The chocolate industry has been rife with fair trade labor issues for years. What Nana Frimpong Abebrese started in the early 1990s as an attempt to create a farmer-owned company to help farmers sell their own cocoa in Ghana, is now the multimillion-dollar business, Divine Chocolate.
“What we’re doing at Divine is making sure that farmers feel as comfortable and safe as possible to do their job,” said Callie Yow, communications and external relations coordinator at Divine Chocolate. “It’s very different from the way most companies are set up. The farmers work with us. It is a very clear, equal partnership. We’re all co-owners of the company.”
Sixty percent of the world’s cocoa is produced in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. In 2015, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that two million children work at cocoa farms around the world. It’s estimated that up to 19,000 may be victims of trafficking or slavery. Divine Chocolate has been working to shift the power into the hands of farmers. In 1993, Abebrese’s wife Hannah named the cocoa farmers co-operative Kuapa Kokoo, which reportedly owns 44% of the company today.
According to Yow, this is the single largest share of the company. Kuapa Kokoo, meaning “good cocoa farmer” in Twi, wanted to change the chocolate making business through their labor rights advocation. With the help of Twin, a nonprofit trading company, Divine Chocolate launched in 1998. All of their chocolate is certified through Fairtrade America, meaning that the company has humane working conditions and focuses on community empowerment.
According to the Food Empowerment Project, a California-based nonprofit focused on social justice and exposing inhumane practices in the food industry, unfair wages are often less than $2 a day. When farmers are trafficked or living in extreme poverty, they frequently have no choice but to stay. The work is dangerous and physically exhausting, beginning early in the morning and continuing until the evening. Some reporters have found children as young as five years old on these farms. Companies such as Hershey’s, Nestlé, and Mars have come under fire in the past for purchasing cocoa that may have been harvested through these practices to make their products.
Helping Ghanaian women
Kuapa Kokoo consists of over 85,000 cocoa farmers, and they benefit directly from their partnership with Divine Chocolate. Every year, the co-op elects two members to sit on Divine Chocolate’s board and help make policies for the company. As part of their Fairtrade certification, Divine Chocolate also pays them a Fairtrade Minimum Price of $2,000 per ton of cocoa and a Fairtrade Premium of $200 per ton. The minimum price protects cocoa workers from any drops in the market. Changes in weather such as drought or excessive rain can make the price fluctuate, but with this minimum, workers are protected. The premium is used to fund community projects such as schools and separate restrooms for men and women, all of which are decided by Kuapa Kokoo. Beyond that, 44% of the company’s profits go to Kuapa Kokko along with 2% of the annual sales for a Producer Support & Development Fund. According to Yow, in the past fiscal year, $400,000 from this fund went to initiatives such as skill development classes and women’s literacy programs.
“There are plenty of women in different villages in Ghana that can’t read street signs. Being able to read is something that I think a lot of people — if they can read — can’t really understand the significance of not being able to,” said Yow.
As roughly one-third of Kuapa Kokoo’s farmers are women, Divine Chocolate targets certain mentorships and initiatives towards them. As an example, they host lessons on soap-making and basket-weaving. Cocoa typically has two peak seasons, so these skills help to supplement their income during other points of the year. At the same time, many of the farmers who learn a language become teachers themselves, creating new opportunities for these women.
When asked if an individual farmer’s story stood out to her, Yow was eager to talk about Mercy Zaah. After joining Kuapa Kokoo in 1999, Zaah learned how to read and write in both Twi and English. In 2017, she was invited to Washington, D.C. to speak at several panels and events, including meetings with senators at Capitol Hill, the World Cocoa Foundation, and, of course, the Divine Chocolate team.
“She is incredible. It was just really amazing to have her be able to speak and give presentations in English about the effect that Divine Chocolate has had socially, economically, and environmentally on her and her family. It’s a different, amazing, and inspiring thing to see a woman succeed under any circumstances,” Yow said.
While Yow said empowering women is a crucial initiative, the company’s focus expands beyond education. Many of the business’s leadership roles are held by women, including CEO Sophi Tranchell and Fatima Ali, the president of the co-op. Women also make up the majority of the teams located in both London and Washington, D.C.
“Economic stability is so important for every human across the globe, no matter what position you’re in,” said Yow. “You have families that are struggling to make money, so they have to have their children or their friends come and help them. It just doesn’t have to be that way. Divine Chocolate does business differently and for the better of producers and consumers around the world.”