Meet the slave-free chocolatier putting joy back into chocolate.
“We want to do things differently, and show that it can be done differently.” This is the driving force behind Tony’s Chocolonely, as well as our dear Willy Wonka, a magician and chocolatier first created by “the world’s number one storyteller,” Roald Dahl. Of course, Mr. Dahl never made a bar of chocolate in his life. As a child he was an eager tester of confections brought to his school by Cadbury, and as an adult he would eat a bar of chocolate every day with his sandwich during lunch. He knew, and taught his young readers, that chocolate could not be made without cacao beans, that Wonka’s factory needed billions every week, and that the Oompa Loompas themselves were absolutely wild about them. Dahl also, indirectly, inspired us to question exactly how chocolate was made. If not by Oompa Loompas, then by whom? If not by waterfall, then how? And if not by a man as eccentric and creative as Willy Wonka himself, then who could be so bold as to slap their name onto a bar of chocolate?
But in the time it took for Dahl’s classic novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to be published in 1964, and for the iconic Mel Stuart film starring Gene Wilder to be released in 1971, followed by an utterly terrible Tim Burton rendition in 2005 — few bothered to explore what actually goes on within the chocolate industry. Yes, there were some journalists who ventured to the Ivory Coast and Ghana to reveal trouble in the supply chain from bean to bar, yet the public remains relatively unaware of how their chocolate — outside of Wonka’s world of pure imagination — is produced. Then again, haven’t we always had a feeling the answer might be rather ugly?
Hold your breath. Make a wish. Count to three.
As Wonka explains, Loompaland is a terrible country, and “the poor little Oompa Loompas were so small and helpless, they would get gobbled up, right and left. A Whangdoodle would eat ten of them for breakfast and think nothing of it. And so I said, ‘Come and live with me in peace and safety, away from all of the Whangdoodles and Hornswogglers and Snozzwangers and rotten, Vermicious Knids.’” Of course, while Grandpa Joe may consider the Oompa Loompas to be one of the “great mysteries of the chocolate-making world,” as it turns out, it’s more of an open secret than anything.
Kam Sami Felix, a real-life former child slave on a cacao plantation, gave the following testimony regarding the condition of the global chocolate industry: “Someone came to our village and said there was paid work for us in the Ivory Coast. When we arrived there, we were taken to a large camp in the forest. We had to live there and work at the cacao plantations. They said we’d get paid once the cacao was sold. So we worked and worked and worked. They would whip our backs. If we said we were hungry, they’d beat us. We had to work — not eat. If you didn’t have clothes, your back would get torn up. It didn’t end well. At some point we asked for money, but we didn’t get anything. If you didn’t work, they beat you. Everybody got beaten. If you caused trouble, they’d kill you. We only received food once a day. We were fed poorly and lost a lot of weight. If you paused to rest, you got beaten. Even if your belly hurt, you had to work. Otherwise, they’d beat you again. Anyone who refused to work would be taken along at night. The next morning he’d be missing, but you couldn’t say anything. If you asked where your friend was, they wouldn’t respond. It meant he’d been taken along at night and killed. I can prove it.”
According to the Harkin-Engel Protocol — an international agreement negotiated by U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and U.S. Representative Eliot Engel in 2001 — child slavery and trafficking practices within the chocolate industry were supposed to be eradicated by July 1, 2005. When all parties involved with this protocol, including the heads of eight major chocolate companies, failed to meet the deadline, it was extended to 2008, then again to 2010. By 2012 it became evident that the end of child slavery in the chocolate industry would not come about through international treaties and protocols, but from the actions of consumers themselves. And as of 2015, Americans consume 18% of the world’s chocolate, accounting for some $18.27 billion, while the cacao farmers behind these confections are left to deal with the “rotten, vermicious knids” all alone.
Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head?
