The chocolate industry is shrouded in an appalling history of exploitation in the developing countries where most cocoa is grown – from depleting vital agricultural resources, to slave labour and child trafficking.
But things are starting to change, and thanks to a growing consumer demand for ethical practices, many of the world’s biggest chocolate firms have declared themselves Fair Trade, and signed up to a protocol promising to eradicate child labour.
But other, smaller companies are doing far more. I’ve been speaking to a relative newcomer – Menakao, which has forged a special relationship with the country where its chocolate is entirely produced – Madagascar.
The brand was only launched in 2011, but it is owned by Cinagra which has been producing high quality chocolate since 2006: it’s just now becoming available in the UK. The name itself comes from the Madagascan word for red – Mena: symbolising the colour of cacao itself and the land where it is grown. Even the packaging showcases the country, based on old postcards with images of local people.
Their beans come from plantation Milot, set up by a missionary a century ago – which has now become the centre of an entire local economy. They work with a local co-operative, paying well over the odds for cocoa in order to set a truly fair price: around 100 farmers benefit directly from their business.
Most cocoa is exported, to be produced around the world, but Menakao has set out to produce everything involved with the products in Madagascar. That means far more income is ploughed back into the local economy, from salaries which are spent there, to reinvested tax.
They’ve built an entire chocolaterie, hired and trained local people and now pride themselves on their generous wages, some 10% over the usual rate, and excellent working conditions. Workers get free transport to and from work, free lunches, pensions and social security for their family – a huge benefit in a country like Madagascar. Even the hot showers are a rare, and much-valued luxury.
“It’s amazing to be able to change peoples’ lives simply by doing my job.”
Valerie Montbarbon, who’s in charge of the firm’s European operations, says she loves being involved in a company grounded in such good ethics. “It’s amazing to be able to change peoples’ lives simply by doing my job”, she says. “It’s not about just giving people money, but helping them to generate their own income, and educating women and children to really change the whole mentality.”
Menakao is now involved in a range of community projects. One produces solar electricity. There’s a communal garden which teaches people the techniques of gardening, which they can then use to develop their own land. Another scheme purchases local cows which helps families with transportation and labour in the fields. A new central oven allows women to bake pastries which they can then sell – generating more income. A local school has been completely transformed from rundown shack to state of the art facility. And to help poorer children make it to class, they pay for uniforms and food for their lunches. Enough money has also been raised to build a second school.
Next on the agenda for Menakao is a new bar with all profits going straight back to Madagascar. “All companies, not only chocolate, involved with developing countries, must have a social sense of responsibility”, says Valerie. “There is so much to do, but even a very little can make a huge difference.”
This really is the chocolate that keeps on giving.