When our festive theme chocolates are not so "festive” after all

Blog by Ratri Kusumohartono, FAIR Food and Value Chains Campaigner, Oxfam Novib
Published: 14th December 2023

It is the time of the year again, where festive decorations are filling the streets of the Netherlands. The joy of end of year celebrations can also be felt in Dutch supermarkets. Coming into December, all snacks, candies and chocolates are wrapped and shaped in colorful festive packaging. Since I moved to the Netherlands, I always followed the Dutch Sinterklaas culture of buying chocolate shaped letters to celebrate. But this year, I feel differently about the chocolates in front of me. This now reminds me of my trip to Ghana, back in September. Chocolate has a bitter aftertaste, somethings which leaves me very uncomfortable. 

Landing in Ghana for the first time somehow felt familiar. Even though this is my first trip, the atmosphere reminds me of my home country, Indonesia. I was especially excited to be meeting Ghanian cocoa farmers. Ghana is one of the top two cocoa producers in the world. The tropical climate and humidity are perfect for cultivating cocoa. I arrived ready to learn more about cocoa production and the important role of cocoa farmers play, I don’t think I was quite expecting to see what I saw.

On my third day in Ghana, we went to a cocoa farm just outside of Accra. The hot African sun beat down on us, as we travelled deeper into rural Ghana. Bumping along dirt roads we became more and more excited to meet the farmers, as we passed through beautiful green scenery and villages. We finally arrived and visited our first cocoa farmer cooperative, before heading to a village where almost everyone was a cocoa farmer. As someone who loves chocolates, I felt very lucky to have this chance to meet the people behind the chocolate I eat.

There I met Dean (not her real name), who has been a cocoa farmer for over 10 years. She moved away from her hometown to this village to find a better life for herself and her family. She rented a piece of land from a local community member. As a tenant farmer, she faces many obstacles. One of her main challenges is the cost of producing cocoa.  Often her profit doesn't even cover what it costs her to grow and harvest cocoa beans. Climate change also makes things worse for Dean, and other cocoa farmers in her region. In the past few years, they have experienced extreme changes in weather patterns, including terrible flooding and excessive rain. The rain and floods not only damage the new seedlings, but also causes diseases like black pod, which spread mainly by rain splash.Between high costs, low prices, and climate change it’s really hard for hard working farmers like Dean to earn a decent income.

Dean and other farmers are deeply concerned about their future as  cocoa farmers . Their income is not sufficient to support their daily lives, and they don’t have the resources to adapt to the rapidly changing crisis. None of them wants their children to face this same future. Many of farmers need to invest time and resources in additional income-generating activities. But surprisingly none of them makes chocolate, in fact none of these cocoa farmers has ever even tasted chocolate. Chocolate is not even something they could afford to buy if they wanted. We were all very surprised, and incredibly sad to hear this. The very people who grow our chocolate can't afford it for themselves. And the nature of the cocoa market means that these farmers are excluded from the production process. To me and my colleagues, who are mainly based in Europe, this is such a contrast to our reality, where chocolate bars are easily accessible and fail to reflect the real costs.The Netherlands is a crucial player in the cocoa industry. The city of Amsterdam is home to the biggest cocoa port in the world. We are the largest cocoa importer in the world and accounted for 33% of cocoa beans imports into EU in 2021(1).  And more than half of imported cocoa beans and semi-processed cocoa products to the Netherlands originate from Ivory Coast and Ghana.

Even though I’ve only lived in the Netherlands for three years now, it’s pretty easy to see how chocolate consumption is very embedded in the Dutch culture. The holiday seasons here are always celebrated with various kinds of marketing and promotion for chocolates. Around 57,000 tonnes of chocolate confectionery are sold by retailers in the Netherlands on an annual basis. In combination with market research reports estimating total sales of chocolate products of 85,000 tonnes, this suggests that roughly 67% of chocolate confectionery are sold via supermarkets as the key sales channel. The top three grocery retailers held almost 70% of the market in 2021: Albert Heijn (35.9%), Jumbo (21.8%) and Lidl (10.7%)(2).

1.Eurostat (2022), “EU trade since 1988 by HS2-HS4”, viewed in March 2022
2.Euromonitor (2019, August), Chocolate Confectionery in the Netherlands, Euromonitor International Sector Capsules; Distrifood (2020, July 9), "Assortimentstrends: deze 6 groepen zorgen voor groei in 2020"; Distrifood (n.d.). "Nielsen marktaandeelen 2008-2020". online: https://www.distrifood.Netherlands/food-data/marktaandelen. viewed in April 2022.

The chocolate industry is one of the most profitable sectors amongst global food value chains. Also, here in the Netherlands where we are one of the top 3 chocolate exporters , The global chocolate market was valued at EUR 128 billion, and expected to increase to over EUR 177 billion by 2028. So much of this wealth and profits are concentrated for the big chocolate companies, their shareholders and their CEOs. While the people who are at the forefront of chocolate productions continue to lose out. Generally, for every chocolate bar sold, it was calculated that almost 42% goes to the supermarket and cocoa farmer receives less than 9%. The unfairness and ongoing injustice in the cocoa and chocolate industry needs to end. It's time for those in power to change the business model and ensure that profits are fairly distributed among the all the actors in the value chains. Chocolate companies and supermarkets who are on the top of the value chains need to take actions beyond their commitments.

As loyal consumers, we need to hold chocolate companies accountable. It's time for us to demand that the chocolates we are going to enjoy this Christmas is free from exploitations and abuses. We need to push for chocolate companies and traders to implement good purchasing practices. This means that we're calling on companies to: pay a fair price, share the risks, and be accountable . Oxfam with Voice Network released Good Purchasing Practices paper, which shows how the current approaches by chocolate and cocoa companies to raise farmer income have had marginal impact at best. This is because most programmes aimed at improving livelihoods are focused on higher yields, rather than reforming companies’ own purchasing practices.


In Oxfam, we believe that sustainable and fair chocolate is not impossible. Although on a smaller scale, better practices of cocoa purchasing have been shown by chocolate entrepreneurs like Tony Chocoloney's and others.  As consumers, we have the leverage to push companies whom we buy our food from to reform their business. The ways we enjoy chocolates here should not be at the expense of the cocoa farmers. In this festive season, when chocolate sales are high, let's together remind our favourite chocolate brands to improve their purchasing practices.

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