Of course, there were some people actively working to expose the chocolate industry’s use of child slaves to produce some of the world’s major candy products. In 2001 Austrian writer Klaus Werner-Lobo published the Black Book on Brands, which highlighted companies “responsible for unscrupulous business practices and human rights violations.” While writing this book, Werner-Lobo discovered that “for the most part, the chocolate and cocoa products of large companies involve serious forms of exploitation, including child slavery.” In some cases, these children can be as young as six years old, often recruited among poor families. If you’re a consumer of chocolate, then you are “indirectly promoting this slavery,” according to journalist and filmmaker Sönke Weiss, “because you consume the product that children, with their hands, have to pick and harvest.”
Surely Willy Wonka himself would be disgusted to know such things! In fact, a group of Dutch journalists went to speak with Roald Dahl’s widow, Felicity, to discuss this very matter. As seen in the documentary The Chocolate Case, the following discussion takes place before the 2005 release of Tim Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a film that boasted Felicity herself as an executive producer:
Teun van de Keuken: Most of the cocoa comes from the cocoa plantations in the Ivory Coast.
Felicity Dahl: Absolutely.
Teun: And there we have children working as slaves.
Felicity: Slaves. Yes, I’m sure. I’m sure. Dreadful.
Teun: So what I’m saying —
Teun: Yeah. And my idea was to come up with a…for this premiere…for this film to come out with a guaranteed, 100% slave-free Willy Wonka bar.
Felicity: [Laughs uncomfortably.] That, I can do nothing about. I can assure you. Because, as I say, we have no rights to the chocolate at all. None. Really. And I won’t go into why, or what; but I have none. But I agree. I think it would be fantastic, and I think it should be something you put to Nestlé.
A little nonsense now and then is relished by the wisest men.
Those Dutch journalists were Teun van de Keuken (call him Tony), Maurice Dekkers and Roland Duong, and they’d been on the chocolate case since 2003. It began with a simple TV program where these “rascals” made prank calls to companies under the guise of the Consumers Investigation Agency (CIA). As Maurice explains, “Stores used to sell products and you simply bought them; but then the manufacturers thought: let’s give the consumers the feeling that we have nothing to hide. So they put phone numbers on the packaging. We simply called those numbers.” Ultimately they asked companies, “Where does your product actually come from?” For example, “If these are eggs laid by pasture-raised hens, where is this pasture — exactly? Where did these eggs really come from?” They asked easy questions, but the companies were often unable to provide clear answers.
As for the chocolate story, Maurice says, “It started with a tiny article on page 11 of a newspaper that said children were being sold as slaves on a market square in Mali. And I thought, ‘Page 11? Such a small article?’ To me it seemed headline news!” But what could they, a group of three in the Netherlands, do about it?
First they called the head of PR at Nestlé Switzerland, a company that has been producing Wonka-labeled candy products since acquiring the brand in 1988. “It was really astonishing,” Teun explains. “All of a sudden, he said: ‘Let’s face it, slavery exists.’ I was flabbergasted. The first phone call and we immediately got confirmation.”
It’s all there, black-and-white, clear as crystal!
Next the group approached a legal expert, who explained, “If you acquire a commodity, which you do when you buy chocolate, and you know at the time of the purchase that it’s the product of a crime…if that’s the case, you can get a maximum sentence of four years in prison. So it’s quite a serious felony if you do it intentionally.” The only downside was that no one would prosecute someone for eating chocolate.
Teun even tried to turn himself in to the police of Amsterdam. “I’ve done something and don’t know whether I should report myself or not,” he said. “It probably sounds a bit strange, but I basically finance child slavery. I’ve heard that all the big chocolate brands make use of child slaves.” The police officer simply responded, “We all eat chocolate. I wish you a pleasant day,” and hung up. So what next? The group hired a lawyer.
As Teun explains, “We hired Michiel Pestman as our lawyer, not to get me out of prison but to get me into prison” for eating chocolate made from cocoa produced with the use of child labor, “such as Smarties, After Eight, Bounty, Mars, Twix, M&M’S, Milka, Toblerone, Côte d’Or, Verkade and Ritter Sport Bars.” Again, no one would prosecute him.
“Child slavery is just an incident…. You could never rule it out completely.”
