Terra Preta and Cocoa – a legendary team-up for sustainability

Dr. Burkhard von Stackelberg and Dave Tjiok

Contact: info@chillchoc.de

Until now farming in the tropical region has been well-known as “slash and burn” – burning down centuries-old forests.

Imagine an agro-forestry economy where the soil resources are not being depleted but instead continue to foster healthy tasteful products. Imagine a soil with an enormous biodiversity that regenerates itself continously and enables a sustainable plant nutrition.   

Not a myth but a reality beneath your feet

Terra Preta not just a soil but a myth from the past come to life. It is a cultural technique which enables men to live and thrive in harmony with the agriculture because they help closing natural cycles by using harvest left-overs or organic waste.

Terra Preta – known as „black soil“ in portuguese language – is a natural product, made with the help of man, made by composting organic remains together with biochar. The product is a soil with high nutritient and water capacity, and high biological activity because of its unique porosity structure. We produce this soil out from high-quality composts combined with biochar from waste wood and digestate, which contributes to a high nutritient content of our soils.

Basically Terra Preta is organic waste material which is being mixed with charcoal and being composted and applied on the farming land by mixing it with natural soil.

The Know how of Terra Preta has been lost for centuries after the colonization of Latin America.

The Latin American region has ideal conditions for cocoa cultivation thanks to its fertile soils and a centuries-old tradition of cocoa cultivation. The tropical climate is perfect for an agro-forestry system, where cocoa trees can thrive, protected by rapidly growing shade-giving trees.

Biochar – a „multi-functional Swiss knife tool for the soil

Charcoal or “biochar” as mentioned is being a relevant factor. Of course it is not an option to cut Amazonian trees and turn them to charcoal. We suggest a rather simple low-tech process based on the Kon-Tiki process which has been created by the Ithaca Institute in Switzerland and developed further to an every-day application with training sessions by the social startup “Dein Stück Erde” – english “Your share of soil”.

What are the benefits of Terra Preta on the cocoa products?

Terra Preta is a man-made supply of stable humus, that contributes to the soil capacity in water and nutrients and supplies soil life with rich habitats. Terra Preta’s intensive nutrient and water capacity supplies the plant right to the point when the cocoa plant needs them.

Meanwhile, Terra Preta furthers the biological diversity of soil life. A high diversity reduces the pest pressure on the cocoa plant.

Through the better nutrition status and the lower pest pressure, the plant will be of higher health and thus quality than on conventional agricultural soils. Pesticides can be reduced if not even omitted while retaining high quality .

Heavy Metal effect on cocoa plants

Cocoa is a high-content zinc supply and is one of the plant nutrients with the highest zinc content. But as zinc and cadmium are chemically similar, it is also one of the plants with the highest affinity to cadmium, a harmful heavy metal. Especially young volcanic soils, as found in the Andean region, release higher amounts of cadmium. But, as cadmium has a higher affinity to organic matter than zinc, this can be remedied with a high-organic-content soil, as Terra Preta is. Therefore, Terra Preta is one of the most effective means of lowering the cadmium content in plants in special, and other toxic ions (as aluminium) in general.

Decentralized application and open-source philosophy

We provide the knowledge of Terra Preta as open-source knowledge, to give it back to humanity and South America: We will not charge license fees for the knowledge on Biochar and Terra Preta, but encourage to share that knowledge to anybody who wants to use it. So, this agricultural innovation can be used to strengthen, to empower small-scale farmers all over the world and to feed the world on a decentral scale. The technical solutions we need for global well-being are all out there, the problem is not a technological one. Today’s major innovations not be the technological ones, they will be the social innovations.

