Tag Archives: conflict minerals

The Chocolate Industry Exposed: Child Labor, Trafficking and Fair Trade Mislabeling

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies behind the wrapper?

Our favorite chocolate brands look sweet, but what lies beneath the wrapper?

With Valentine’s Day behind us and Easter just a few weeks away, I thought there was no better time to write a post on the chocolate industry than now, when ‘chocolate season’ seems to be in full bloom. Even though it may seem that I am taking somewhat of a detour from my current series on fashion by writing about all things cocoa, the fact is, the chocolate and textile industries share much in common. Both produce things that give people around the world pleasure, and yet that pleasure often comes at a cost. My previous posts on fashion, conflict minerals and technology have attempted to reveal the obstacles in maintaining transparency across our global supply chains, and chocolate is no exception here. If glamor is a facade that often hides the exploitation behind the fashion industry, then the sweetness of chocolate found within the brightly foiled wrappers can be an easy distraction from the gritty, sad reality of how that chocolate is made. The ultimate irony is that an industry that especially caters to children’s Willy Wonka fantasies too often relies on the trafficking of children to make it.

Sigh. There is always a buzzkill. But don’t worry gfs, we’re going to talk about what’s wrong with the cocoa industry, and then we will discuss actions we can take to make it better.

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

A child labors in the cocoa fields (photo courtesy of ethical living).

Here are the hard facts. Two million cocoa farms across West Africa produce around 73 percent of the world’s four million tons of cocoa. Exports from the Cote d’Ivoire account for 10 percent of its GDP, bringing in $2.3 billion to the region annually. This lucrative business relies on more than 1.8 million children, most of whom work without pay and in hazardous conditions, which include exposure to harmful pesticides and forced use of machetes in their work. Between 200,000 and 800,000 children under the age of 18 are working under the ‘worst forms of child labor,’ and it is estimated that over 10,000 are trafficked annually in West Africa alone.

The child labor situation in the cocoa industry is tragic, and yet too little has been done to institute the needed regulations to ensure that this exploitation does not occur. In 2001, a few members of U.S. Congress proposed a federal system to certify and label chocolate products as slave free: right on the wrapper, next to the calories and ingredient list where it sometimes says “may contain peanuts,” it would read “may contain child labor.” This proposal—the Harkin-Engel Accord—passed the House of Representatives, but lost by a razor-thin margin in the Senate when chocolate manufacturing giants like Hershey, Mars, Nestle and agricultural giant Archer Daniels Midland threw their money into a massive lobbying effort.

Thanks to the efforts of Senator Harkin and many others committed to see a change, a ‘voluntary protocol’ was nonetheless negotiated. That meant cocoa companies could try and stop child labor, if they wanted to. It set goals for ending abusive and forced child labor on cocoa farms by 2005. These terms have still not been implemented, due to a lack of certification standards, the Ivorian Civil War in which ‘blood chocolate,’ along with conflict minerals, was making money for the militants, and a lack of political will among cocoa corporations. I mean, they didn’t see fit to end child labor before—why was a law with no teeth going to change their behavior now? Every few years, the law gets reviewed, the lobby pushes back, and a new deadline for implementation is set. Meanwhile, kids are enslaved in the cocoa fields. Farmers dream of making as much as $1 a day—a dream as far off as tasting a chocolate bar most never have, since it’s too expensive. At the same time, kids in the West buy cheap chocolate, and dollars pile into coffers of the same giant companies that continue to bat down this legislation.

The Harkin-Engel Protocol - a commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com)

The Harkin-Engel Protocol addressed again, in 2010. A commitment or wish list? (photo courtesy of candyusa.com).

What do we have to show for these efforts, a decade later? Miki Mistrati and U. Roberto Romano wanted to find out, and launched an undercover investigation into the cocoa industry, which they revealed in their startling, award-winning documentary, The Dark Side of Chocolate. The film reveals that, contrary to the chocolate industry’s claims, child trafficking is still very much central to the production of cocoa in Western Africa, especially the Ivory Coast. Many of these children come from the poorest families in the region, and are tricked into thinking they will be paid for their work so that they can help support their families. Children as young as eight years old travel miles from countries like Burkina Faso or Mali, and are forced to labor in hazardous conditions from sunrise to sunset and live in small shacks in the plantations.

