Underestimation can lead to embarrassment

I saw this video this morning, and it really bugged me.

What I saw was a bunch of farmers pulling the leg of an easily fooled and somewhat patronizing Dutch reporter. They’re cocoa farmers, but they had no idea what cocoa was used for? I didn’t buy it.

Good thing I didn’t: someone named ChuraChura posted a dismissal.

I find this video pretty distasteful (and that’s aside from the link between cacao plantations in Cote d’Ivoire and child slavery).

I work in southwestern Cote d’Ivoire, just on the border of Cote d’Ivoire and Liberia. The men I employ are largely cocoa farmers, when they’re not in the forest taking complex observational data on primate behavior and ecology.

Most of the people in this region are farmers with 5-10 acres in cacao or rubber production, and a much smaller subsistence plot with manioc, cassava, rice, pineapple, avocado, and oranges. Cacao is a labor-intensive crop. Once a year, the pods get harvested from the trees. They’re then cut open and the cacao bean is pulled out of the membrane and left on tarps in the sun to dry (everything smells like vinegar as the beans ferment), before being bagged up in 50L sacks, and then brought to central cacao-grower organizations. If you’re in a slightly more developed part of the country or part of a wealthy organization, you can get your cacao loaded onto trucks to bring them to a central location. Otherwise, we see men with these big sacks on bicycles pushing them from the village to their closest big town. Where I work, guys are generally walking 15-20 km. Once you get your cocoa beans to the organization, you’re at the mercy of the buyers. They generally set a price per kilo, and sometimes will set a quota for the amount they’re buying from particular regions depending on supply and demand.

Cacao is an attractive crop because demand is fairly steady, and the farms have been productive for a really long time. The problem is that you only harvest once a year, and then you have to rely on that lump sum of cash to get you through a whole year. This is particularly hard because mobile banking hasn’t really penetrated the market, and what (few) banks there are in rural southwestern Cote d’Ivoire aren’t really set up to cater to small-scale cash crop farmers. Some people are relying on the long-term prospects of rubber, which is currently getting better prices/kilo and can be harvested year-round – this makes it a lot easier to pay for things like school fees, uniforms, books, and supplies that need to paid for year-round. The problem is that rubber plantations take a while to come into production (5-7 years), so first of all you’re cutting down your producing cacao trees, and then you’re twiddling your fingers for 6 years while you’re not earning any money, hoping that the price of rubber won’t crash when all the new trees start producing, and that there’s still a market in the future.

The region is still politically unstable, and conflicts over land rights are a major part of that. A lot of the men I work with either fled themselves, or sent their families, to refugee camps in Liberia during the recent crisis. During that time, people from northern Cote d’Ivoire moved south and took residence in these abandoned farms – so even now, two years after La Crise officially ended, people still in refugee camps in Liberia are sneaking across the border and killing people they suspect took over their land. In addition, the effects of climate change are making the rains less predictable. The rainy season normally goes August-October (more or less); we didn’t get rain in 2013 until almost the end of November, which had serious consequences both for people’s cash crops and people’s subsistence crops. Food prices are rising, commodity prices are falling, and the situation is looking grim. The forested buffer zone around the national park I work in has now been entirely converted to fallow fields, cacao, coffee, and rubber plantations.

And, the men I work with know what chocolate is. When they can afford to buy it, their kids eat a knock-off version of nutella called Chocomax (it is pretty gross). These are smart, sophisticated adult men (and women, though fewer women own their own land… they mostly just do a lot of the labor on their husbands’ and fathers’ farms). Even if they didn’t know what chocolate was, they’re plugged into their local economies, they have a sense of larger global economic forces, and they know what’s going on (we listen to BBC world service: francais every night in the forest on Ferdinand’s satellite radio. They’d ask me cutting and incisive questions about stupid American politics, like who the hell is that Sarah Palin person anyway?).