Dr. Burkhard von Stackelberg

Dave Tjiok



[This text can be placed in an infobox]

Ecological Economic Social Cocoa forests with Terra Preta ensure:

– positive impact on local and global climate thanks to CO2 sequestration

– biodiversity which contributes to fertility of plants and works as natural pest control at the finca

Agroforestry system creates:

– protected habitat for many animals and plants, biodiversity

– water storage and filter system similar to a forest

– fine cocoa and harvest yields which are sustainable due to the continous humification

– sustainably managed agroforestry systems

– secure and well-paid jobs

– qualified jobs and prosperity in the region

– fair jobs for all employees regardless of gender or ethnicity

Residents protect forests:

– involving locals leads to willingness to protect cocoa forests in the region

– usage of cocoa harvest left-overs which are being used for Terra Preta production

– tradition of cocoa cultivation is strengthened by usage of Terra Preta and leads to more expertise from which the forests benefit

Training and Education

Training programmes and qualification of our employees through courses in Terra Preta and Agro-forestry, job safety and cocoa processing as well as literacy courses if required

Terra Preta in the cocoa production contributes the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN

Goal 6 Clean Water and Sanitation:

Economical use of water and the creation of natural water reservoirs through agroforestry systems.

Goal 13 Climate Action:

Our environmentally friendly agroforestry systems with increasing humic content contribute to climate protection.

Goal 15 Life on land:

Our agro-forestry systems with Terra Preta guarantee biodiversity, the protective functions of the forest and improve the quality of the soil

[for another Info-Box]

Info-Box What is Pyrolysis?

Illustration: Basic principle of pyrolysis – the gas burns and not the wood itself.

Source: Ithaca Institute

Description of the pyrolysis process. When wood is burnt, it is actually not the wood you see burning, but the pyrolysis gas that is generated during the process. A burning match is a good example for the process: When heating wood, first the water is boiled out. In the next phase, the wood heats up until the pyrolysis starts. During the pyrolysis, the wood is converted to char, while wood gas is generated. The combustion of the gas gives heat back to the pyrolysing wood. After an initial heating (match: the ignition head), the process is self-sustaining. In the end, even the char might be oxygenized, with ash as leftover.

Illustration / photos description

The photos are showing the biochar and Terra Preta production process.

All photos are from Burkhard and Dave except the above illustration, that is from the Ithaca Institute

^ Kitchen waste for Terra Preta
^ Biochar Burkhard
^ Kitchen waste for Terra Preta

The hidden treasure of the Bolivian jungle

 Guido Mercado Julio

translated from Spanish by Giulia Porrini

El chocolate” (pronounced chocolhatay), the way people call Theobroma cacao in the Bolivian Amazons, grows wild in big forested areas, known as “islas” (islands in Spanish) in the hot and humid plains of the Bolivian Amazonian basin, mainly in the Beni, La Paz, Santa Cruz and Pando departments. 

El chocolate is a product of paramount importance in of the Bolivian Amazons culture. Indigenous people consider this plant as unique and are certain it is native of this area. It seems logical in fact to consider the Amazon as its birthplace, considering it offers all the climatic conditions Theobroma cacao requires to grow, especially considering temperature and humidity.

De facto it is not totally certain how this plant has been introduced in the Amazon territory, especially considering that it is endemic to inaccessible areas of the riverbank. Evidences suggest that cocoa has been used as an exchange good between the indigenous tribes of the Andean areas many years before the arrival of Europeans in the land now called América. This seems to indicate that either cocoa is native of the region, either it has been introduced there through the pre-hispanic migration from central to South America. According to another theory, cocoa arrived in the region due to the Jesuit missions in the 18th century. This is not easy to prove considering the extremely isolated and remote areas where the islas de chocolate developed. However, in Bolivia the endemic variety is unique and criolla (“native” in Spanish, term used to describe the local, pure variety). Moreover, in the upstream area of the river Iténez it is possible to find a particular cocoa variety considered primitive, characterized by a rough and spiny skin.

One of the characterizing features of the cocoa tree is its permanent verdant state, it never sheds its leaves. They are renovated permanently providing a constant shade around the tree, preventing the evaporation of the water present in the soil and maintaining the needed high percentage of humidity. Entering the so-called islas, the big areas where the cocoa trees grow in a great number, you will immediately perceive a pleasant reduction of the temperature which, outside, exceeds the 35°C in full sun.

