NORC report on child labour in West Africa: more accurate figures, but no farmers business case

This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

Estimates of the number of children in child labour were overestimated

In previous years the two often quoted surveys conducted by Tulane University presented an estimate of 2.1 million cases of child labour, including 30,000 cases of so-called ‘child slavery.’ Now, these estimates appear to have been miscalculated and overstated. The new estimate is 1.5 million cases of (hazardous) child labour in the cocoa regions of Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire; a 21% lower figure. This does not necessarily mean progress on the ground, just corrected perceptions.

Most likely, in a few years time, the current figure of 1.5 million cases of child labour on about 2 million farms will be seen as overstated too, as the nuances of child labour occurrence in cocoa farming households are contextualised and better understood. Methodologies and interviews used in the NORC research are more suitable for a qualitative description of the characteristics of child labour than for presenting correct quantitative data for the sector as a whole. 

The word slavery is not used in the NORC report. A slave-free framing including broken chains only serves a unique market positioning of the Dutch chocolate brand Tony’s Chocolonely. Child labour and hazardous child labour are more useful scientific categories than slavery — unjustifiably presented by Tony’s Chocolonely as a systemic characteristic of the sector.

The definition of child labour used in the report is well aligned with the UN definitions. A strong perception shared by local experts is mainly related to the oldest age category of children 16-17 years old. This category of child labour is locally perceived as a young generation stepping into their first job after completing or discontinuing school. Not really (a worst form of) child labour. From this perspective, realistic numbers could be significantly lower. Particularly when these children mostly engage in household chores or housework, which presents similar contexts as their engagements on-farm, but are mostly exempted from various research and discourse about child labour in cocoa farming families. 

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Definition child work/labour NORC report, page 8

Another observation is linked to the fact that children’s school attendance has increased significantly to 96% in Ghana and 78% in Côte d’ Ivoire. These high levels of school attendance are difficult to reconcile with large scale child labour. This is in addition to the fact that 99% of children (5-17 years) were observed in the NORC report to be living with parents or another relative. Seventy-eight percent of children were working for their own family farm. Eighty-one percent of the children were working for their parents. Based on these figures we can conclude that child work as assistance to your parents fits better against the background of the progressive development of formal education. 

And this was rightly noted in the NORC report that, “overall, the demographics indicate that most children in the report were from families of smallholder farmers conducting farming activities as part of their household’s normal economic activity.” This statement captures the real perspectives of child labour occurrence that are rarely publicized, unlike the publicity given to the prevalence. It is unfortunate then that stakeholders in the cocoa sector are only presented with parts of a report, and other parts that could help balance the perspectives and potential negative implications on the farmers and producer countries are practically kept out of the publicity. It is time to piece all the information together, triangulate them and arrive at a full appreciation of the real damaging issues relating to labour services in cocoa.

‘Children’s access to education has improved significantly over the last years and suggests the severity of child labour is decreasing’. 

Honesty speaking a debate about figures is not too interesting. Each case of child labour is one too many. But it is also true that only realistic, detailed data will enable targeted interventions. Moreover, misrepresentations do not unite people to find a common ground for action. Exaggeration is not helpful; the bare facts are serious enough. 


Prevalence of child labour remains high, with around 45% of children living in cocoa-growing areas sometimes engaging cocoa- related child work or labour, according to the report. Of grave concern is the fact that children’s exposure to agrochemicals has increased significantly over the last ten years. This goes hand in hand with the rapid growth of the use of pesticides. When adult farmers are not aware of the health risks, youth will be exposed to these risks easily. Reducing health risks for children is closely linked to reducing risks for all generations. More generally, a broader understanding of the dynamics in cocoa producing communities will help. The line between domestic tasks and income-generating work is often blurred; working conditions for all are quite challenging. 

There are no lasting solutions without recognizing the unrelenting labour that everyone in the cocoa-growing villages takes on, every day without respite. To understand child labour, we need to understand everyone’s labour. When we step back and take a wider lens we set ourselves on a more informed path avoiding easy rhetoric and one-dimensional solutions. * 

Living income

In the NGO response to the report, one element is generally stressed. Poverty is the context where child labour is persistent. First and foremost, cacao farmers need a living income. This will require higher prices for cocoa. And oftentimes, the farm gate price has been the point of entry.

While important, it’s not that simple that a higher income will translate into hiring labour abolishing child labour. Most often farmers have other costs with a higher urgency to cover. 

The argument that cocoa farmers are using children to deliver labour services, because they are cheap, and that by paying them well, they will be able to hire labour to service their farms is not as simplistic as is often being presented. Which also opens up other perspectives on the fact that even if a farmer can hire labour, it is not often the case that unethical labour issues (fair wages, safety issues, duration of work, etc.) of concern have been addressed. In addition to the fact that there are observed labour unavailability in farming communities when they are needed, because people who offer labour services, also find themselves in other “more productive” engagements. This brings in the context of farm service delivery as a business model that can be used to assist cocoa farmers to minimize labour issues.

In essence it is simple. When the farmer cannot spend money for work to be done, child labour will remain. No child labour anymore; who else will do the work? Hired labour under fair conditions requires an additional revenue model. 

Income = price x volume

A fair price for cacao beans has long been a key NGO strategy. Solidaridad is a first mover in this approach initiating fair trade certification in 1988. And indeed improved contract conditions and purchasing practices in a more balanced supply chain are crucial. Price premiums for certified cocoa, and more recently, a ‘Living Income Differential’ in West Africa, are laudable first steps in this direction. 