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein being a child laborer? Is it corporations, suppliers, consumers or governments?

Who is to blame for 8-year old Hussein working on a cocoa farm? Is it corporations, farmers, suppliers, consumers or governments? Or is everyone to blame? (photo courtesy of Jessica Dimmock for CNNMoney).

But who is to blame here exactly? Much like the fashion industry, the transnational nature of the cocoa industry makes it difficult to ‘pin the blame’ on any particular person, country, or institution. The chocolate companies point fingers at farmers, who in turn have argued that what they’re paid for cocoa is too little for them to pay adult wages—so they hire cheap children instead—or worse. The Ivorian government has similarly accused chocolate companies of not paying farmers enough for their produce since farmers must sell their beans to middlemen at dramatically low prices, even though the prices for cocoa in the commodities market have risen. In response, chocolate companies have countered that it is too complex to track where their cocoa beans come from, especially since global commodities exchanges might mix Ivorian cocoa with other cocoa. The suppliers in turn argue that they can’t be held responsible because they don’t control the farms. Meanwhile, consumers claim that it is difficult to know where their chocolate was produced given the distance between consumers and producers.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign is revealing the hidden costs of their sweet chocolate.

So what can be done? Mistrati recently gave an interview on the issues of transparency revealed in The Dark Side of Chocolate, and he believes that if major manufacturers who are located in the Ivory Coast are truly concerned about where their cocoa comes from, then they should buy the fields and control the cocoa directly. He also doesn’t think companies are spending enough money on projects fighting child slavery in Africa relative to the revenue they make. For example, take Hershey, which owns a whopping 42 percent of the U.S. market for cocoa, making it the country’s largest purchaser of West African chocolate. Although the company is investing in a $4 million, five year program that helps to train Western African farmers on good farming and labor practices, scorecards recently released by Not for Profit Uniting Church Across Australia and the International Labor Rights Forum revealed Hershey is lagging far behind retailers like Mars and Nestle in eliminating child labor in its supply chain. Hershey has since announced its plan to produce 100 percent certified cocoa for all of its products by 2020, which, if met, could have a profound effect on an industry in which only five percent of its cocoa volume is certified.

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of fairtradecampus.org).

Students protest in Times Square in front of the Hershey store (photo courtesy of United Students for Fair Trade).

Still, as I have written before, there is always a potential that companies will resort to greenwashing when they are not legally bound to follow through with their promises, and Hershey thus far has been somewhat vague on what their certification plan would entail. In fact, Whole Foods Markets Inc. just recently pulled Hershey’s ‘artisan’ chocolate brands Scharffen Berger and Dagoba off the shelves after activists in International Labor Rights Forum, Green America, and the Organic Consumers Association raised concerns about the company’s lack of transparency in their social accountability programs. One of Hershey’s largest shareholders has filed a suit against the company for its alleged use of child labor. The ‘Raise the Bar Hershey‘ campaign, which involves elementary school children as its core base, aims to pressure the company to ethically source 100% of its cocoa by its proposed deadline of 2020. Many children have given up eating chocolate from Hershey’s until the brand makes the full switch. One can only hope that a company built by Quakers on a foundation of educating disadvantaged children would once again become an industry leader.

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school?

A young boy dries out cocoa beans in the Ivory Coast. Would more Fair Trade certification make it possible for him to go to school? (photo courtesy of IRLF).

The Hershey example outlined above clearly demonstrates why companies must operationalize according to a ‘logic of distance’ between producer and consumer as a way to maximize their profits. This logic assumes that the further removed a consumer is from the conditions under which a producer labors, the less likely they will be to have awareness and ultimately, motivation to protest. This is perhaps why Mistrati believes that change in cocoa production methods will be more likely to happen when consumers demand change and pressure chocolate manufactures to increase their purchases of Fair Trade cocoa. The standards for the Fair Trade certification mark prohibit child labor according to the ILO conventions, and qualified auditors are supposed to routinely check producer organizations to ensure that these standards are being rigorously met. By working to strengthen the position of farmers and workers in international supply chains so that they do not have to rely on child labor, a convincing argument can be made for the elimination of child trafficking by creating a greater demand for Fair Trade chocolate. And when children are not forced to work the argument is that they will have greater opportunities to go to school, which is one of the most effective ways to break the cycle of poverty that fuels child trafficking in the first place.