The Bolivian islas. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

In the first half of the past century, cocoa plantations had a very important role for the livelihood of the rural communities of this area. Farmers harvested the fruits and traded the beans in the form of panes, flat balls of cocoa made of beans roasted and manually grounded. The panes are used to prepare a traditional drink, the most common way to consume cocoa by the indigenous people. In more recent years, cocoa production experienced a decline, mainly due to two factors. The first one is related to the introduction in the market of cocoa-derived products mostly manufactured outside the country. In particular, we refer to the instant cocoa powder, a product which makes easier and faster the preparation of the drinking chocolate, providing a faster alternative to the traditional method. This method entails the following sequence of steps: grate the “cocoa ball” in water, make it boil, then vigorously stir with a wooden whisk called molinillo. This tool helps the emulsion of the fat in the water in order to obtain a frothy drink. The instant cocoa powder, instead, only requires to be poured in hot water. It is a time-saving product and responds to the needs of the faster rhythm of modern life. In these times, it seems that there is no time to waste, no more space for the traditional drink crafted by the farmers. The second factor, probably the most significant, is determined by the increase in the cattle-breeding sector and in the mechanized cropping of soya, rice and others. Because of that, big portions of forest, which include wild plantations of cocoa, are cut down and transformed into pastures and intensive cropping. The remaining wild cocoa crops localized in remote areas, following the course of rivers, are less attractive to farmers. Besides, flooding-susceptible for at least 3 months a year these areas are also at risk of disappearing.

Market in Trinidad, Bolivia. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

It is actually their inaccessibility and remoteness which guarantee the “purity” of the native cocoa growing in this region. In fact, although foreign varieties have been introduced in the country, they have not reached the islas of wild cocoa in the Amazonian Plain. The introduction of new varieties has been experimented in the sub Andean region including the Northern part of La Paz Department and South of Cochabamba. In this area cocoa crops are properly managed during the whole plantation process, whereas, as we are going to explain afterwards, in the Amazons there is no human interaction other than the harvesting.

Once a year, farmers living in the communities settled on the proximity of the rivers relatively close to the islas of cocoa organize expeditions in the jungle to collect the beans. In this area cocoa fruits get ripe during the rainy season, from December to March. Farmers navigate the rivers in flood and through inundated pampas up to 5 days on board of rustic traditional boats. They settle camps in the islas and they stay there all the necessary time to obtain the final product. Farmers harvest, break the fruits, collect the beans and let them drain in hanging bags locally knitted using palm leaves[1] for three/four days. Then, cocoa beans are spread on the top of palm leaves and left there drying under the sun. When beans are ready, farmers get back on their boats and transport the dried beans to the closest market to sell them. The harvest time is off, and nobody goes back to the cocoa islas until the following year. During this time, it is up to the wild fauna to guarantee the survival of the crop spreading the seeds around the islas.

The whole family participates in the expeditions. Women and children generally follow the men in the plantations leaving homes and schools, being exposed to jungle dangers and diseases: the raining season in fact is the period in which mosquitos and midges are the most prolific. In some cases, the family splits temporarily in order to protect the children from these risks: children remain in the communities with family relatives while parents deal with the harvesting activities in the plantations.

Mostly, farmers use the so-called “habilito” system in order to make possible the expedition to the wild cocoa forest. This system consists in using funding to cover food supplies and other expedition costs with the commitment of paying it back with part or the totality of the beans sale profit.

The cocoa local market is small, and the beans quality is not high enough to qualify them suitable for the upscale international market. Farmers know the offer is high considering the small market and is concentrated in the same short period. They try to sell their yield as fast as possible, while the price lowers dramatically. The income then hardly compensates the sacrifices made and do not provide the condition to improve farmers living conditions, causing more and more the abandonment of this traditional harvesting practices.

The biggest communities in the area are Camiaco and Gundonovia. Camiaco is located at around 100km from Trinidad, the capital of the Beni Department, and they are connected by an unpaved road built 5 years ago. However, during the raining season this road is unpassable and the only alternative is travelling by canoes. Gundanovia is located 3 days of navigation from Camiaco, through the fast-flowing river Mamoré and its tributary the river Sécure.