So Teun went off to Burkina Faso, where he met Kam Sami Felix and other former child slaves of the cacao plantations of West Africa. He collected their testimonies and brought this evidence back to Amsterdam to argue that he should be prosecuted for his role in this system. A representative for the Dutch chocolate industry responded by saying, “Child slavery is just an incident…. You could never rule it out completely.”
In response, our Dutch rascals came up with a better idea. Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was set to be released around the 2005 deadline of the Harkin-Engel Protocol. Why not use the film to raise awareness of the problem and convince a company such as Nestlé, who was the main sponsor of the film, to come out with a 100% guaranteed slave-free chocolate bar?
They approached the brand manager for Nestlé’s Wonka division, Amit Datta. But the only slaves he knew about were the Oompa Loompas from the film. And since the bar was not exactly in Nestlé’s self-interest to produce, they ultimately rejected the offer. That led Teun & Co. to Felicity Dahl, who refused them as well. Next they went to Ben & Jerry’s with a new name for a special slave-free chocolate ice cream: Tony’s Chocolonely. Ben & Jerry’s also refused their offer, despite their love for the name. “A very nice idea,” the company’s spokesperson said. “But this will never work, of course. There’s just no way.”
The deadline was rapidly approaching for the film to be released. And no matter what, the team had to have a slave-free chocolate bar ready for the premiere, simply to prove that it could be done. Turns out, they’d just have to do it themselves.
We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.
It cost Maurice 11,000 euros for the team to produce 10,000 200-gram bars on rush order. Everyone involved in the process assured them their chocolate would be 100% slave free. But, as it turned out, in traditional chocolate manufacturing, cacao beans are often mixed together, even those under a Fair Trade label, making it impossible to tell which were harvested without slave labor, if any. “It’s not like, ‘Oh, it says Fair Trade. Now I’m happy. Now I know where it comes from,’” Teun explains. “I just wanna see that for myself. I just want you to tell me where it comes from exactly, because people can put all kinds of labels on all kinds of products.”
In the end, Teun, Maurice and Roland were assured that their Fair Trade chocolate had come from Kuapa Kokoo in Ghana, which claimed to be a cooperative of small farmers. They went ahead with production, designing a big red label for their new company: Tony’s Chocolonely. They wanted it to make a clear statement at the supermarket so that everybody would notice the bar. And all the wrappers for these first few thousand bars were put on by hand.
Soon they partnered with Shakies, a socially responsible entrepreneurship outlet in the Netherlands, and their bars quickly flew off the shelves. It was as if customers had caught the Wonka-bar craze. The owners of Shakies called Maurice: “We need your bars — all of them! They’re standing in line for them. People don’t just buy one bar. They buy entire boxes!”
So shines a good deed in a weary world.
Of course, that’s just the beginning of the Tony’s Chocolonely story. In time the team would head back to Africa to uncover deeply rooted corruption within the Fair Trade system. Teun’s case would even be heard before a judge, with Kam Sami Felix testifying in Amsterdam. The judge ruled that, while Teun could not be convicted for the crime of eating chocolate, there was obviously a big problem with slavery in the chocolate industry, and both consumers and manufacturers were responsible.
In essence, what the Tony’s Chocolonely team learned throughout their journey, which had begun in 2003, was that change would not come from international agreements or a judge’s ruling. Instead, change would need to be made from within, starting with the chocolate manufacturers themselves and the consumers who keep them in business. It has to start with us, at the checkout line, with our pocketbooks. As Wonka would say, “Anything you want to, do it. Wanna change the world? There’s nothing to it.” So why not start today?
Maurice agrees. “Everyone can be their own Tony. Don’t think about it. Just do it.” That’s the motto of Tony’s Chocolonely as they try to eradicate child slavery from the chocolate industry, one delicious bar at a time. And by investing heavily in cacao bean farmers and controlling the supply chain from bean to bar, they’re actively working to ensure that not even a single cacao bean used in their chocolate is produced by means of dangerous and illegal child labor, slavery or exploitation. Through these actions, they hope to lead by example and encourage consumers to do the same. Because as we’ve learned from Willy Wonka, a single chocolate bar can change a child’s life, with or without a golden ticket.