Excellent Essays: Coffee, Cocoa and Cotton as the Origins of Child Labour in Agricultural West Africa

By Claire MacPherson
Undergraduate Student 

According to the World Bank, agriculture makes up over 20 percent of Gross Domestic Product in Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal, and over 40 percent in Togo, compared to a world average of three percent. Often the domestic sector comprises small family-owned farms which, since the spread of globalisation, have converted from subsistence-only farming to producing cash crops for low incomes. The whole family frequently contributes to this production; children often participate from a young age however this is often juxtaposed with high schooling rates in the region. Focusing on child labour where children work alongside parents on small farms, what impact does working have on children’s education as well as the welfare of their families and the  economies of the communities in which they live?

The problem stems from the late 20th century, reductions in international trade restrictions and industrial privatisations opened up several countries in West Africa to export markets for crops including cocoa, cotton and coffee. Cocoa was introduced to the region as a smallholder crop late in the 19th century for mass production at a time when most owner-operated farms had a varied harvest for subsistence and trade within the local community. Subsequently, global demand has prompted a massive increase in production and many countries have come to count on cocoa for a large part of GDP. Yet cocoa farmers receive very small proportions of the final traded price and must often rely on the work of whole families to earn enough money for survival.

What impact does working have on children’s education as well as the welfare of their families and the  economies of the communities in which they live?

Cotton has also been an important crop in West Africa, constituting up to 44 percent of total merchandise exports in the last decade. However, according to economist John Baffes real world prices have been falling continuously due to “technological improvements, slow growth in demand and strong competition from substitutes”; the same exposure to world markets that has allowed vast expansion in the cotton trade has simultaneously eroded farmer incomes. In addition to comparatively low yields caused by little utilisation of the improved technological inputs in place in the Americas and parts of Asia (which have contributed to these price drops), this means that farmers can only compete on a cost basis through very cheap—and in the case of children—free labour.

West African coffee production has a very similar history to that of cocoa and cotton; current yields are much lower than those of Asia and South America, reflected in a decline in Africa’s share in global coffee production of 15 percentage points. Robusta beans, commonly used for instant coffee and as a filler for higher quality ground coffee, is the more frequently found crop in the region, the trading price of which is lower than the higher quality Arabica beans grown elsewhere. Furthermore, the disbandment of organisations such as the International Coffee Association has removed an important safeguard of higher farmer incomes. Again, farmers compensate for low income by enlisting the whole family to work.

Exposure to world markets that has allowed vast expansion in the cotton trade has simultaneously eroded farmer incomes, meaning farmers can only compete on a cost basis through very cheap—and in the case of children—free labour.

A large proportion of cash crop farmers in West Africa live at or below the poverty line. Income is often barely enough for subsistence, thus many are unable to pay wages to hired labourers. Still, low crop prices and very low yields mean that the whole family, including children, often works to maintain even this meagre income. For instance, in Cote D’Ivoire and Ghana up to 52 percent and 72 percent of children (5 to 17 years old) participate in agricultural work respectively. Nevertheless, these same countries also tend to have high school attendance rates; 90 percent of children involved in cocoa production in Ghana report attending school, for both boys and girls. Families anecdotally report high career aspirations for their children and do not wish them to continue farming. This would suggest that culturally schooling is a priority for children and parents.

However, while the reported attendance rates are encouraging, concurrent high labour rates indicate that working children may not actually attend school regularly, or could be overtired from work when they do attend. The high child labour rates are not so much an alternative to school, but rather a crucial contribution to the family income necessary to maintain school attendance and family subsistence. This feature of child labour in rural West Africa has an important policy implication; given that children and families value education highly already, intervention specifically to encourage school attendance may not significantly affect child labour participation rates. It is thus important to consider ways to resolve the possibility of extended periods of absence during harvest or diminished concentration due to exhaustion from working.

The high child labour rates are not so much an alternative to school, but rather a crucial contribution to the family income necessary to maintain school attendance and family subsistence.