As mentioned before, farmers enter the wild cocoa islas once a year and only to collect fruits, they do not implement pruning or any other plant management practices. This results in a lower yield per hectare compared to the plantations where management activities are carried out. However, the low productivity is compensated by the considerable islas size and the absence of maintenance costs. On the other hand, this practice guarantees the total naturality of the production, the ecosystem protection and the conservation of the abundant local fauna.

In the last years, cocoa produced in Baures (central area of Beni department) has been presented by some private enterprises at the Salon du Chocolat in Paris obtaining excellent results. Back in 2013 this cocoa has been awarded as one of the 18-best cocoa of the world. Cocoas produced in different areas of the country are following the same path with similar good expectation, cocoa produced in Riberalta (northern part of Beni) is one example. This reflects the resurgence of cocoa farming in the regional economy and the farmers’ reconsideration and exploitation of the treasure hidden in the Bolivian Amazonian Plain.

The most unseen and concealed cocoa is the one growing in the Southern part of Beni, on the shore of the river Mamoré, the “mother of the waters” in the local language, in the Marbán province, probably due to its remoteness. The closest community is in fact Camiaco, reachable only by water during the whole raining season.

People living in the communities of this region are getting aware of the importance to protect and rationally take advantage of the islas’ natural product who they consider as a hidden treasure. They want to preserve cocoa trees for its economic, ecologic and nutritional value: a perfect habitat for a rich fauna which efficiently captures CO2. They are making efforts to prevent the cutdown of the islas, its fall in private hands, or its replacement with other crops, as well as the introduction of foreign cocoa varieties that could negatively affect the present ecosystem.

This commitment toward the protection of the area has been boosted even more by a sensory analysis of the islas wild cocoa, realized in Europe. The promising results are particularly positive in comparison with the cocoa of other Bolivian regions, due to its distinctive aroma, taste and texture. From the same study, it has been recognized that some improvements need to be implemented in the post-harvest activities, in order to enhance the beans quality. On their side, farmers express the need for training, support, as well as post-harvest equipment, realizable using local natural materials. In this sense, it would be helpful to create a pilot farmers group which will commit to implement these recommended good practices. The idea is that the resulting high-quality product will be then feasible to enter an upscale market and be sold at a higher price justifying the effort made.

Another useful action would be to build some collection centres in the communities nearby the islas in order to centralize the post-harvesting activities. Farmers will transport the ripe mazorcas, the cocoa fruits, from the plantations to the collection centres where women will be in charge of the fermentation and drying processes. The mazorcas transport will be realized by water on barges, which guarantee quality, hygiene and are apt to maintain the fruits’ characteristics. In this way, women will contribute to the family income without leaving the community. Children as well will not interrupt their attendance at school. The financing system often needed now, the so-called habilito, would cease to be required and a higher income would result from the sale of a higher quality product. The guarantee of a higher family income will respond to the superior effort surely needed. However, in order to put into practise these ideas the need for a financial and practical external support is undeniable.

In the same region, but in an area further away from the river and the wild cocoa islas, there are other little villages and farmers communities which exploit the production of cocoa criollo growing spontaneous in the gardens. Given the small plantation extension, the production is very low, but the quality looks similar to that of the wild islas. This can be explained by the fact that both trees belong to the same, local variety and are part of the same ecosystem in terms of environmental temperature, humidity and soil characteristics.

^ On the way to Camiaco, reachable only by water during the raining season.
Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Inhabitants of these rural communities, among which we can mention Villa Alba, San Andrés and San Lorenzo, belonging to the municipality of San Andrés in the province of Marbán, live of traditional and rudimentary cropping, using manual tools and producing goods like yuca, plantain, rice, corn, sugar cane etc. In addition, they exploit the fruit trees spontaneously growing in the gardens or canchones (enclosed fields arising around the houses), mainly cocoa, avocado, citrus fruits, achaicharu’ (fruiting tree related to the mangosteen), mango etc.