But look, this is the way an extractive (exploitative) cash-crop economy works. It’s not cute or endearing that these men who are working incredibly hard have never, or rarely, had the opportunity to sample the end-product of their labor. It’s not touching that you have to go to the big city to find chocolate, and that only a little of it is locally produced (Milka is very popular in Abidjan; Ivorian brands less so), It wouldn’t be touching if you showed a cell-phone to a coltan miner in DRC and said "Look at this amazing machine your backbreaking labor in dangerous conditions enabled!" or a diamond miner in Sierra Leone with your sparkly pretty engagement ring and said, totally amazed, "But why don’t you have one?" Consumers in the developed world should be smarter than that. The producers in the developing world – the folks enabling our lifestyles – certainly are.

Now that’s actually interesting. It doesn’t fit into the racist narrative of the poor black subsistence farmers, though.

I also found this complementary video, in which the reporters went back home and showed the cocoa nut to European citizens. This ignorance I can believe, because I would have been baffled, too.

Who’s smarter? Who thinks they’re smarter?


  1. Paulino says

    And did you know that the pulp that surrounds the beans is edible too? It’s great for juice and ice cream, and it tastes nothing like chocolate or cocoa. You are welcome for this useless piece of information.

  2. numerobis says

    I saw my first fresh cacao pod just a couple months ago, and ate the goo (“pulp” as Paulino puts it). Now we have some nibs in the freezer we’re trying to figure out how to use.

  3. soogeeoh says

    @5 christopherphillips

    I have a strange feeling when reading your comment, are you punching down on the less erudite, the rabble?

  4. John says

    all my chocolate is milked and comes from Penn. it says so right on the package, the farmers name is Hershey shheeesh….

  5. unclefrogy says

    sure I believe that guy does not know what is crop is used for. That has to be a set up piece I would not be surprised to learn that the guy in the red shirt was an actor. he was acting in any case.
    uncle frogy

  6. says

    @christopherphillips #5: I’d be flustered and distracted, too, if a TV crew walked up to me while I was out doing something and started asking me random questions. Edit together enough clips of that and, voilà, you’ve proven that people are dumbasses.

  7. moarscienceplz says

    I wonder what percentage of Americans can even identify which continent Cote d’Ivoire is on? (I’m an American)

  8. Pete Shanks says

    It seems the producers go out of their way to find the dumbest and least informed people on the planet.

    And that’s just the on-air “talent” … wait till you see management

  9. addicted44 says

    In general, I am not a fan of “Hey, look, I gave someone something and they are so happy” type of charity or heartwarming moments, if they are not accompanied with attempts to address the root cause of the problems.

  10. moarscienceplz says

    Hah! You are presuming that they can work out that Cote d’Ivoire = Ivory Coast. Did you ever watch Jay Leno’s “Jaywalking” segments?
    A friend of mine was chatting with a 18 y.o. guy and tried to get a feel for how much geography he knew. He kept making the questions easier and easier, and finally asked him, “What is the name of the ocean we are closest to?” (This was in Oakland, California.) The kid got the answer correct, but he hesitated before answering.

  11. Stacey C. says

    Good godz…when they ask him ‘is chocolate the reason your skin is lighter than ours?’ I mean…people actually thought this was for real? I am constantly depressed at the depths of human stupidity. And let’s not even get into the racist stereotypes that made this so believable to people. UGH.

  12. soogeeoh says


    You don’t like the condecension of the TV producers fishing for people and mostly showing the ones risking their necks with careless talk for whatever reason, but at the same time call those very people dumb and idiots?

    Just be careful your monocle is not falling into your Earl Gray when laughing too much at their stupidity

  13. says

    I didn’t think they were presented as idiots. They were presented as ignorant of the use of a specific item that they sell, but ignorance isn’t stupidity. I believed it and I found it touching and sad and sweet. Alienation of labour in a nutshell. I took the light skin idea to be a joke.

    So, OK, maybe my confirmation bias is for a Marxist economics and sensible people. I’ll live with that.

  14. iiandyiiii says

    I showed this to my Ivoirian wife — these guys were definitely Ivoirian, as was the journalist in the red shirt (though he was probably from a different region than the farmers). She didn’t think they were faking about not having tasted chocolate, or even not knowing how it’s made.

    She also said the stuff about these guys being exploited is right on target — they make almost nothing compared to the big profits once the beans are shipped out, and have pretty much no options if things go badly, nor any leverage to negotiate with the shippers.

