BLOG | Wambi’s Story: Child Exploitation in the Chocolate Industry
Child Exploitation in the Chocolate Industry
by Carys Barry
Did you know that…
Three million tonness of cocoa beans were consumed every year?
Or that, this Easter, Britons will eat 80 million chocolate eggs?
Or did you know that, despite the amount we consume, many of us are unaware of the atrocities that go into the majority of the world’s cocoa production?
West African countries supply more than 70% of the world’s cocoa. This area has been exposed for using children who are exploited and enslaved – some 1.8 million children in the Ivory Coast and Ghana alone. Most are between 11-16, however reports have found children as young as 5.
Why children? A farmer explains that “children are easier to discipline than adults” and should they manage to escape, “we get new ones”. 
The best way to fully understand the way these children are treated is through telling their story.
(Each of the characters in this story are real children. However, these children were not on the same plantation like is told in this story.)
Wambi was born into poverty in a village in Mali. At 14 years of age he, and some of his friends. decided to seek better pay to improve their families fortunes (they had been working since the age of 8). A Malian man “in a smart suit with a nice car” approached them telling tales of the fortunes from the Cote D’Ivoire, offering them accommodation, food, work and pay at the end of the year.
In the van Wambi spoke to the other children who had been bought from their parents for £100 with the promise of being returned in a couple of years.
Other children talked of how they were taken, One child spoke of how he was the 100th boy in his village to disappear 
Wambi had been in the truck for well over a day and it had began to smell so bad that he thought he was going to be sick. Over the rest of the trip what little fight the boys had left to escape was lost in a hazy fog that filled their minds caused by the hunger, sickness and loss of hope.
Wambi was forced out of the van into a market as traders around him spoke rapidly in a language he did not understand. As quickly as he had arrived he was forced into another van after a handshake between the man who brought him there and the man who took him. Little did Wambi and the others realise, they had just been sold to a plantation owner for £37.50 – which is equivalent to the amount an average person spends on chocolate in 7 months.
The rest of the journey was a bumpy blur until they arrived and he was forced out of the truck. There Wambi was told by the man who had bought him that he had spent a great deal of money to get him there, so he would not be allowed to leave or be given a wage until he had been paid back that amount. He told him that if he tried to run he would catch him…and kill him.
The Cocoa Fields
There is no laughter in thecocoa fields where there is no laughter. The children carry machetes and pesticide equipment and their legs are covered in scars and cuts. They wear nothing to protect them from the knifes, their heavy loads, the pesticides or the sun and any injuries go untreated as they continue to work.
The First Night
The children were taken to their living quarters where they were given corn paste, bananas and dirty water. 17 of them were locked in a windowless mud room with only a tin can for a toilet and a wooden plank to sleep on,.
The First Day
The work day began just before dawn. The two men who were in charge, the farmer’s brother and his son who had begun work for him when they were 8 and 11, respectively. They now help run the fields, but with no education the way it is run is neither efficient nor humane.
Wambi Picked up his machete. He was shocked by the sharpness and the weight.
He managed to cut down the first few cocoa pods with no problem. As he continued cutting the pods, the weight of the machete began to get the better of him and he began catching the knife on his leg. The first few were just scratches but on the last bea he lost his grip and cut himself deeply.
They then filled the sacks with the pods that weighed over 100 pounds. Because of Wambi’s leg he began to falter under the weight of the bag and was told by the others “If you don’t hurry, we will be beaten.”
The rest of the day was a blur for Wambi as he was constantly on the verge of passing out. Wambi’s stomach ached so much that it was more painful than the deep cut on his leg and the bleeding cuts on his back caused by the weight of the bag. Lunch was corn paste, bananas and dirty water.
The afternoon was much the same as the morning but the exhaustion mingled with the relentless humidity, the swarms of insects that were constantly biting and the pain of the cuts so that he functioned more like a zombie than a person.
Late in the evening, tired and cut all over with his head clouded from exhaustion, Wambi was surprised at how relieved he was to return to the putrid patch of ground that he had rested his head on the night before. Bu he couldn’t sleep – his arms ached so much and the cuts on his legs and back seemed to pulse with pain. One boy, Mali, turned to him in the night and said he knew they’d all “heard terrible things could happen… but we never thought it would happen to us”
Over time, things got even harder for Wambi. He was constantly aching and cut. He often only had braised banana to eat – for months at time – and all of the workers developed vitamin deficiencies. Despite this if they slowed they were beaten with branches and bicycle chains and their cuts became infected, slowing them further.
A couple of months after Wambi arrived, one of the boys, Drissa, attempted to escape. The farmer caught him. He was then stripped and his hands tied behind backs as he was viciously whipped. He was beaten twice a day for several days. .He received no medical attention and his infected wounds had to rely on maggots feeding on the flesh to clean the wounds. This brutality, hunger, exhaustion and broken spirit held him and the others captive into adulthood. Drissa was 19 when he was rescued.  Others were able to escape.
Initially, Wambi was sustained by the prospect of the £130 promised at the year end. However, the famer docked it for food and medicine costs and claimed there was nothing left…so Wambi had to work another year. This excuse continued every year after. Some children asked Wambi why he didn’t try to escape since he was a lot faster than the other kids and he replied “I can’t because then I won’t get my money and even if I did manage to escape I have no money to get back and, if I did, how could I face my family?” Even if he did manage to return home, the lack of education that children like Wambi working on cocoa farms suffer and the poverty they live in means that they have no opportunities, and are vulnerable to being trafficked again. This is a trap that often seems unescapable.
This harrowing story contains elements of different children’s real experiences and Ackebo Felix, an expert on child trafficking for UNICEF, says that Wambi’s experience ” is typical”. Due to the shocking nature of these stories it is easy to get overwhelmed and feel incredible guilt when children like Drissa “when people eat chocolate, they are eating my flesh.”  We may be tempted to become overwhelmed by the guilt of the chocolate we have indulged in at the expense of these children.
Instead we should be inspired to use our new-found knowledge to educate others into action to end these atrocities. We have the power and responsibility as consumers to mobilise the forces in control to change this.
What is the aim?
Our aim should be to ensure that the working conditions of all workers is set at a minimum standard, that farmers and the workers receive at least a minimum living wage and to reinvest in better working conditions. This is what certification labels intend to achieve. More than this we must target the cause of the problem. Poverty and lack of education cause many to be vulnerable to, or indeed to make money from child or exploitative labour.
We hope this has been a useful exploration of exploitation in the chocolate industry and how to respond to it.
What can we do?
- Buy certified products. If demand for Fairtrade/Rainforest Alliance/UTZ/Trade Aid/Equal Exchange products increases and for uncertified products falls, supply will follow soon.
- Education. Keep educating yourself on the issue so that you can:
- Raise Awareness. As well as educating ourselves, we can educate others and mobilise them into action as well.
- Sign petitions that lobby both companies and governments to make a change that sets minimum standards for cocoa producers. Here’s one we like!
- Get involved.