However, sometimes transparency in labeling for even movements we trust can be suspect. While Fair Trade advocates have always touted transparency throughout the Fair Trade supply chain as central to its mission, there is a growing concern that as more businesses incorporate the Fair Trade label into their products in an effort to gain new consumers, the high bar for accountability might become filtered. The Fair World Project decided to go to various stores to investigate how transparent various chocolate brands were about their labeling. They were shocked to find out that two “privately labeled chocolate bars,” one of which was from Trader Joe’s and the other from Whole Foods, claimed to be Fair Trade when in fact, only a few of their ingredients were certified Fair Trade. So if Whole Foods’ brand chocolate bar has fair trade cocoa butter, how does the consumer know that the sugar and vanilla included in the bar was not made with exploited labor? Trader Joe’s is even more secretive about its Fair Trade ingredients, with none being identified in their ingredient list (this lack of transparency on sourcing and labor practices is not just limited to chocolate at the cheap retailer, as this article points out).

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe's bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren't made with exploitative labor?

Misleading labels: This Trader Joe’s bar is cheaper than other Fair Trade chocolate bars, but how do we know the ingredients on this bar weren’t made with exploitative labor when the labeling isn’t transparent?

This is egregious not just because it allows these companies to sell a Fair Trade product without being fully transparent about their supply chains, but also because these private brands are cheaper than true Fair Trade companies like Alter Eco, Divine, and Equal Exchange, all of which invest in fair prices and premiums to ensure that more money is going directly to cooperatives controlled by farmers. Their bars clearly indicate which ingredients are Fair Trade, and furthermore, they include relevant information and pictures about the co-ops they work with in the inserts of their packaging and on their websites. Still, consumers have become so conditioned to trust the label, they might buy a cheaper product that has fewer Fair Trade ingredients (and yes, I was one of those consumers. I’m not exactly a fan of being lied to, so hence. this. post.).

What is so strange is that the Swiss-based Institute for Marketecology (IMO), a certifier for companies using the ‘Fair for Life’ label, requires that a product be 80% fair trade by weight in order to display the Fair for Life logo on the front. Furthermore, neither of these bars indicates the audited company responsible for manufacturing the bar, a key component of IMO’s Fair for Life program. So, what explains these misleading labels?

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Certifier IMO failed to intervene when Theo, a Fair Trade certified company, did not uphold its Northern workplace standards.

Even more difficult to explain is the recent lapse in Fair Trade workplace standards that was revealed a few weeks ago when the International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) released a report titled Aiding and Abetting. The report documents how certifier IMO neglected to uphold its commitment to international labor standards promoted by its Fair for Life label when it failed to intervene on behalf of workers at Theo Chocolate who were attempting to organize at their North American factory. In fact, IMO then proceeded to initiate new labor standards that included recommendations for employer-hired consultants who discourage union organizing to be included in a list provided to its workers. While one can argue that this violation was a failure to uphold their Northern workplace standards, not necessarily their ‘Fair Trade’ standards, we should still question, if the certification system wasn’t working in North America, whether it would work for producers in the Global south.

The question is then, how do we make the system financially accountable to the people it is supposed to help, namely both workers and consumers? According to Rachel Taber, who worked at Theo Chocolate for three and a half years as a tour guide, one of the central problems lies with the fact that auditors are being paid by the management of companies like Theo, thus setting up a potential conflict of interest. This is why the ILRF is recommending that complaints by workers be reviewed not by company-associated auditors, but by an independent “International Fair Trade Board of Appeal.” As Judy Gearhart, Executive director of ILRF noted in an interview with me:

“We definitely need more accountability and transparency in our system. And we need to acknowledge that not all of these systems are treated equally. Fair Trade International, which is based in Europe, can partly attribute its more rigorous Fair Trade standards to more robust support by the labor movement there. And that makes a big difference. While we feel that Fair Trade has the right social justice commitments, we need to work harder to ensure that farmers have a strong share in these companies.”

Yes. Because ultimately, farmers and producers, not labels, are at the heart of this movement. There are some wonderful company leaders who are indeed staying true to their Fair Trade ethics, in that they are constantly striving for transparency and are committed to giving their workers a platform to voice their concerns. They’re reaping economic benefit on a more equitable level and taking unique approaches to do it.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange.