    So it’s just one data point (my wife’s analysis as a native of Cote D’Ivoire), but I’m not sure if these guys were putting on the producers.

  15. says

    @16 moarscienceplz: I’m from Oakland, CA and went through the public school system. It doesn’t surprise me that the guy your friend talked to didn’t know his geography; it was basically cut out of our entire curriculum (at least during my time in school 1991-2004). I remember we used to have weekly map quizzes on the U.S. states in 4th grade, but I don’t remember much world geography. I even attended one of the better funded elementary schools, so it was probably worse in most other schools. My signficant other was just talking about Kazakhstan and he did not know that it borders China. We are planning on getting a world map to put up in our bedroom.

  16. robro says

    That has to be a set up piece…

    It’s called Tee Vee…so yeah. I bet all the people in the Netherlands segment ran home, told their friends, and they all watched. It seems likely that none of the people in the Cote d’Ivoire segment had Tee Vee, except perhaps the interviewer. Haves and Have Nots.

  17. says

    Actually its one thing I have to point out to Americans.

    Your chocolate doesn’t taste good to us in Europe. Apparently during the World Wars the supply of good quality ingredients was affected so the Americans made do with chocolate ingredients that weren’t as good. However since chocolate was new, as was the industrial production of it, the people who got to eat it were not aware of what it “could” taste like.

    In India there is a similar issue. It’s why “shitty Nutella knock offs exist”. The stuff that goes into the real nutella doesn’t exist out here. Hell Cadbury’s sell in India because it melts unlike the “local stuff”.

    I actually make it a habit to buy this stuff for the kids because “it’s less likely to have some adulteration from a third party to make a profit”.

  18. EigenSprocketUK says

    Just another reason only to buy Fair Trade chocolate. Each individual purchase may not be much of a first-worlder’s good deed, but can help make a cumulative difference. And one which channels more directly to farmers and farmers’ collectives, health, and (hugely importantly) education.
    Same goes for lots of cash crops which third world farmers have to focus on – coffee, tea, sugar and so on.

  19. dianne says

    …finally asked him, “What is the name of the ocean we are closest to?” (This was in Oakland, California.) The kid got the answer correct, but he hesitated before answering.

    If a stranger on the street asked me what ocean I was closest to right now (on the eastern seaboard of the US), I’d hesitate for a moment before saying the Atlantic because I’d be trying to sort out whether it was a trick question and if so how.

  20. dianne says

    Actually its one thing I have to point out to Americans. Your chocolate doesn’t taste good to us in Europe.

    This fits into my chocolate/evil theory: As a country is to chocolate, so is it to evil. Examples:
    The US: There’s a lot of the substance (chocolate or evil) around, but it’s so low quality and poorly made that no one’s even sure that it is the thing in question.
    Belgium: Makes small quantities, but very high quality (see King Leopold).
    Switzerland: Keeps the best stuff for internal consumption.
    Germany: Famously able to scale up without losing quality.
    France: Not actually the first country you’d think of when talking about chocolate/evil, but it does both and really does them quite well.

    And so on.

  21. John Horstman says

    @Avi #23: Good chocolate (sometimes imported, sometimes mixed here) is absoultely available in the US, at least in any moderate to large city. Hershey’s bars and M&Ms aren’t all we have. :-)

  22. madscientist says

    If I didn’t grow up with the cocoa plant I probably wouldn’t have a clue what it was either, just as most people don’t have a clue how their oil/gas/electricity/concrete/etc are produced or how their telephone system works.

    I’d seen something similar in PNG years ago. Some people produce the cacao pods and sell the seeds. They know what the seeds will be used for, but it is rare that anyone ever has any chocolate or cocoa of their own. Thanks to the missionaries and this attitude of inferiority they have cultivated in the natives, when I asked if they knew how to process the cocoa they said “No, only the white fellas can do that. The black man can’t do it.”

  23. Paul says

    Why has nobody thought that the the poor cacao farmers knew what was going on and decided to make a statement about economic disparity? You’re incredibly racist. You think they’re clever, but only to a point. Sickening.

  24. petrander says

    I know it’s completely besides the point, but as a Dutch expatriate, I just loved hearing my native language on my favourite blog!