Photo Credit: Weill Media

Cocoa Life and Verification: A Circle of Learning

By Mil Niepold, Senior Mediator, Consensus Building Institute

Mondelēz International Cocoa Life and Verification

By Mil Niepold, Senior Mediator, Consensus Building Institute

My job is to listen, and to encourage others to be excellent listeners. Listening means being open to hearing what people need and want, what works and what doesn’t. Listening gives others, especially those who haven’t been heard, a voice, and this is key to creating and maintaining a good verification system. Furthermore, as someone who has been committed to human rights since high school as a direct result of watching my mother take a stand for civil rights, I know that listening is the cornerstone of progress and change.

A verification system is a way to give voice to the people in cocoa-growing communities and it’s one of the three core principles of the Cocoa Life program. A verification system is an external set of eyes and ears, both looking and listening, to make sure that the program is doing what it set out to do. It’s similar to the model of verifying in the financial sector where books are kept and then auditors check those books. The big difference, however, is that money is quantitative and should be black and white, while human rights are qualitative and therefore not as clear-cut. Verification is how Mondelēz International ensures that the Cocoa Life program is actually supporting the people it’s intended to help.

There are four key elements that create and maintain a strong verification system:

1. Clear Definitions

The most robust verification processes begin by clearly defining what the verifiers will be measuring.

2. Quality Team

It is critical to carefully select high quality verifiers including social scientists, statisticians and researchers (this is called evidence-based policy making) who make sure that the program is in keeping with the standard policies and procedures outlined by the Cocoa Life program.

3. Acute Listening

Listening, instead of pushing one’s own agenda, is a mark of leadership and it’s what a good verification system is built upon: Hearing what the people utilizing the programs communicate and learning from both their words and the data collected.

4. Strong Flexibility

Lastly is course-correcting based on all the information gathered.

Verification is actually part of a circle of learning. If verification were a clock, it’d look like this: At 12:00, the program is
designed. At 3:00, the program is implemented. At 6:00, the program is verified. At 9:00, the data collected is analyzed, and finally at 12:00, new programs are implemented based on what was learned through verifying. Like this, the program is in a constant process of evolution.

There are, of course, some challenges that can be anticipated. One challenge is the complexity of the issues—issues such as child labor, safe farming practices, gender equality and land tenure have existed for hundreds of years and changing them takes time. These are not issues that can be checked off on a list and while some might expect overnight change, it’s not possible. Since not everyone moves at the same speed or possesses the same willingness to change—the success of the program is partially dependent on others. Being careful about the pace of change is crucial because to really inform programs requires the partnership of suppliers, civil society, and government.

Identifying these challenges, however, helps create preparedness. For example, some of the expected delays in change can be remedied by being completely transparent, including keeping stakeholders abreast of what’s being tried, and staying in a constant dialogue with the people using the programs. The commitment is to lasting change over immediate change. Doing what’s right is actually the best way to do business.

In the past, social programs in corporations were built on a foundation of philanthropy and while that was well-meant, it isn’t what Cocoa Life is doing. Philanthropy was then replaced by corporate social responsibility but that is not what Cocoa Life is doing either. Cocoa Life is a pioneer in a better way to do business. In the past I’ve experienced corporations who were unwilling to heed warnings and build safer factories and employ better practices. They put products and profits before people and ultimately their businesses suffered as a result.

There is a business rationale for doing what’s right. Good factories build good products and good practices grow good cocoa. Synergy between doing what it is right–including treating people well and corporate best practices–is a new way to do business. To work, the principles must be seen and felt at every step of the supply chain, from bean to bar, and from farm to factory. Verification will ensure that Cocoa Life is effective, but for me, the most important thing that it will do is ensure that the programs are being tailored to their specific needs–that the people using the programs are truly being heard.


This week Mondelēz International published its Guidance Document and the Key Performance Indicators for the
Cocoa Life program.

  • The Guidance Document summarizes detailed internal guidance for the Cocoa Life program teams.
  • The Key Performance Indicators measure, evaluate and report on the five key areas defining thriving communities: Farming, Community, Livelihoods, Youth and Environment.

These have been developed with the Cocoa Life Advisory Council. Details can be found on the Cocoa Life website

Verification is an essential part of the Cocoa Life approach. Verified data will be used to steer the Cocoa Life program and will enable the Cocoa Life core team to make decisions on where to focus the program to achieve the greatest impact.

The Cocoa Life sustainability program is a $400 million, 10-year investment launched in November 2012,with the aim of improving the livelihoods and living conditions of more 200,000 cocoa farmers and around one million people in cocoa farming communities.

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