Young people of the communities generally work seasonally in cattle farms of the area as labourers or move to the capital Trinidad, where they mainly find work as builders. During the raining season, villages and fields remain under the water for long time and crops can be lost while cattle farmers need to move to other dried regions. The dried season, whose peak is generally from July to November, is also very intense. The high temperature and the lack of rain make the pastures and forests very dry and at risk of fire. The shortage of water in the areas further away from the rivers frequently causes fish and cattle mortality. Cocoa plantations, instead, are not affected by the drought as heavily as other crops thanks to the thick layer of their own dried leaves covering the ground. This leaves coating maintains the humidity in the soil while providing the nutrients to the plants through decomposition.

Rural communities take advantage of the fruits of their small cocoa plantations for the domestic consumption and sell the extra in the local market. These communities support the farmers who harvest cocoa in the islas along the river. They hope one day to be part of a bigger market meeting the expected demand increase through the shift of lands from pastures to cocoa plantations. This would be the way towards a good improvement of farmers quality of life.

After this presentation of the cocoa farming in Bolivia, we want to present also a little tale by the same author which describes from a closer point of view farmers life in the communities.

It is 5 in the morning, and the first light of the day paints the horizons with all the possible colours above the turbid water of the river Mamoré, “the mother of the waters”. The river is at its highest level and floods where the land is low and the streams run, inundating the pampa and most of the jungle. There is hustle at the port of Camiaco, a rural village consisting in an assembly of wooden huts. Roofs are made of leaves of motacú or chuchío palm, a species of cane which grows copious on the riverbank. Three “chocolateros[2]” families bid farewell/take leave to relatives and friends and get ready to get on their rustic boat to go harvest in the chocolatales[3] on the riverside. They will navigate for 3 days to reach the plantations, in big remote virgin islas (islands), where they will stay during one, two or three months. For this reason, they delegate the job of looking after their hens, homes, ducks to whom remains in the village. The cropping has been flooded so there is no job left to do, except to prevent the cattle from invading the banana and plantain plantations and collect the fruits.

^ Street of the community of Camiaco during the raining season.
Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Camiaco is the last small village in the southern Beni department which is reachable by road. However, this road lies unused during the summer or raining season, which they call el tiempo de agua, “time of water”. During this period of time, which generally lasts 3 months, the unique way is by water. Canoes equipped with oars or outboard motors gain importance while mainland paths lie abandoned. They navigate on rivers, streams, flooded lowlands and pampas looking for the most direct way to get to the closest community which, in the case of Camiaco, is Loreto, the capital of the province. Recently, electricity has been provided but people are not used to it yet, they keep going to bed early in the evening and getting up at dawn. The river is the main water supplier for generic uses, while the drinking water comes from a borehole without any potabilization/purification treatment. There is no sewage service and the mosquito net is indispensable to keep the mosquito away while sleeping.

In this side of the world, the word chocolate refers to the cocoa tree, the mazorca (the fruit), the beans or seed, the paste obtained from the roasted and grounded beans, the delicious hot drink… The cacao islas, “cocoa island”, are called chocolatal. Cocoa trees grow wild, not being planted by anyone and farmers harvest them for their daily consumption. Cocoa grows all around their houses in all the villages of the area, so they do not bother planting more cocoa. Their main activity regard other cropping, especially yucca, corn and rice. Indigenous people here think that cocoa is a blessing, a gift from the nature, essential part of their diet. They roast the beans and prepare a cocoa paste, panes de chocolate, gently simmered and served steaming, pure or with milk. They make a delicious gallinazo, a traditional plate very similar to the arroz con leche (rice with milk) recipe, but with hot chocolate instead of milk, or prepare tujuré, corn dough cooked with chocolate.

El chocolate, or “chucraté” in the local dialect (one of the 36 indigenous Bolivian languages), is a fruit kindly dispensed by the abundant nature of the endless Amazonian forest of the Beni region. Here it grows since immemorial times, nobody planted it, it grows wild like all the other trees of the jungle grow, maybe transported with the pre Colombian migrations or maybe native to this region of the world, then spread in the rest of South America through these very migrations. What is certain is that it is there, growing in the houses’ courtyards, in the middle of the forest and in the huge “islands” on the riverbank.

