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Cocoa industry returns to São Tomé

  • Written by  Harriet Constable
  • Published in Development
Cocoa industry returns to São Tomé
30 Aug
Over 100 years have passed since São Tomé could claim to be the world’s largest producer of cocoa. But investment from Fair Trade companies and global demand for craft chocolate are finally putting this tiny West African country back on the chocolate map

It was the early 1900s, and Portuguese colonisers in the small country of São Tomé, West Africa, were revelling in the fact that they had turned the island in to the world’s largest producer of cocoa. Just a few decades earlier, the Portuguese had transported the first cocoa plants here from Brazil, and through the labour of about 20,000 slaves, business was booming.

The dark and cruel reality of chocolate was, however, soon revealed to the rest of the world by Harper’s Magazine. Author Henry Woodd Nevinson wrote that the São Tomé of 1904 was, ‘a hot-house climate of burning heat and torrents of rain.’ The type of conditions that, ‘kills men and makes the cocoa tree flourish.’ Reports from his later published book, A Modern Slavery, say that the death rate among adult slaves was 12 to 14 per cent, a number that rose to 25 per cent among child slaves. Most died within a few years because, ‘it was very difficult to convince them to live through the misery and homesickness.’

Western consumers reacted with shock and disgust to this news, and much of the production moved from São Tomé to the plantations of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which didn’t make use of slave labour.

Workers on a cocoa farm in in Sao Tome (Image: Divine)Workers on a cocoa farm in in Sao Tome (Image: Divine)

Although big chocolate companies such as Cadbury still continued to favour profits over ethics for many years after, the cocoa industry in São Tomé began to dwindle. After the country’s eventual independence in 1975, the cocoa industry completely ‘fell into neglect’, according to Kristy Leissle, author of the 2018 book Cocoa. Things remained this way until 2009 when the UN’s International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) and Cafédirect, a Fair Trade coffee brand launched in the late 1980s to address the global crash in coffee and cocoa prices, started working with farmers on the island to produce Fair Trade cocoa beans using a co-operative model.

Meanwhile, the global chocolate industry was seeing growing consumer demand for high quality products with clear origins. ‘[There] is a real shift away from the packaged, processed [foods] we’ve seen since the 1950s… growing consumer awareness means that we pay more attention to our food, where it comes from and what it brings to our lives,’ says Leissle.

Craft chocolate – that is, chocolate that differentiates itself by the type of bean, origin of the ingredients, flavour and cocoa content in the bar – has become big business. ‘The craft segment of the industry [will] look at what type of cocoa is growing, the terroir, the husbandry practises, the flavour. [We see] dramatic flavour differences depending on where [the cocoa beans] are grown,’ says Leissle.

Artisanal chocolate makingArtisanal chocolate making

As craft makers seek out new flavours and look to diversify their options, they’re travelling to new parts of the world. São Tomé, with its productive co-op schemes and historic cocoa plantations, was the perfect spot to be rediscovered.

One of the first people to put the island back on the chocolate map was Claudio Corallo, an Italian coffee businessman who purchased a disused plantation on the island in 1997 and brought it back to life. For over a decade he has been championing the island and its cocoa produce, used in his dark chocolate bars, which sell for £15 each.

Famous chocolatier François Pralus has also drawn attention to São Tomé with a chocolate bar featuring a map of the country on the front so consumers can see where their chocolate comes from. The bar is advertised according to its ‘fruity and spicy aroma, with fresh, acidic flavours’ – in fitting with a label you might find on a wine bottle.

Organic range shot

Most recently, Fair Trade chocolate company Divine announced it would be purchasing a large chunk of São Tomé’s cocoa for a new range of organic, high-quality dark chocolate bars, launching in September 2018. Divine, which is 44 per cent owned by Ghanaian cocoa farmers, will be working with a co-operative group in São Tomé called CECAQ-11 to produce the cocoa beans for its new organic range.

Divine CEO Sophi Tranchell said of the move into São Tomé cocoa industry: ‘People are now looking for [chocolate] that is higher cocoa, organic, and with stronger flavours. [São Tomé] is the first place cocoa came in West Africa, so the flavour is distinct. These farmers have managed to achieve Fair Trade and organic status.’ CECAQ-11 co-op director Adalberto Luis says the new deal will: ‘help revitalise the cocoa industry by providing long-term relationships and access to market for cocoa farmers.’

With this new investment, São Tomé farmers plan to build on the successes that their co-operative model has already bought. For example, using money raised from her work with the co-op, 49-year-old cocoa farmer Hortência Pina has been able to improve her crops: ‘My trees are getting old and I am able to replace them with new ones which we have grafted to create better hybrids that are more productive and start fruiting after only two years,’ she says. In recent years, members of CECAQ-11 have also put their Fair Trade premium toward other community-improvement initiatives, such as building a kindergarten.

Hortencia Pina working on her cocoa farm in Sao Tome (Image: Divine)Hortencia Pina working on her cocoa farm in Sao Tome (Image: Divine)

Tranchell believes the future of São Tomé’s cocoa industry is bright, particularly because of the work farmers on the island have done to engage a new generation in the industry. ‘Young men and women are seeing [cocoa] as something they could do to build their future, their income and status,’ she says. ‘The future could be really exciting.’

The growing global consumer interest in what we eat is also a good thing for the community, according to Tranchell: ‘In 1998 when I would ask people where chocolate comes from they would say “Belgium”. Now, we’ve personalised the supply chain. We’ve taken people on a journey to where chocolate really comes from, shown people that what you buy is important, and that it makes a difference to people’s lives.’

Cocoa beans drying in Sao TomeCocoa beans drying in Sao Tome

Divine Chocolate and the farmers of CECAQ-11 are contributing to ‘We Feed The World’, a global photography exhibition, capturing the triumphs and tribulations of smallholder farmers who produce 70 per cent of the world’s food. Visit the Bargehouse Gallery, Southbank, London, 11 to 24 October 2018.

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