Children of the families of the Dominican cocoa co-operative CONACADO, a partner of Equal Exchange, at their elementary school.

Take for example, Equal Exchange, the oldest Fair Trade coffee company in the United States. Of the nine seats on their board, six are reserved for non-management worker-owners, and all nine are nominated and elected by the workers themselves. They share worker testimonials on their online site, and as Rocio Motato of the Columbian cooperative ASPROCAFE put it, “We have not only a commercial relationship through the coffee, but more importantly, a very human relationship.” Their commitment to environmental sustainability and organic food practices is evident in the quality of their products—the chocolate bars sourced from purely made ingredients are some of my favorites in the business (and I know my chocolate!).

18-3farmers_gathering

Farmers in Madagascar gather their beans after sun-drying. Madecasse works with cooperatives to keep the profit in the region so that farmers do not have to rely on cheap child labor (photo courtesy of madecasse.com).

There are other notable models that should also be highlighted. Divine is a Fair Trade company in which farmers own 45% and share the profits, and there is a special focus on women leadership. Alter Eco Foods works with small-scale cooperatives in countries that include Bolivia, Peru, and Thailand, and is an interesting company because its environmental commitments include organic agriculture training for farmers and also partnering many of their cooperatives with reforestation projects. And then there are other chocolate producers that are not certified Fair Trade, but are making quality chocolate that benefits local communities. For example, the Chuao cooperative in Venezuela sells to high-end chocolatiers, and the farmers organize and distribute money fairly among themselves and make really amazing chocolate that is culturally appropriate to their land-based indigenous background. The Granada Chocolate company makes organic chocolate in Granada using their own cocoa beans, while Madecasse, a chocolate company sourced and manufactured from bean to bar in Madagascar, keeps the profits local.

The certified Fair Trade and non-certified Fair Trade companies highlighted above are all excellent examples of models that work, and provide a compelling rationale for why consumers need to start looking beyond the label to truly transform the system, because the Fair Trade seal, which traditionally used to symbolize rigorous monitoring and transparent labeling, is in danger of being diluted and hijacked. Furthermore, we need to start thinking more deeply about whether we should rely solely on a certification to bridge the gap between producers and consumers. While the Payson Center proposal of an oversight committee on certifiers is a good, easy starting point for where we are now, to create a more accountable workplace, Rachel Taber believes that we can go even further to institute a real system of “checks and balances.” As she told me:

You need a union, a real functioning democratic co-op, a way that workers themselves can communicate directly with consumers in a way that their own words will be heard. I mean really, skyping with interpreters would probably be much cheaper than paying out of country auditors.”

On a related note, NGO-sponsored ‘worker tours’ which include a small panel of workers sharing their personal narratives of laboring within global commodity chains are proving to be a powerful way for producers and activists to build coalitions with schools, congregations and most urgently, unions.

Two Cacao farmers from the cooperative CONACADO speak on tour:

Finally, we need to encourage civic engagements and direct action of consumers and workers together to hold abusive companies responsible and reward companies that have implemented worker and consumer demands on them and are actually following through on their commitments. Organizations like the United Students against Sweatshops (USAS), Coalition of Immokale Workers (CIW), and even the Raise the Bar, Hershey! campaign have given corporations a taste of the power of consumers rising against them.  For example, after learning that Nike had failed to pay $1.54 million in severance pay to over 1,800 workers in Honduras, USAS led several University boycotts of the brand which led to Nike ultimately agreeing to pay the workers the severance that was owed to them. It is clear that the corporate accountability model is capable of working, in that costing companies money gets things done. You might be surprised just how much your voice can make a difference.

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

USAS organizers, here with BJ&B workers, have had some key victories (photo courtesy of USAS).

Here is the deal. Child trafficking in the cocoa industry is very real, and it is tragic. If we are going to seriously address it, then we need to not just resort to knee-jerk responses such as ‘buy Fair Trade chocolate’ if we don’t even know what that means. Though I want to be clear here, my issue isn’t with the person who buys an Equal Exchange bar over a Hershey bar knowing that the former supports democratic co-ops while the latter is potentially trafficking children to supply their cocoa. We do need to demand more ethically sourced chocolate, and supporting disenfranchised farming communities is a very powerful choice.

