Empowering Women in the Cocoa Supply Chain

For most people, savoring a delicious bite of chocolate probably doesn’t conjure thoughts about the source of the cocoa used to make it. But for Ruby Amegah, who was born and raised in Ghana and is now a vice president at Starbucks in Seattle, cocoa sourcing is personal.

As vice president for global food product research and development at the coffee giant, Amegah’s work involves a lot of cocoa. She knows from blind taste tests the company conducts that her native Ghana produces the best-tasting cocoa in the world. 

But, as Amegah explained during her July 7 Advancing Women in Supply Chain webinar, the people who buy cocoa for Starbucks won’t source it from Ghana. The reason they cite is the country’s reputation for using child labor.

“That was really surprising,” said Amegah. “Looking at Ghana and how child labor was defining our cocoa—not the flavor, but child labor—was a little bit concerning. So I started doing more research.”

The issue of child labor is not as simple as one might think, according to Amegah. One reason is the distinction between “child work” and “child labor.”

“Child work is when the child sometimes is helping out on the farm for a limited time doing work that is appropriate for their age, under adult supervision,” she said.

“The problem of child labor,” Amegah explained, “is when kids under the age of 15 are being exposed to hazardous conditions, like clearing land and applying fertilizers, or using heavy equipment that can be dangerous.”

What screams out is poverty

Amegah said approximately 1.56 million children are working in cocoa production in Ghana and the Ivory Coast, the two top producers of cocoa. Ninety-five percent of those children are exposed to hazardous activities.

“But the problem is not necessarily child labor by itself,” explained Amegah. “It’s not like most people are greedy and use child labor just so they can make more money. It’s more complex. When you look at the root causes of child labor, what often screams out is poverty.”

Those root causes include a demand for cheap labor, gender inequality, lack of education and limited job opportunities. Poverty is both an underlying and overriding cause. 

“When you have kids in extreme poverty, sometimes all they can do is work on the farm,” said Amegah. “So their mothers may be good to have the kids go work on the farms to bring in some income to support the family.”

In addition to the social issues of child labor and poverty, economic and environmental challenges also impact the cocoa supply chain in West Africa, explained Amegah. 

On the economic side, low prices make it hard for farmers to make a living. At the same time, high costs make it difficult for them to afford fertilizers and pesticides that enable the crop to thrive. And poor infrastructure makes it challenging for them to get their products to the market.

On the environmental front, deforestation is a problem caused by the clearing of land to plant cocoa trees and make way for roads and other infrastructure. Climate change is impacting rainfall patterns, making it challenging for cocoa farmers to grow their crops and increasing pests that can damage cocoa trees and limit yields.

“This seems to be a vicious cycle, and it makes poverty very difficult to eradicate when these farmers have to go through all that,” said Amegah.

It starts with women

Although the challenges have persisted for a long time, recent policy measures adopted by the EU, U.K. and U.S. aim to break the link between supply chains and issues such as child labor and deforestation, reported Amegah. As a result, companies are facing new requirements to ensure their supply chains are free of negative impacts on human rights and the environment.

Some companies will respond by not sourcing from countries like Ghana. Other companies want to source the best quality ingredients for their products, so they are working to help combat the long-embedded problems. 

As an example, the Starbucks Foundation has partnered with CARE International and Cargill on a Women’s Economic Empowerment Project in West Africa. They have declared, “It starts with women.”

“Women, when they have the funds, are going to take care of the family,” said Amegah. “They are going to make sure the kids are going to school, and they are also going to save. In this sense, they are supporting the household. 

“That’s why the target is women,” said Amegah. “But it shouldn’t be in isolation because we still need men as allies to make these things happen.”

The key, said Amegah, is to involve women from the cocoa-producing countries in developing solutions. Top-down approaches do not work.

“Women face inequality, and it makes us uniquely qualified to advocate for the rights and needs of vulnerable populations, as well as to provide education on preventing exploitation,” Amegah explained.

“We have empathy. We also have problem-solving skills. We have decision-making ability, communication, savvy, and we have strong collaboration to help tackle difficult supply chain challenges like child labor.”

Women in supply chain can play a critical role in addressing the issue of child labor in cocoa production in a number of ways, said Amegah. These include:

  • Raising awareness;
  • Promoting responsible sourcing;
  • Supporting community development;
  • Collaborating with other stakeholders;
  • Monitoring and reporting on their supply chains.

“Like I said, it’s really personal,” concluded Amegah. “I want to make sure that when we talk about West African cocoa, it’s about the quality. It’s not about child labor. It’s not about deforestation. It’s not about women’s inequality.”

About the speaker:

Ruby Amegah leads food product development and innovation at Starbucks, based in Seattle. In her 16 years at Starbucks, her R&D leadership has spanned across the Global Consumer Products Goods division — from its partnership with Pepsi, Suntory, Nestlé, Arla Foods and Dong Suh Foods to establishing the ready-to-drink coffee business in China with Master Kong.

She also led the R&D team on product development across Starbucks At-Home Coffee and Evolution Fresh Juices.

Prior to joining Starbucks, she held research and product development roles at global food and beverage companies including Nestlé, Pillsbury and ConAgra foods.

Amegah holds a bachelor’s degree in food science and biochemistry from the University of Ghana and master’s and PhD degrees in food science from Rutgers University in New Jersey. 




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