration rate in Uganda, Uganda Telecom developed a mobile app (using the architecture shown above) that allows Ugandan village chiefs to register local births with mobile phones, without needing an Internet connection. Image by GSMA Mobile Identity Team.

Prospects for a Mobile-Centric Approach to Supply Chain Management in Côte d’Ivoire

Mobile phones have relatively long battery lives and require little need for infrastructure to function. These low maintenance qualities of mobile technology have made it possible for mobile phone ownership and network coverage to increase in large, sparsely-populated areas with underdeveloped infrastructures for telecommunication and electrification in Côte d’Ivoire. Per a study conducted by the International Finance Corporation, 81% of Ivorian cocoa farmers in the research area reported good network cellular coverage near their homes and 99% had access to a mobile phone.

As the access to mobile technology continues to become more commonplace for Ivorian cocoa farmers, chocolate companies should begin leveraging the power of mobile communication to manage their supply chains. In this effort, chocolate companies could partner with the leading mobile network operators in Côte d’Ivoire, including Orange, MTN, and Moov, to pool the technical resources needed to use mobile to help eradicate child labor on Ivorian cocoa farms.

Hardik Mittal Hardik Mittal is a business strategist, writer, lobbyist, and global citizen. Through his involvement as a Product Marketer for a Fortune 500 semiconductor firm, Hardik has experience managing a business that stretches across 6 continents and technologies that are applied in a wide variety of industries, including automotive, medical, and consumer electronics. He graduated with a B.S. in Electrical Engineering from UCLA and credits his technical background for spawning a passion to tackle seemingly unsolvable problems. In the 20+ countries he has traveled to, Hardik has always found himself far removed from the well-trodden path and in search of the realities of life in those countries. By teaching English in Vietnam, lobbying for social causes in California, and writing to address global issues, Hardik has proven that he is driven to make a global impact.

2 Replies to “Using Mobile to Help Eradicate Child Labor on Ivorian…”

  1. Hi Hardik! Thank you so much for writing this article! I loved the many mobile technology examples that you provided that could eliminate child labour in the chocolate industry.

    I totally agree, there should be more methods of communication between chocolate manufacturers and farmers, and mobile communication is one of the most effective ways of making this happen. A problem must be understood to the fullest extent to provide a long-term solution, and using mobile communication between farmers and chocolate companies may be able to contribute to the end of child labour in the chocolate industry.

    Once again, thanks for writing this amazing article!

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