Where we get into a problem is when we buy products because we trust the label and we don’t realize that the label might be diluted. Or when we think of ourselves only as consumers and not also as citizens who have the power to organize for system-wide changes, such as the Harkin-Engel accord, or anti-corporate campaigns against cases of abuse. We need to get to know the companies behind the labels to see which ones best represent our values of social justice and transparency, and take cues from organizations we respect, such as the Fair World Project, or a faith-based organization which is active in Fair Trade issues, or any of the ones mentioned above. In the words of Public Enemy, ‘Don’t believe the hype.” In order to better direct the energy of the labor rights movement, we need to think critically, ask questions, and ultimately, refuse to lower the bar for justice.

Update: In late March, Hershey announced that it would commit to 100% Fair Trade cocoa by 2020, and that it would source through certifiers UTZ, Fair Trade USA, and Rainforest Alliance. While this is certainly a step in the right direction, we need to keep in mind that these three certifiers are known for being less rigorous than other Fair Trade certifiers. The Fair World Project’s list of credible Fair Trade certification programs does not include any of these certifiers. Here are links to criticisms of Fair Trade USARainforest Alliance and UTZ. This demonstrates again, the importance of sustained conversation, and thinking beyond the label!

In late 2012, IMO wrote this letter to the Fair World Project promising that they would remove the Fair for Life logo on the front of their label until they had ensured that they had corrected the Fair Trade ingredients percentage in their chocolate. The Fair World Project confirmed that as of 2014, the private labels are sourcing fair trade sugar.

Trader Joe’s has pulled the Fair for Life logo from their fair trade chocolate, but they are still not indicating who it is that is certifying their chocolate as fair trade, if anyone.

Fair Trade USA has repeatedly been criticized for its labeling policy that lacks transparency and its low percentage of required fair trade ingredients. They have made some changes, such as agreeing to mandate a percentage disclosure and to not exempt milk from calculations of fair trade ingredients. But they are still excluding sugar and vanilla as mandatory in products labeled ‘fair trade.’

In December 2015, a food blogger published a series of posts on DallasFood.org investigating how the Mast Brothers – an “artisanal” chocolate company known for its “bean to bar” production and  commitment to authenticity and transparency – did not always make its chocolate from scratch and is less than transparent about its production sources.  As this Quartz piece noted, the story highlights how a company’s marketing, which in this case included beautiful packaging and bearded, hipster founders, can successfully launch a product of questionable quality into the market and help shape it into a consumer and media darling.

Take Action:
  • Want to email companies like Hershey and Nestle, as well as the World Cocoa Foundation, pressuring them to abide by Harkin-Engel? Check out this page where you can also message Tom Harkin and Eliot Engel!
  • Get involved in the Hershey, Raise the Bar! Campaign, where you can find petitions and some great resources!
  • Check out 10 Campaign’s excellent breakdown of the main issues around child labor in the chocolate industry, and be sure to download their comprehensive but clear “Campaign Briefing Document.”
  • Sign this petition initiated by the Food Empowerment Project asking Clif Bar to disclose where they get their cocoa beans.
  • The Global Cocoa Project has some great resources for increasing awareness about the realities behind the cocoa industry.
  • Looking for more ideas on how to get young people involved? Or how you can raise awareness by hosting your own ‘chocolate party?’ Stop the Traffick can hook you up!
  • How about hosting a screening of ‘A Dark Side of Chocolate’ as a way to spread awareness among your peers and larger community? You can purchase it on ILRF’s website. And check out their ‘Take Action’ page.
  • Concerned about Theo’s recent actions against its workers, and IMO’s failure to uphold Fair Trade standards? Want to hold accountable and improve the parties involved? Sign this petition demanding that IMO’s Fair for Life certification label adopt reforms to protect workers.
  • Share this video testimonial of a former Theo worker.
  • Share this amazing TEDx talk by ChocoSol founder Michael Sacco, where he discusses the horizontal trade model that emphasizes community supported agriculture, diversity of production, and intercultural relationships. Watch the ChocoSol philosophy here.
  • Share this video about chocolate company TCHO‘s work in Costa Rica.
  • Screen Nothing Like Chocolate, a documentary by Kum-Kum Bhavnani, which focuses on how Mott Green of the Grenada Chocolate Company and independent cocoa farmer Nelice Stewart produce chocolate sustainably and ethically. You can watch the trailer here.