But in the end gross income is price times volume. Regrettably, the volume component is highly neglected in proposed strategies. For sure, raising productivity, producing more on less land, is a promising intervention strategy. The size of a farm is however the elephant in the room. Moving from subsistence farming to entrepreneurship means improving the infrastructure of production looking for a more optimal farm size. Even if we triple the price of cocoa a well-performing smallholder farmer with only 2 hectares of cocoa with an annual harvest of 450 kg/ha of cocoa beans will not earn a living income and by consequence will fully depend on the support of all his family members. The smallholder context remains a poverty economy. Our ambition has to be the establishment of a modern, sustainable rural economy transforming the livelihoods of millions of people with a positive effect for children. Ultimately, given the complex economic, political, socio-cultural, and governance interplay around cocoa production and marketing, a rural development approach to addressing livelihood improvements could be more sustainable and impactful.

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An intensification and diversification scheme will minimize the area used for cocoa production while increasing productivity. It will also provide income gap fillers across production seasons to sustain farmers’ livelihoods and de-risk income sources.

Unlock the business potential of the forest

Cacao has the largest land-use conversion footprint of all crops in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, accounting for a major driver in deforestation and associated emissions within, and outside of, protected areas. As cocoa tends to be grown in forest areas, its production is often associated with deforestation and forest degradation. While cacao production is a factor driving climate change, the reverse is also true, as climate change is resulting in shifts in the areas of land suitable for cacao production. A smart concept of agroforestry can unlock the potential of the forest while protecting natural resources. 

The business case of agroforestry for farmers can be described as one contributing to landscape restoration, while providing ecosystem improvements to build resilient landscapes for productive cocoa business in the face of climate impacts on cocoa. The pursuit of cocoa agroforestry, as an attractive alternative for cocoa monoculture, feeds into the diversification of income sources, where timber trees incorporated in cocoa systems could be rotationally harvested to generate income in the medium to long term to support household income. Thus, as deforestation becomes topical in the discourse around cocoa sustainability, the potential role of a productive agroforestry practice that contributes to improved tree cover and biodiversity, as well as ecosystem and productive landscapes, should accompany the widespread communication around cocoa deforestation. There is a great potential to bring back forests in cocoa landscapes and use these improvements to drive a more sustainable cocoa landscape. But this will have to deal with the issues around access to planting materials, and other governance enablers.

Unlock the business potential of sustainable cocoa farming at scale

Traditional cocoa farming is a heritage of colonial times. Moving beyond this concept of the past requires an integrated approach based on three dimensions: increased labour productivity and productivity per hectare, diversification beyond cacao serving regional, national, and international markets, and first and foremost optimization of farm size. 

Of these three dimensions, addressing the issue of farm size is highly neglected because a lot of obstacles have to be overcome and from some justified reservations towards mono-cultures. Of course, crop diversification and mixed farming are cornerstones of a gradual process of upscaling the size of farms. A smart business model has to de-risk market fluctuations and generates year-round revenues from perennial and seasonal crops. Priority is feeding the rapidly growing megacities of Africa.  

Actually, the average farm size is 2 ha and is going down, as farm fragmentation resulting from the inheritance of family-owned cocoa farms increases with population rise in farming landscapes. It is important to note that a major means of cocoa land access is through inheritance. Effectively, an entrepreneurial farmer has to double or triple his area of operations and to diversify his portfolio. Moreover, increased productivity per hectare enables the farmer to diversify further while he produces the same volume of cacao on less land. Supported by governments offering spatial planning, re-allotments, investments in infrastructure, improved legislation on property rights, and credit facilitation. Modern agricultural infrastructure realizes a farmer size enabling farmers to escape from poverty. Empowered by an improved and productively diversified earning model, farmers can reorganize labour. Replacing child labour with contracted labour, mechanization, and service provision. 

Let’s stop talking about cocoa farmers as locked into this concept of the past; they are farmers with the potential to serve different markets with a range of products.

Two critical factors defining future destroying child labour are safety and health. Cutting the cocoa nuts with sharp knives or spreading agrochemicals are identified as alarming working conditions. At a higher scale post-harvest treatment of nuts can be mechanized. Careful and reduced use of pesticides can be professionalized by hired labour or service providers. Modern agriculture is highly facilitated by a service sector offering specialized services and mechanization; time-bound, efficiently at low cost. By turning farmers into entrepreneurs we attack the root causes of child labour. No need to cheat the auditor anymore; even expensive auditing is unnecessary. A new business model enables farmers to do the right thing, as they have long wanted. Systemic change will not be realized based on codes and control. New business perspectives and access to new technologies and varieties — like low stemmed cocoa trees — are the real change-makers. 

An extra income for women

Many programmes are focusing on improvements for girls and women empowering them. For good reasons. Women are doing a lot of work on the cocoa farm, multitasking. Recognizing her role and improving her working conditions is important.

However, from a gender perspective, another priority can be considered. Why should the wife of a farmer become a farmer too? A second income is a stronger contribution to a family income and will make agricultural communities more resilient. She could become a teacher, a nurse, a businesswoman running eco-lodges or she could excel as a politician. Rural communities are often conservative. Cultural changes will take time, but change starts now. 

A new economic model is decisive for beating child labour

For decades NGO’s have tended to stress the urgency of collecting more data, more control, auditing, monitoring, remediation, more research and reporting on child labour. Innovations of our times are building stakeholder platforms, moving from voluntary to mandatory standards, due diligence obligations, and living wage ambitions for companies. This is sensible but a disappointment is around the corner if there is no clarity about a future proof structure for the cocoa economy. In the end, it is all about creating a new economic reality. In other words, to spark the debate; the business case of NGOs is well defined, now we have to develop the business case of the farmer. 

Nico Roozen

( with thanks to Winston Adams Asante and Isaac Gyamfi)

* To understand child labour better, read: 'To understand child labor, we need to understand everyone's labor' of Kristy Leissle on the website of the World Cocoa Foundation

For more blogs from Nico Roozen, please see his LinkedIn articles