‘We think slavery is something from the past,’ says Henk Jan Beltman, ‘but it’s still an issue in industries like mining, coffee, tea, sex, tobacco… and cocoa. Slavery is a bigger problem now than it was in the 17th century. 90,000 people a year are being trafficked, mostly children, to work in cocoa.’
Beltman works for the Amsterdam-based chocolate company, Tony’s Chocolonely, where he’s the Chief Chocolate Officer.
‘We don’t have conventional job titles here,’ he explains. ‘We are a strange company. We want to make the world slave-free, with chocolate. My daughter says: You’ve got the coolest job in the whole wide world. You’re the boss and you make chocolate! ‘
Tony’s Chocolonely is now the biggest chocolate company in the Netherlands, and was started by the Dutch TV reporter Teun (Tony) van de Keuken. In 2002 he began investigating the chocolate trade for his consumer report show, and he didn’t like what he found. He discovered that most of the chocolate on supermarket shelves was being harvested by people living in slave conditions, many of them children forcibly removed from their families.
Van de Keuken approached the major multinational companies responsible for the chocolate we all buy and love, but they either refused to speak to him or ignored the unpalatable stories he’d uncovered.
Henk Jan Beltman: ‘Cocoa grows around the equator and these tend to be poor countries. 70% of the cocoa produced in the world comes from these countries, and 55% comes from Ivory Coast and Ghana where over 2.3 million farmers work, with 2.05 million children working on those farms. These farmers largely sell to seven or eight multinational companies. If a chocolate bar sells for $4.99 then $0.16 of that goes to the farmer. Is it too little, is it unfair? Yes. Is it illegal? No. Pricing is all based on percentages, and this has the worst effect on those at the bottom of the chain.’
When Teun van de Keuken realised that the multinationals were simply going to ignore his findings, he decided he would set up his own chocolate company to show that it could be done. He named it Tony Chocolonely as it seemed to be a lonely business trying to produce chocolate and change the world back then. In 2006 the first chocolate bars were in the shops, and the company has continued to grow, recently opening an office in Portland as they expand into the USA.
Tony Chocolonely buys its chocolate direct from the farmers and pays them more than the going rate so they too can pay a living wage, as Henk Jan Beltman explains: ‘We pay 20-25% more for our chocolate. It’s only 3c more but it makes a huge difference.’
While the Tony Chocolonely company has a serious intent, its Amsterdam offices show they also have a quirky side. In one corner stands a red British phone box, and a glittery disco ball hangs from the ceiling of the upstairs offices.
‘Whenever we have good news to share,’ says the Chief Chocolate Officer, we press a button and the disco ball lights up and noises go off, like last year when we were elected as best employer in the Netherlands.’
Beltman knows, though, that the worthiest project in the world won’t get anyone’s support if you don’t have a good product to sell, and he analyses the appeal of a good chocolate bar.
‘Chocolate has to have nice packaging,’ he says. ‘It has to have a chunky feel, a Willy Wonka feel to it. It has to sound good as you open the wrapper… the crinkle of the foil. Then it has to make a good snap. Good chocolate has to have a snap. Biting into it is the best mouth experience you can have from food. It’s the French kiss of food! So… you can enjoy the chocolate. Worrying about slavery is my responsibility.’
All photos (c) Mike Gerrard
For more information on visiting Amsterdam see the Iamsterdam website. To learn more about Tony’s Chocolonely and the cocoa trade visit the Tony Chocolonely website, and watch this video: