WCF President Chris Vincent gives first interview to discuss the organisation’s future role in tackling cocoa sustainability and new partnerships with CHOCOA and the NCA
Vincent took up the position of WCF president on the eve of the last Partnership Meeting in Brussels following a difficult time for the organisation after the sudden resignation of his predecessor Martin Short after less than a year in the job. With industry insiders beginning to question the WCF’s objectives in helping to tackle a wide variety of sustainability issues in the cocoa sector, its reputation suffered another blow when the two main origin countries, Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana, issued a joint statement they would not be sending a delegation to Brussels in protest of pricing issues and LID payments to farmers.
Six months on and Vincent has not only had time to settle into the job, but he is extremely positive about the WCF’s ongoing crucial role in being a facilitator for all the industry stakeholders to come together in a non-competitive space to at least try and collaborate and work together to solve many of the issues that continue to blight the cocoa sector, such as deforestation; child labour and farmer income; and traceability.
Armed with a new strategic review, Vincent is plotting a new course for WCF members, which includes not only major chocolate and cocoa companies but farming communities, governments, civil societies and NGOs.
“The strategy review is an opportunity to redefine, re-look … refresh to give us clarity for where we are now. We finalised it in October and it is our vision of what we want to be … and that is a catalyst to play a leading role in all three focus areas: stopping deforestation and reforestation; combating child labour; and improving farmer income,” he said.
“We then have three activity areas with which we will deliver in those three areas and we're obviously looking to transformative impact and systemic change. So, firstly, we convene our members and if you look at the history of WCF that’s the big success story that we got these companies in a room in what they called the ‘pre-competitive’ space – and the companies sit together to address our three impact areas.”
Vincent joined the WCF as Senior Vice President of programmes in 2020, relocating to its offices in Abidjan in May 2021. He still lives in the Cote d’Ivoire capital. In a significant achievement immediately prior to joining WCF, Vincent raised a big renewable energy fund with 15 West African governmentsand he has experience of facilitating PPP deals for African and global infrastructure projects. Before he went into business, he served as a commando in the British Royal Marines.
We can learn from each other. I think that's important and that's how we can then address the systemic issues. When I use the word ‘collaborative programme’ what I really mean by that is, it is not something that a company or government can do on their own. And that is our challenge, and that is our role
He cites recent WCF-led initiatives such as the Cocoa & Forests Initiative (CFI) and the CocoaAction programmes as demonstrating tangible results in recent years in regards to tackling many of cocoa’s sustainability issues and both will continue after their respective five-year reviews.
Will Cote d’Ivoire and Ghana return to the table?
“We were very sad that the governments didn't come [to the PM in Brussels],” he said, “and we were particularly sad because we have always provided the Partnership Meeting as the opportunity for everybody to speak. But I think, through the strategy refresh, we have positioned ourselves with the governments and the pricing issue is not something that we are involved in, it has to be the companies alone.
“I think we've got to be clear as the WCF about our all role in the [cocoa] pricing debate and there are two angles to it. The first one is, our role is convener and facilitator on the key three sustainability focus areas. Inevitably price is part of the farmer income equation, but the reality is the price is an independent commercial decision for our companies.
“So from a strategy/mandate point of view, that's something that is not a pre-competitive area - that's a mandate answer. The second part of the answer on prices: it's also illegal. Antitrust laws mean companies cannot discuss pricing together. So, we are clear that we are not part of that price debate. What is enormously positive is there is a complexity in getting to solutions, but ultimately, we are aligned. Those three focus areas are exactly what the governments’ focus areas are in origin, but also in producing countries. Our job is to convene with the origin governments to find solutions, and convene the industry and work together to find solutions.”
Vincent revealed that a major new part of the WCF’s strategy moving forward move into longer-term partnerships with the governments in an aligned strategy.
“What does that mean? It means how do we as an industry, as companies align our long-term planning with the long-term planning that any origin government has on national, economic, agricultural, and cocoa levels.
Vincent said the strategy asks questions such as:
'How do we as an industry move with you as a country?’
‘Where do we want this industry to go in 10 years?’
‘We agree on the three areas, but how do we actually make an economic systemic change to the industry?'
He said implementing it is not going to be easy “but the companies are making investments and are making progress and run their own programmes and are doing great work - and the governments are as well, to be fair, and we mustn’t lose sight of that, they're making their own Investments.”
About the WCF
The WCF is a non-profit international membership organisation founded in 2000, with members that include cocoa and chocolate manufacturers, processors, supply chain managers, and other companies worldwide, representing more than 80% of the global cocoa market. WCF’s activities benefit farmers and their communities in cocoa-growing regions of Africa, Southeast Asia, and the Americas
Vincent said the WCF’s mission is to bring to the table both companies and governments to recognize their roles – and collaborate, a collective programme that has scale.
“We can learn from each other. I think that's important and that's how we can then address the systemic issues. When I use the word ‘collaborative programme’ what I really mean by that is, it is not something that a company or government can do on their own. And that is our challenge, and that is our role.”
He told this publication this is what motivates him and excites him most about his job. “At headline level, we're on the same page, we all want the same goal, it's our job to facilitate finding the route.”
On the impending EU legislation on banning any commodities that cause deforestation from entering the bloc, Vincent said work on a national traceability system in Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire has shown the progress they're making.
“I think the very good news from my perspective ia the industry is absolutely behind it and industry wants the countries to have their own national traceability systems, and the origin countries are at the heart of everything.
"So if that law has helped to stimulate that progress, and I think it has, we fully support it and we are trying to do everything that we can."
In the past, the WCF may have been useful to attract funding for sustainability investments and being a convenient mouthpiece for companies unwilling to comment on ‘inconvenient truths’ regarding issues in their supply chains but Vincent hopes the industry and the organisation can move on from any negative perceptions.
“Funding is important, investment is critical, and governments need investment to help them play their role, but I think it's a little bit broader than that given the complexity and the number of stakeholders, the joining the dots for the convening part.
“Look at Europe, you've got six or seven active member states in this legislation You have got four directorates – and If I look at the two African governments, there are four or five ministries involved.
“The funding part is firstly getting companies to invest in the programme themselves, which companies will do because they have already invested a huge amount of money in their own programmes. We need to design programmes that do more and external funding is a piece of that process. Absolutely.
“It’s one of the success factors [attracting finance] and I can only do that if I've been successful at the other part of my job which is convening, it's only by getting everybody to the table that I have something to fund.”
Vincent said he wants to maintain the WCF as an integral part of all the key discussions, because it has so much to bring to the table. In the past year, the WCF and National Confectioners Association in the United States formed an alliance to tackle sustainability issues.
‘Let’s recognise their strengths and our strengths. We each have a distinct market position. I think we have a lot to share about Europe and it would be very smart to find out what's going in the US, and we'll work together [with the NCA] in the US.”
Vincent said one of the successes of the sold-out Brussels Partnership Meeting was audience feedback on the global perspective with the NCA invited to give a presentation on insights as to what is happening in the US. It was also the first time the Asian Cocoa Association attended the WCF gathering.
2024 Partnership Meeting
With the next meeting scheduled to be a double-header with CHOCOA in 2024 (an equally important meeting that attracts high-level debate on sustainability issues), Vincent hailed the Amsterdam Cocoa week as an opportunity for more cooperation and collaboration. “Opening the week with our Partnership Meeting and closing with CHOCOA will be an exciting start to 2024 allowing the global cocoa sector to further our partnerships and strategies to achieve the transition to sustainable cocoa,” he said.
Jack Steijn, co-founder of CHOCOA, who also helped the WCF organise the Brussels meeting last year, is also excited about the two events forming the headlines of the Amsterdam Cocoa Week. “Amsterdam has always been one of the most important hubs in the cocoa sector, for transport, warehousing, trade, and processing. It will now also be one of the most important hubs for discussing and designing sustainability”
After testing for 12 months or so, the WCF is back with a fresh strategy, new partnerships and renewed vigour to help the industry navigate the most pressing sustainability issues in cocoa. “We can all become stronger,” said Vincent, “at the top, everyone's aligned and underneath you have a huge number of actors .. and that's fascinating but I think we can really deliver some quite good things moving forward.”