It seemed a pity to conduct the interview indoors. After all, both of us would return to cooler climes: Antoine de Saint-Affrique to Zurich and I to Chicago. So the open-air bamboo hut, just a cocoa pod’s throw from the pool at the Marlin Bleu hotel in Abidjan, Cote d’Ivoire, proved to be a more fitting venue.
The meeting would mark the conclusion of Barry Callebaut’s four-day Cote d’Ivoire Cocoa Sustainability press trip in late November and de Saint-Affrique, Barry Callebaut’s ceo, had graciously consented to individual 30 minute-interviews as a final send-off.
With temperatures hovering near 90° F and just a whisper of a breeze, both of us were pleased we could conduct this in casual attire. But there was nothing casual about the company’s most recent announcement.
On Wednesday, Nov. 23, Nicko Debenham, v.p. of global cocoa sustainability and managing director of Biolands, Barry Callebaut, announced to our press group that the company — through its Forever Chocolate strategy — had committed to eradicating child labor from its supply chain, as well as lifting more than 500,000 cocoa farmers out of poverty by 2025. The plan also called for the company to become carbon- and forest-positive while ensuring that all its products were made from 100 percent sustainable ingredients.
It had only been slightly more than a year since de Saint-Affrique had taken over the reins at Barry Callebaut; his previous post being president of Unilever Foods. Did he realize the depth and breadth of the challenge and commitment he had taken on, I asked?
A wry smile appeared on his face. “Well, the good news is that we are not starting from scratch,” de Saint-Affrique says. As he points out, the company’s extensive efforts involving cocoa sustainability to date, including its Biolands and Cocoa Horizons programs; its involvement with the World Cocoa Foundation and CocoaAction; and the International Cocoa Initiative have made cocoa sustainability a priority.
“Also, it’s in our genes,” he explains. “Fifty percent of the dividends from our major shareholder, Jacobs Holdings, go to education through the Jacobs Foundation. It’s about doing well by doing good.”
It’s also about preserving a legacy for the future. As de Saint-Affrique emphasizes, “We are looking at chocolate 20 years from now. We want farmers to continue planting new cocoa trees. But we need to expand on what we started 20 years ago; we need to change course.”
As the company detailed in its press release, sustainable cocoa beans only represent 23 percent of all the cocoa beans Barry Callebaut processes. Moreover, as the largest cocoa and chocolate processor in the world — nearly 24 percent of all cocoa beans around the world are handled by Barry Callebaut — the company strongly believes it has a duty and responsibility to lead the way forward.
That said, it’s estimated that there are more than 2 million children working on cocoa farms in Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana. The primary contributor behind this statistic is cocoa farmer poverty, coupled with farming traditions. Only by helping farmers improve yields on their farms through good agriculture practices, better tools, fertilizers, new tree plantings and financial support, can farmers improve yields and, thus, their livelihoods.
De Saint-Affrique doesn’t have any illusions about the goals he, the board and its managers have set for themselves. “It will be a challenging road for all of us,” he says. “Moreover, we don’t have all the solutions; it has to be a joint effort. We can’t do it ourselves. It will not be a comfortable path, but we will be going for it [meeting the goals] as hard as possible. And we want to take as many people with us on this road.”
It’s no coincidence that Barry Callebaut’s Forever Chocolate strategy has come forth just a few months after de Saint-Affrique’s one-year anniversary at the company. As the former president of Unilever Foods, de Saint-Affrique is more than familiar with sustainability programs. He understands the dynamics.
“We’ve made good progress in ensuring 100 percent sustainable ingredients in all of our products,” he says. “However, changing the habits of farmers on a large scale in 10 years is very difficult. But I’ve seen the power of sustainability in action. Our strategy is not a charity; it’s part of a business model. For something to be sustainable, it has to make good business sense.”
And that’s where the company is stepping up its efforts in farmer training (accreditation of trainers, farmer field schools, demonstration plots), farmer support (premiums, business skills, and farmer services such as tools and fertilizers) and farmer micro-financing. Together with the Jacobs Foundation, Barry Callebaut expects to invest $2.2 million through 2019 in farmer training.
The outreach continues with ongoing efforts to improve the educational infrastructure, child labor sensitization, women’s empowerment and improved access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
“We already have a large number of ‘boots on the ground’,” he says. “But we are going to keep increasing that on a yearly basis because it’s fundamentally important.”
While acknowledging there will be increased costs as a result, those costs are perfectly understandable when one’s “spearheading a movement,” de Saint-Affrique says.
“Being traceable and sustainable will give us a competitive advantage,” he adds. “We’ll move from niche to norm,” he adds. “Even though being first in that journey is more challenging, there will be more benefits. As a leader in the industry, we must show the way.”
By openly declaring its strategy and goals about cocoa sustainability, Barry Callebaut opens itself to increased scrutiny and even criticism. Third-party assessments and an annual report on its progress will keep the pressure on.
It is, de Saint-Affrique admits, “one of his biggest challenges as a ceo. But it’s about preparing us for the next 20 years.”
And it’s also about growing Barry Callebaut.
“I want to grow a bigger tree while the ground is so fertile,” he says.