Good Chocolate List:

  • You should take these recommendations with a grain of salt given some of the points made in this post, but this is a good basic list of which chocolate companies source from areas in West Africa where child slavery is the most pervasive, as well as ethical and sustainable alternatives.
Additional Resources:
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Filed under Critical Fashion

Mamafrica: Sewing Women’s Lives for a Better Future in Conflict-Ridden Congo

For many people, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) evokes images of poverty, suffering, and violence. And indeed, for the last two decades, the country has been plagued by conflict and bloody civil wars. It is currently among the poorest in the world, with 80% of its population living in poverty.

Is your mobile phone, computer, iPod, and gaming system fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

Are these minerals in our mobile phones, computers, iPods, and gaming systems fueling fighting in eastern Congo? (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

But the country is also incredibly rich in resources, especially in the eastern region. Home to some of the world’s rarest minerals including gold, coltan, carbonite, tin, and tungsten, the DRC supplies many of the key elements that are essential to our cell phones, laptops, and other electronic goods. One would think that a country so rich in valuable resources would not be mired in violence and the resultant poverty, but in fact, it is these very minerals that are fueling this conflict and financing African militias, who are then selling them to middlemen who supply these key ingredients to companies world-wide.

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

In the Congo, militias use rape as a weapon of war to destroy Congolese communities, where women are the backbone (photo courtesy of RAISE Hope for Congo)

How do these militias secure control of these mines and trading routes? By looting villages for resources, displacing communities, killing the men who were the providers of the families, and using rape as a war tactic to control and suppress the women.

Described as ‘the rape capital of the world‘ by the United Nations, more than half a million women and girls have been raped in the last ten years alone.

So, what can be done?

Here’s the problem. It is very difficult for consumers to gauge whether their purchases are funding armed groups that are committing such atrocities, given the lack of a transparent minerals supply chain (Sound familiar? Fashion isn’t the only industry that suffers from ‘transparency problems’). This is why activists like Amani Matabaro and John Prendergast from the Enough Project have made it their focus to educate citizens about the conflict, and have recently released a company ranking system as a way of empowering consumers to make more responsible purchasing decisions regarding conflict minerals.

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

Conflict minerals: the dirtiest side of mining (photo courtesy of greenfudge.org)

And what about the people, mostly women, who have survived the horrors of war, who are displaced and lacking the community that previously existed in their villages? This is where non-profit organizations like Mamafrica, are making a difference.

The women of Mamafrica!

The women of Mamafrica!

Mamafrica is a woman’s sewing cooperative based in Bukavu, a city on the border of the DRC and Rwanda that has become a refuge for “internally displaced persons.” When Ashley Nemiro, an aspiring Ph.D in counseling and psychology, started her work at the Panzi hospital in May of 2012 to conduct research on the efficacy of group therapy treatment for women who had been victims of gender-based violence, she was distressed not just by the trauma these women had gone through, but by the limited opportunities there were for them to support themselves and their families. It was then that she was fortunate enough to meet Congolese activist Amani Matabaro, who founded a program (AFBEK) supported by the community development organization Action Kivu, which funds sewing cooperatives and micro-finance loans for women as a means by which they can support their small businesses and take care of their families. Through her conversations with Amani the idea for a holistic organization that would empower women by providing education, a healing arts programs, and economic opportunity, began to develop. Amani in turn introduced Ashley to Aline Malekera, a Congolese woman with a B.A. in English and a powerful voice in the community, who became a partner and was instrumental as a translator and Finance Administrator. The two formed the cooperative from three sewing collectives: Centre Ushini, AFBEK, and Action Kivu. Mamafrica now serves over ninety women in Bukavu, most of whom have fled from the violence of rural eastern Congo.

I was able to interview Ashley Nemiro in person and Aline Malekera via email about their work in the organization, and how they hope it will improve women’s lives in Bukavu:

Nadia: So Aline, could you give us more background about the conflict in the Congo and how it has affected women there?

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

The amazing Aline Malekera, Partner and Administrator of Mamafrica!