The islas located on the rivers shore are far away from the human settlements and are, hence, completely wild, virgin, pure, belonging to a variety considered “criolla” (“native” in Spanish). Its propagators are natural: monkeys, parrots, wild boars and squirrels. They have a natural defence: they are far away from big human settlements, without any communication or interaction with them until its fruits are ready to be collected in the raining season and the area lies flooded for approximately three months. Only the efforts of those locals who dare to face the river navigating on a fragile boat, to deal with the dangers of the jungle, to fight with mosquito clouds and to risk to fall sick, to build unstable camps using natural materials found in the jungle itself, like branches, palm and leaves  surviving at least a month with what they manage to get from the nature: fish, wild animal’s meat, fruits and, obviously, chocolate.

They collect the fruits, open them and dry the beans in the same place, fighting with the rain and the mosquitos. The work is hard and demanding but the family is united and strong, they know about the risks and are used to sacrifice. Farmers are protected from the unforgiving sun by the impenetrable canopy, the temperature is tolerable in the shade despite the average temperature of 34° C and while harvesting workers enjoy the unique flavour of the pulp surrounding the beans. Children are agile and expert in climbing the thin branches and get to the most difficult fruits; women are fast and precise opening the mazorcas and are in charge of the meal preparation, using the limited ingredients to feed the family; men bring the beans to the camp carrying heavy bags. There, beans will be fermented in hanging bags and dried spread on palm leaves knitted in a forest clearing. They are constantly attentive to the roar of the jaguar or the presence of a sneaky rattlesnake; the birds singing is warning the danger. They hunt and fish in the chocolatal and its surroundings helped by the dogs, their irreplaceable companion.

^ Wild nature of Beni Department, Bolivia. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

The reward will come when they will be back at the community’s port with their precious cargo.  some of it will be deliver to whom supported them through the “habilito” system, the trader who financed food and expenses for the travel. What is left will be sold preferably to a known trader or to the best bidder. Everything goes to the local market; they do not know that this treasure could be sold to the other side of the world.

The harvest is off, and the forest will be waiting a year for the gatherers to come back during the following season. Until that moment it will not receive any human visit and its natural permanent inhabitants will be again in command, enjoying the perpetual shade and the late fruits. Boars, birds, insects, reptiles, predators…the wildlife will continue harmoniously with the wild cocoa.

I do not know if it is the lush jungle, the green colour of the forest and the pampa, if it is the river or the closeness with such a plentiful and diverse fauna, the hot climate, the humidity or the chocolate which they consumed so abundantly; what is certain is that people who harvest this incredible fruit in the middle of the jungle are always joyous. Walking barefoot they sing, their clothes torn apart and they smile, you bring them in the middle of the forest and they dance, receiving a low income for their hard work and they carry out other jobs singing, whistling, smiling, cultivating the land and fishing in the river…They live like the wild cocoa trees growing on the riverbank: in complete harmony with the nature. They are guardians like the river, extremely welcoming they open their arms towards everybody like trees.

When you eat some chocolate, you can taste the exuberant wilderness, the flavour of the forest, the river, the rain, the soil, the shade, the sacrifice, the efforts, the goodness. Enjoy, and send a grateful thought to the men who live in the forest, who is offering you a treasure, his treasure.

[1] A particular fermentation method called “en sacos”. Beans are left inside hanging bags for 3 to 5 days, while the sugar present in the pulp surrounding the beans ferments. During this process an acidic liquid is produced; it drains down from the bags and is collected in bucket. After several months of fermentation, it is used as vinagre.

[2] Cocoa collectors/producers

[3] Cocoa plantation

The cocoa international value chain: how many actors are involved between the cocoa plantation to chocolate shop?