On the other hand, while basic schooling is paramount for increasing a country’s human capital, the benefits of experience in a sector in which farm ownership is frequently hereditary must not be ignored. Where children’s work directly contributes to the improvement of the family farm that they will eventually inherit, and increases their skills, it is possible to consider this aspect of child labour as an investment for the future rather than exploitation per se. When thinking about regulatory limits on child work, domestic education of children through some experience on the farm must be considered. To ensure that children’s farm work contributes to their own future as much as to the family’s present circumstances, younger family members should be involved in training projects alongside parents where available, although current participation rates are low: less than five percent of surveyed children have participated in a “government or industry [training] project” in the African cocoa industry according expert Orla Ryan. Nonetheless, a line must be drawn between light work, training and the gaining of skills, and hard labour which not only interferes with schooling, but is also a hardship for the child in and of itself.

Parental preference for children to attend school implies that policies targeted at increasing family income may have a larger effect than regulation banning child labour outright or emphasising school attendance since parents choose to send their children to school when they are able. Though Edmonds, 2005, “hesitates to extrapolate” his findings in Vietnam about increased economic status reducing within-household child labour to elsewhere, the parallels between the two regions suggests that the results may indeed be applicable. In both cases child labour occurs most in farming households, rather than domestic service for example, and agricultural poverty stems from low productivity. A successful method of reducing child labour in the region could then be to increase the household income of families around the subsistence- and poverty-lines. Edmonds’ study showed that agricultural households that exited poverty displayed the largest decrease in children working over time.

Policies targeted at increasing family income may have a larger effect than regulation banning child labour outright.

A significant way of achieving this exit from poverty would be to increase farm productivity: according to the 1999 report Policy Reforms and Sustainable Agricultural Intensification in Africa, yields in the region are lower than in most of the world and “African fertiliser use is the lowest in the world.” Reintroduction of direct intervention into agricultural input prices would be contrary to many of the structural adjustment measures introduced in the last 30 years, and may be frowned upon by bodies such as the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

However, policies increasing access to better fertilisers and seeds, for example government-sponsored improvement of infrastructure in rural areas, would likely increase their usage and therefore crop yields. Other routes could include government or industry-sponsored training programmes for farmers with especially low yields, and improved access to credit enabling investment in capital and reductions in labour intensity. If farmers in rural West Africa were able to increase land productivity and decrease labour intensity sufficiently to exit poverty than children would no longer be required to help their families to maintain an adequate household income, at least outwith harvest time which nevertheless coincides with the main school holidays.

If farmers in rural West Africa were able to increase land productivity and decrease labour intensity sufficiently to exit poverty than children would no longer be required to help their families.

Not only would an increase in household income allow for fewer children working on farms; it would have real welfare benefits for the whole community. From the high school attendance rates observed, it is inferred that parents prefer their children not to work. Thus if they were able to farm without their children’s help, parents would benefit from a reduction in the disutility caused by a distaste for their children working. Moreover, should household incomes increase sufficiently, during busier farming periods farmers may be able to hire paid labourers from the community rather than using their own children. This would benefit non-landowning members of the area and their families who might otherwise be living in poverty, or be forced to move towards the cities in search of work.

It is not uncommon for families in West Africa to farm the same plots for generations, producing cash crops for meagre incomes with little prospects of mobility. The benefits of children’s education as a tool for mobility and productivity at both the individual and aggregate level are discussed extensively in the literature. The potential impact of child labour on the opportunity to gain a quality education is precisely why, from a national perspective, it is so important to ensure acceptable incomes for agricultural households. Without them, efforts to eradicate child labour are unlikely to succeed.

Farming families in the region rely on child work mainly to avoid destitution rather than to avoid school fees or labourers’ wages.

As it stands, farming families in the region rely on child work mainly to avoid destitution rather than to avoid school fees or labourers’ wages. Programmes to improve crop yields, including training projects, improved credit markets and easier access to seeds, fertiliser and capital could allow West African farmers to compete globally without dependence on children for labour intensive farming. This would enable children to attend school consistently throughout the year and to pay better attention while they are there. Using children for agricultural work is a manifestation of poverty that harms their ability to go to school and deprives them of the opportunity to have a real childhood; combating this poverty at its roots could improve the lives of millions of children, their families, and the entire communities in which they live.

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Featured image by Irene Scott/AusAID

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