Aline: Before the war started in 1996 everyone had farms and fields to cultivate, animals to raise, and parents were able to feed and pay school fees for their children. But when the war started, most of people’s means were stolen, their houses were burned, their husbands killed, and their villages and communities destroyed. Many of these women are rejected by their husbands, family, and community if they are raped. And even though they have no support, they have to be strong, be everything, for their children.

Nadia: Why did you want to get involved with Mamafrica?

Aline: I have lived through many years of war, and I wanted to empower these women who have been displaced and rejected by their husbands and families. I feel determined to help these women understand that they can do something in their society, that their lives can change, if they are determined.

Nadia: Ashley, can you describe a little more in depth what you mean by a ‘holistic’ program?

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley Nemiro, founder of Mamafrica, modeling one of their beautiful dresses!

Ashley: Basically, Mamafrica is a three-phase program. When the women enter the program, they attend a six month healing-arts intensive course, which incorporates group trauma healing, meditation, counseling, yoga, and song and dance. They then complete a series of life sustainability education classes, where we teach nutrition, cooking, maternal child health, birth control, literacy, and financial responsibility. Then, we teach the women how to sew, tailor and embroider so that they can be employed by Mamafrica, where they make beautiful dresses, table cloths, and even yoga bags! And I should note that we allow the women to be independent and encourage them to be self-sufficient, so it is up to them how much time they want to invest in these programs.

Nadia: You mention self-sufficiency often. Do the women really have no other means of employment?

Good intentions gone wrong. Thrift stores like Goodwill are pumping clothing into Africa, making it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Good intentions with unintended consequences. Thrift stores like Goodwill make it difficult for the continent to develop domestic clothing industries.

Ashley: You know what’s interesting? You know how a lot of the women make money here? By selling the overstocked items that are donated by Goodwill in the West to churches in the DRC. A lot of these items are soiled clothing or just junk, stuff that the women can’t even use. And so the women take these items and sell them in the streets, and while it’s true that they can make money that way, it is also difficult for people in the DRC to manufacture their own clothes and export their products when you have that kind of flooding of [free] products from the West into the country. And 99% of the fabric is imported from China, which is why it is important for Mamafrica to use fabric manufactured in Africa, that is from Nigeria, DRC and Ghana. We purchase this fabric in bulk from a fabric vendor in downtown Bukavu.

Nadia: So when we talk about ‘sustainable fashion,’ how are you trying to make Mamafrica sustainable?

Teaching the women how to sew!

Teaching the women how to sew!

Ashley: We are really trying to create a new generation of leaders. In our new healing arts program we talk so much about being a leader, and what it means to be a leader. Because in my mind, when people ask how to change the Congo, it’s not up to the US or USAID, it’s changing the leadership inside the country. It’s about Congolese people changing the system. And that isn’t going to happen if the women don’t have any means of empowerment and can’t support their children. In Bukavu it cost $10 per child a month to attend school and this creates a challenge since many women have more than 7 children and the average wage is .20 cents a day. With the wages that the women make at Mamafrica, they are able to afford to send their children to school, pay rent for their homes, and feed their families. Aline travels to each school and pays the school fees each month to ensure that all our Mamafrica children are attending school. Our hope is that by changing these women’s lives, that positive change will trickle down to the children and change a community.

Nadia: Do the women just make clothes for women in the West?

The women also make dresses for the community's children!

The women also make dresses for the community’s children!

Ashley: No, they make them for women in the DRC as well. We have a shop where many women in the community come to have clothing specially sewn for them including: school uniforms, wedding dresses, and children’s clothing. So many of these women love bright prints, perhaps because wearing these colors brings happiness to their lives. And since we have to tone down the colors a bit when we market to the West, it seems that these women really enjoy making brighter clothes for each other.

Nadia: Aline, do the women enjoy the sewing work?

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Girlfriends! The cooperative is a great way for the women to connect with and support each other.

Aline: Sewing is a craft that a lot of these women connect to, so it’s wonderful that they can make clothes as a way to be independent, earn money and buy food for their children. In addition they are getting training that helps them to be independent, and their children who were unable to go to school are now attending school. They are getting food for their children and families after being paid each month. Also they are making friends and connecting with other women by working in groups.

Nadia: Could you share a success story?

