A Conversation with Michiel Hendriksz

Good morning, Michiel. Could you please tell me how you got involved in the cocoa business?

After leaving Cranfield, I worked for a Dutch company exporting agricultural products, mainly frozen vegetables, to Spain and Portugal. I stayed in food marketing and distribution, working in the UK, Spain, and France before accepting a position with ADM, marketing their cocoa products into Southern Europe. I already knew all the buyers and understood food systems, so it was a great fit. Technically speaking, cocoa powder, cocoa butter and liquor are all food ingredients with specific attributes.

In 2007, I migrated from sales to trading and became director of trading and manager West Africa.  Trading cocoa was increasingly about what we now call sustainability, and I worked closely with the Sustainability Director until he left in 2011. I took over his role, shedding my previous trading responsibilities, but remained in contact with clients on sustainability issues. I represented ADM Cocoa in many initiatives, steering committees and working groups.

Why did you found FarmStrong?

ADM decided to get out of cocoa; it didn’t fit well with their other commodity trading businesses at that time. It took time to find buyers. Cargill eventually bought the chocolate assets, while Olam bought the cocoa processing, grinding, and pressing.

In 2015, I left ADM and started FarmStrong to have the independence to advise trading companies looking to make their supply chains more sustainable. The French commodity trading company Sucden was an early customer and supporter.

What does FarmStrong do?

We design sustainability programmes for most of the significant international chocolate manufacturers and some smaller family businesses. We also currently run two programmes partly financed by the Swiss government. We do some work with UN agencies, developing and scaling up their environmental interventions. We also receive UN support to scale our programmes. We are a non-for-profit recognised by the Swiss federal government for its work in the public interest.

Our programmes include training in good agricultural practices, but agriculture is not necessarily the most significant problem farmers face. The cocoa tree is not the problem. The most important issues that farmers, families, communities face are health, nutrition, education, security, and poor infrastructure.

Why have the chocolate companies failed to eradicate child labour from their supply chains?

The NGOs put pressure on the chocolate companies to eradicate child labour, but independent research has shown that it hasn’t worked even in their narrow supply chains. Chocolate companies can do more, but they can’t solve the problem on their own.

The fact that child labour exists in West Africa has nothing to do with cocoa. Child labour is still widespread regardless of the crop that the farmers are growing. It is a correlation, not causation.

One of the biggest problems is that many children in the Ivory Coast do not officially exist. They don’t have birth certificates or registration documents. Their (grand) parents immigrated and never went through any registration process. A child cannot go to school in Ivory Coast without a birth certificate, and they can’t get a birth certificate if their parents don’t have an ID. It is difficult to get an ID if you don’t have a birth certificate or are not registered.

Sometimes local schools allow unregistered children to attend classes, but as soon as they are twelve years old, they must take an exam to move on to secondary school. They can’t take the exam unless they show they have a birth certificate or are officially registered. So, their schooling ends at 12 years old, and they work on their parents’ farms. Sitting at home is not an option.

The sector is facing enormous challenges. What is to be done?

Chocolate companies, trade houses, governments and the public are putting massive amounts of money into cocoa, channelling it at a high cost into aid agency programmes. These programmes are well-intentioned but largely ineffective. Independent research shows that they had little impact for the last 20 years.

If you want to improve cocoa farmers’ livelihoods, don’t help them grow more cocoa.  Encourage them instead to grow more food crops that they can either eat or sell locally. And acknowledge their issues around health, nutrition, education, registration of births and land.

Thank you, Michiel, for your time and input. 

© Commodity Conversations ® 2022

This is a short extract from my next book Commodity Crops & The Merchants Who Trade Them – available now on Amazon.

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