Barry Callebaut may soon be able to use digital data analysis to predict which parts of cocoa-growing countries are the most likely to have issues with child labor.

It’s the kind of innovation that could go a long way toward helping the chocolate supplier reach its goal of completely eradicating child labor from its supply chain by 2025.

While the concept is still in development, Pablo Perversi — head of innovation, sustainability and global head of gourmet at Barry Callebaut — said they are working with technology companies and child advocacy groups to create programs that analyze data, identify risk factors and detect high risk areas.

“I’m very, very excited about it,” Perversi said. “At the moment, the way that child labor works is almost like finding a needle in a haystack. Because you need to go to farm by farm, or farmer by farmer, and ask the right questions until you find child labor. What we will now have is a system that allows us to detect the crucial factors that cause child labor, and as a result of that, go in and remediate in those places rather than trying to spend a lot of time finding the cases.”

While programs like that represent the future, they only come into development because the company has worked so hard to collect and report as much data as possible about its sustainability efforts, while also tenaciously pursuing its 2025 goals.

The Swiss company recently released its annual Forever Chocolate report, detailing the sustainability progress it made over the year. It is its fourth such report since the launch of its Forever Chocolate program in 2016.

Barry Callebaut's Forever Chocolate Program includes four specific, ambitious goals. By 2025 the company hopes to address:

  • Child labor: Completely eradicate child labor in its supply chain.
  • Farmer poverty: Lift more than 500,000 cocoa farmers in its supply chain out of poverty.
  • Climate change: Be carbon and forest positive.
  • Souring: Have 100 percent sustainable ingredients in all of its products.

So how are things going?

When it comes to child labor specifically, over the last year Barry Callebaut has had:

  • 22,965 cases of child labor cases identified
  • 4,971 of the reported cases from 2018/19 under remediation
  • 42 percent of the farmer groups Barry Callebaut directly sources from undertake child labor monitoring and remediation activities
  • 32 percent of the cocoa and non-cocoa volumes sourced from third-party suppliers whereby Barry Callebaut considers the risk of child labor is adequately addressed

“We’ve made great progress, and the work that we’re doing shows that we are getting the results that we want,” Perversi said.

Child labor is just one facet of sustainability. The company’s report also detailed its progress in other areas. Over the last year Barry Callebaut has had:

  • 8.1 percent reduction of corporate carbon footprint
  • 181,861 farms mapped on geographic and socio-economic data
  • 94,946 cocoa farmers trained on child labor awareness
  • 61 percent of its non-cocoa ingredients sustainably sourced
  • More than 2 million cocoa seedlings and more than 1.6 million shade trees distributed

Perversi said the tumultuous year served to highlight how important sustainability programs are.

“The world is very fragile, as we’ve actually already seen,” he said. “I think it calls for everybody to start moving in a direction where the fragility of this world is actually dealt with the same response as we’ve done with COVID. Moving everybody into action, but doing so in a way where we can actually solve some of the other issues, like climate change, like poverty, etc. Not taking notice of the big warning that we’ve had this year would be foolish for everybody.”

A lot of the company’s efforts rely on Barry Callebaut staff being on the ground in cocoa-growing regions, which has been significantly more difficult during the pandemic.

Perversi said prior to COVID-19 the company already had permanent staff in Ivory Coast and Ghana, where 60 percent of the world’s cocoa comes from. And having that setup has helped the company continue sustainability programs throughout 2020.

“We have a lot of people in Africa... and the vast majority of those teams have continued working pretty much as normal, with some restrictions,” Perversi explained. “We have actually used our teams to continue training people on COVID, to distribute soap and sanitizers as well as masks. And to contribute as much as we can to the wellbeing of our farmers.”

COVID-19 has slowed down some of the company’s sustainability progress, though, especially in Brazil, which was hit very hard by the pandemic.

“Potentially, in Brazil we’ve slowed down a little bit more than some of the other places,” Perversi explained. “So we would have wanted to have more mapped farms in Brazil, but that’s coming so that’s not something that we’re worried about. As soon as we’re out of COVID that will come back.”

The real root of all of these issues is farmer poverty, Perversi said. And if you solve this issue, the other issues solve themselves, such as child labor and even carbon footprint. However, addressing farmer poverty also is the biggest structural challenge they face.

Some of the countries they work in have no birth certificates, no land rights, and the farmers have a lot of difficulty borrowing money. In addition, farm productivity in countries like Ghana and Ivory Coast is significantly lower than it is in other cocoa-growing countries like Ecuador.

“What we will continue to do is support farmers in all of these areas to make sure that we are helping them with the productivity of the farmers, we’re helping them create their living income and at the same time, taking them out of poverty,” Perversi said.

After all, as the report name implies, if we want to have chocolate forever, we’ll need cocoa farmers.

“We owe it to ourselves to actually have farmers who want to continue and who actually continue delivering cocoa for the future,” Perversi said.

Impact of COVID-19 on Barry Callebaut as a whole

COVID-19 also has impacted other parts of Barry Callebaut’s supply chain. Specifically, the relationships and interactions with its end users, most of which is now being done via video screens.

“We used to do everything [in person]. We used to visit a chef, we used to show them the stuff, everything,” Perversi said. “And now 95 percent of our sales are being done digitally. And also co-creation [is digital]. So we actually can send stuff to the chefs or artisans, and then we will, from our own labs, co-create with them, show them stuff, make them taste stuff that’s been sent to them. This is a huge change in the way that we’ve adapted to the new world.”

Perversi said he’s proud of how quickly Barry Callebaut has adapted.

“We have kept going every single day supporting our customers, but in a different way,” he said.

Barry Callebaut also has seen huge gains in its eCommerce sales, which is especially noteworthy since it does not sell direct-to-consumer, but rather to artisans, chefs and manufacturers.

“Our digital activities have actually gone through the roof,” Perversi said. “What we actually find is that as people are more at home or in front of a computer and looking for new options, and we have found lots of new customers as a result of this.”

In addition, the pandemic has impacted overall chocolate demand.

Specifically, the hotel industry, the restaurant industry, and some of the artisans that relied on in-person shopping traffic all have slowed down.

However, that hasn’t stopped consumers from enjoying their favorite treat.

“People that stay home continue to eat chocolate, if not more,” Perversi said. “And we continue to feel very proud of putting smiles on people’s faces as they do so.”

If the company is successful in reaching its 2025 goals, there’s no doubt that even more people will be smiling.