"I was forced to flee my village three years ago and resettled in Buakvu. I was never given the chance to attend school or learn any vocational skills. I am a single mother with five children and thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

“Thanks to Mamafrica I am able to provide for my family and feel whole again”. -Cibalonza Kampano

Aline: Yes! Cibalonza is a woman with 5 children, and her life was honestly horrible before joining the center. Her husband abandoned her when he took another wife and left her to raise her 5 children alone. She was homeless and often times went days without feeding her children and herself. Since attending Mamafrica, Chibolonza has been able to earn money for her family, send her children to school and has made friends at Mamafrica that help her to care for her younger children when she is working. She rents a home for $10 a month and is able for the first time to provide for her childern. In October we referred Chibolonza to a partner organization where she started to receive microfinance loans and has been selling charcoal, avocados, and onions in the market and earning a living that is more than she could ever have imagined in the past. I visited her children just two months later and was shocked by how much weight they have gained. To my mind, this is a true success story.

Nadia: Any last words ladies? Anything in particular you would like readers to be aware of?

Ashley: When people buy these products, I want it to be not just because of the cause behind it, but because they really love our product. We all want good quality products that will last, and that are made with love. These women have come so far, and our products truly reflect that.

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting 'Fair Trade Tuesday' (my hat is not fair trade, but I'm a work in progress girlfriends!)

Me in my Mamafrica dress, supporting ‘Fair Trade Tuesday’ (my hat is not fair trade, but I’m a work in progress GFs!)

Since starting Mamafrica and traveling to the DRC I have become overly conscious about every purchase I make while in the DRC and back in the United States, which is why we decided to describe Mamafrica on our website as ‘consciously connecting.’ I think it is important, especially during the holiday season, to think about the people that are suffering when we unconsciously consume clothing or the latest technology. We need to raise awareness about companies that directly help the lives of others, and to make a concerted effort to support them. At Mamafrica we want everyone to know that when they buy our products, some woman’s life has been changed. If you check out our site which details how we invest the money we receive, you will see that your purchase helps send a child to school, and helps put food on the table.

That’s a powerful and ethical way to consume. When we talk about ‘ethical consumerism,’ it is ultimately about being conscious of what you are purchasing. It goes so much more beyond the fabric that is laying on your body.

Aline: I want people to know that I am determined to help women in the Congo, but I also need other people to understand why there are so many problems here, and why we need support.

I really wish the West knew why the people in the DRC experience war everyday and how severely affected we are by this. Even if we are not directly in a war zone, we are suffering from the effects of a country that has been in civil war since the 90’s. I have lived in Bukavu my whole life and I have seen things that you could never imagine.

Women in Bukavu do not have the education or the vocational skills to allow them to earn an income. These women have suffered greatly and they really need to make their lives better. This can come from support from the West by purchasing our products! When we receive support, we can continue to teach women new vocational skills, purchase sewing machines for them, and allow them to work independently and once again gain confidence in themselves and their ability to provide for their children and give them a different life. I truly believe that if these ‘mamas’ are successful, that their children will have a better chance and the cycle of violence will be broken.

Graduation day!

Graduation day!

Mamafrica is currently looking to expand to a bigger building, which will allow for free drinking and bathing water, and more programs! Want to help? You can shop the boutique, make a donation, and contact the team for more information on how to get involved.

Would you like to learn more about the mamas behind the products? Click here to read about their amazing stories!

Looking for other ways to connect with Mamafrica? Check them out on Facebook!

Want to learn more about how the Congo’s conflict minerals make their way from the mines in eastern Congo to the cell phone in your pocket? Watch this informative video below that outlines how consumers can help end this violence:

Additional Resources:

  • Looking for an overview of the Conflict Minerals Crisis? Check out RAISE Hope for Congo’s page here.
  • Watch this inspiring TEDx talk by Congolese activist Bandi Mbubi, on the importance of pressuring companies for conflict-free phones.
  • Want to take action? Click here and here for the different ways YOU can help, including how to make your town and campus conflict-free!
  • Learn how the Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act requires electronic companies who purchase minerals from the Congo to declare it clearly on their audits.
  • Check out the film Stealing Africa, a 55 minute documentary that details how multinationals like Glencore are ‘sucking the continent dry.’
  • Want to learn how the IMF and World Bank were involved in the sale of the mines that led to this conflict? You can read more here (‘Impoverishing a Continent’) and here (‘Why is the IMF Controversial?’)

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