West African Cocoa Farmers Earn Just $1 per Day

And that's bad news for the environment, Fairtrade America tells us.

Deborah Osei-Mensah
Cocoa farmer Deborah Osei-Mensah.

Francis Kokoroko

How long would you work for $1? Most likely, not that long. A dollar for the average adult in North America is pocket change (if such a thing exists anymore), an amount that we toss around more or less mindlessly. It's certainly not enough to make us want to do our jobs for a whole day.

And yet, for thousands of cocoa farmers in West Africa, that's all they earn for a full day's work. Sometimes it's even less, as little as $0.78. This minuscule amount, which falls below the international poverty line, is certainly not enough to provide a basic standard of living, and that is why so many cocoa farmers are struggling to get by.

Fairtrade America wants this to be different. The organization, described as "the world's most recognized label for social justice and sustainability," has launched a campaign called "It's Only Fair" that kicks off with three short videos urging Western shoppers to think about how downright absurd it is to expect someone to work for just $1 per day. You see a barber, a clown, and an esthetician all performing partial versions of their professional tasks, leaving customers bewildered.

The campaign explains why keeping cocoa farmers in dire poverty causes problems for everyone—and has a terrible long-term impact on the planet. What many people may not realize is just how dependent we are on small-scale production for chocolate. From a press release:

"Smallholder, family-run farms with less than five acres of land and average yield between 1,300-1,760 lbs per year of cocoa provide 90% of the world’s cocoa beans. The cocoa industry is an important source of revenue for about 50 million people, including 5 million farming households."

Due to unfair trading practices, it's impossible for these farmers and their workers to make a living wage, regardless of the effort they put in. They cannot plan for the future when daily needs are more urgent. Fairtrade America writes, "Extreme poverty can also lead to other problems, like deforestation and child labor. Farmers are forced to answer unthinkable questions, like 'Should I preserve this forest? Or should I clear it to feed my family?' These problems aren’t new."

What Do Farmers Say?

As part of its campaign, Fairtrade America interviews Deborah Osei-Mensah, a registered cocoa farmer in Ghana who's also the livelihood development officer of the Asunafo North Farmers Union and leader of the union's Monitoring and Evaluation team. She has 2.5 acres of cocoa trees, each acre with 430 trees. 

She describes how Fairtrade certification has helped her community. One profound shift is that farming is now respected as a profession: "People see farming not just as any job, but as a business that they are investing in. A lot of this is because of the numerous trainings through Fairtrade—taking farmers through finance training and job training. It has changed our society by giving farmers that knowledge, so they are confident."

That knowledge extends from financial savvy to environmental stewardship. Osei-Mensah talks about water, and the fact that she's now working on a Masters of Science in Environment, Water and Sustainability from the University of Energy and Natural Resources in Ghana.

"I chose that degree because of the work I am doing with Fairtrade," Osei-Mensah says. "It’s helping me to model the way I talk to my farmers—giving me facts when talking to them about environmental impact, about the ways they extract water. It's helped me understand a large overview of sustainability issues."

Osei-Mensah lists sustainability as the biggest challenge faced by cocoa farmers today. She uses the word in both a financial and environmental context. Without a living wage, farmers will look for something else to grow that's more profitable than cocoa. "We will get to a time where they will no longer produce because they feel they can use their land for another business, or sell their land to a factory owner and get more profit for it."

Climate change is another major concern. "Farmers are looking to grow new cocoa, new coffee, new tea trees. But the survival rate of these new trees is becoming threatened—it's very hard to plant 100 saplings and get 80 from that in six months. The cost of production because of climate change is also becoming an issue. With all this, I see that a time is coming where food, chocolate, and coffee will become a little bit scarce if nothing is done now."

Solomon Boateng, certification risk manager for the Kuapa Kokoo Farmers Union in Ghana, weighs in on how the Fairtrade Premium—an additional sum of money that goes into a communal fund for farmers to use to improve social, environmental, and economic conditions—is building resilience in the face of climate change.

"The program is so important in terms of making sure our community has the resources that are necessary to combat challenges, like climate change. For example, last year we utilized our premium to distribute over 160,000 shade trees to our farmers in an effort to protect our cocoa trees from the rising temperatures in Ghana, and this year we are supplying more than 150,000."

What Can Be Done? 

The hope, of course, is that chocolate consumers will pay more for the treats they enjoy, while keeping producers in mind. This is reasonable, considering that a recent study found that Americans are willing to pay up to 30% more for a bar of chocolate that they know has treated the farmer well. But now it's a matter of putting that into daily action by adjusting consumer habits.

Peg Willingham, executive director of Fairtrade America says it's more important than ever to listen to farmers and workers from around the world. "As we continue to face inflation, we must consider those who make less than $1 per day producing the goods we often take for granted in the U.S. and how they are experiencing the same, and even worse, conditions."

Willingham hopes the campaign videos "bring positive awareness to the need to pay farmers a living wage." Knowing it helps to preserve the environment for future generations may spur more chocolate lovers to choose a fairer deal.

You can support this campaign by spreading the word and looking for the Fairtrade logo on chocolate (and many other products) when shopping.