 Giulia Porrini

 contact: giulia.porrini31@gmail.com

The number of transformations a cocoa bean undergoes before becoming chocolate gives us an idea of the amount of people involved in the cocoa value chain. With the concept of value chain, we refer to “the linked set of value creating activities all the way from basic raw material sources for component suppliers through the ultimate end-use product delivered into the final customers’ hands”[1]. Basically, we follow the raw material, the cocoa bean, from the plantation to the final product offered to the consumer, focusing on the actors who play a role within the series of transformation activities. Beyond acknowledging the long chain of people involved, it is very important to understand the kind of relationships and dynamics between them. The size, economic power, vulnerability connected to risks, integration into the market etc. are all factors that affect the strength of each actor and his sustainability.

We will analyse briefly the value chain segments, considering supply, processing activities, and distribution. We will focus on the demand, describing the new tendencies, and, finally, discuss the main cocoa international value chain characteristics.


The cocoa supply is concentrated in a very narrow geographic band near the equator, between 20ºN and 20ºS, due to climatic and rainfall requirements of the crop.

This band includes:

  • West Africa, in particular Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon and Togo,
  • parts of Central & South America, especially Brazil, Ecuador, Peru, Dominican Republic, Colombia, Mexico, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama and
  • Southeast Asia, mainly Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and Malaysia.
^ Farmer climbing on a ladder to harvest cocoa in Bolivia.
Photo by Andrea Onelli

Native of the upper Amazon region of northwest South America, it spread in Central America and has been imported by colonialists in Africa and Asia during the 19th century in order to meet the growing demand. In particular, it seems that the first cacao plant growing in the African region was localized on the island of San Thomé in 1822, introduced by the Portuguese[2]. In the 1870s cocoa plants have been introduced also in the West African Gold Coast and Southeast Asia[3].

World cocoa production has risen erratically from almost 2.9 million tonnes in the 2000/2001 to almost 4.8 million tonnes in the 2018/2019[4], with an average annual growth rate of 3.2%, whose deviations are mainly due to the influence of climatic factors. According to the 2018 data, the 76% of the production is grown in Africa, 17% in Latin America, and the remaining 7% in Asia/Oceania[5].

The International Cocoa Organization (ICCO)[6] reports that Ivory Coast is the biggest producer: its production reached the 44% of the world production in 2018/19 and is steadily growing.  Ghana and Indonesia have been slowly decreasing in the last decade representing, respectively, 18.7% and, 4.5%. Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia are the three largest producing countries and, in aggregate, account for approximately 67.2% of the global production.

The following four largest producers are Ecuador (6.2%) which lately overcome Cameroon and Nigeria (5.1% and 5.2% respectively) and Brazil (4%), representing jointly the 20% of cocoa beans yield.

Cocoa is predominantly a smallholder crop, more than 90% of world cocoa production originates in fact from small, family-run farms, with approximately five to six million cocoa farmers worldwide. The typical farm are smallholdings of under 5 hectares, with the exception of Ecuador and Brazil, where the large-estate structure dominates. Yield per hectare varies not only by region, but also by country and by cocoa variety. There are two main categories of cocoa plantation: agroforestry and full sun system. The traditional system mainly used by smallholder farmers is the first one whereby forest is selectively thinned so that cocoa and other trees (e.g. fruit trees) can be planted beneath the remaining canopy[7]. This system has the potential of serving both economic and environmental ends, seen by many as the best method for preserving some of the intact biodiversity of the Atlantic Rainforest, especially in Latin America. The other system is the full sun plantation, an intensive monoculture mainly used in African big crops, where the original forest remains only in patchy fragments[8].

Most of the cocoa production is a bulk good (conventional cocoa beans) with enormous amounts of beans from different origins mixed together during the processing activities; on the other hand, there is the “Cacao fino de aroma”. The Fino de Aroma denomination is an ICCO classification which describes an exquisite aroma and flavour of the beans, which is generally recognized to derive from criollo and trinitarian varieties. The proportion of fine or flavour cocoa in the total world production of cocoa beans has always been relatively small and has being falling over the years. From between 40% and 50% at the beginning of the 20th century, with Ecuador and Trinidad & Tobago being the major producers, it currently represents just over 5% per annum, 76% of which is grown in Latin America.

^ Cocoa farmer in Brazil. Photo by Andrea Onelli

Primary Processing

Besides the plantation managing and harvesting activities, farmers are in charge of the so-called primary processing: fermentation and drying process. These steps are very delicate and responsible for the development of those characteristics which determine the beans quality. Usually each farmer independently undertakes these processes and sell the beans once dried. However, there are more and more examples of farmers that, when logistic and social conditions allow it, organize themselves in groups. Joined in cooperatives and associations, farmers bring their yield in gathering centres near the plantations, where they are mixed together and processed in big batches. In this way they are able to put on the market bigger quantity of a uniform product, which is exactly what cocoa buyer needs. Sometimes chocolate producers in cocoa producer countries prefer to control the whole transformation process starting from the primary processing (given its paramount importance to obtain high quality chocolate). In this case, farmers are asked to sell beans still wet. Even though this seems an attractive selling opportunity, since it entails less work for the farmers, it is not the best option. Unprocessed beans’ price is obviously lower than dried beans one, which means a loss in profitability for the farmers. Anyway, this practise represents an exception. The big majority of farmers sell dried beans, either independently, or through a farmers’ organization. Directly, or through one or more traders, the cocoa beans end up in the hands of chocolate makers or grinders who are responsible for the secondary processing.

Secondary Processing

The secondary processing activities encompasses all the transformations between dried cocoa beans and cocoa derivates like cocoa liquor (or mass), cocoa butter, cocoa powder, and chocolate. Whereas the primary processing must take place in the producing countries, in the farm ground or nearby, the secondary processing has always been concentrated in other areas of the world, mainly for historical reasons.To explain this value chain’s characteristics, we need to go back to the 16th century, when Spanish colonists brought the exotic beans to Europe. While in their home countries, cocoa beans were consumed in a cold, spicy drink, the xocolatl, Europeans explored different ways to enjoy them. Consumed hot due to the cooler climate and with the addition of sugar and old-world spices to meet the local taste, cocoa spread fast in Europe. During the Industrial Revolution some important discoveries changed the course of cocoa consumption. First of all, the introduction of the steam engine made it possible to mechanize the cocoa bean grinding, progressively making the cocoa power affordable to the mass. In 1828 for the first time a hand-operated cocoa press filtered out the cocoa butter from the beans, allowing the extraction of the most expensive and precious cocoa component. Moreover, this discovery has been the foundation of the invention of chocolate as we know it. Adding a part of the so obtained cocoa butter to the cocoa mass (instead of using water, as every other chocolate maker did at the time), in 1847 in his laboratory in Bristol, Joseph Fry created the first chocolate bar. The new „eating chocolate“ has been incredibly successful, and in the early 20th century it outsold drinking chocolate. In 1875, in Switzerland another revolutionary change occurred when Daniel Peter produced the first milky chocolate by adding to the liquor an at-the-time new powdered milk developed by the chemist Henri Nestlé, an expert in milk products. Finally, in 1879, the texture and taste of chocolate has been further improved with the invention of the conching machine by Rodolphe Lindt. The fact that all these discoveries have taken place in Europe reflects the interest in this new product. “The industry is centred in Europe, that is where all the production technology comes from, where all the innovations regarding manufacturing take place”- writes J.G. Brenner in her book “Inside the secret worlds of Mars and Hershey”. It does not surprise that nowadays the majority of the world’s cocoa is imported, transformed, and consumed in Europe, followed by North America (United States and Canada). In 2011, the largest cocoa trade flow was between Africa, the world’s largest cocoa producing region, and the European Union, the world’s largest cocoa consuming region, representing 54% of the world total[9].

^ Drying cocoa beans on wooden boards. Behind, a traditional house in the indigenous communities around Camiaco, Bolivia. They are built on two floors to cope with the flooding problem, frequently happening during the raining season. Photo by Giulia Porrini

Over recent years, it is possible to see a tendency towards a more uniform global distribution of secondary processing activities, especially considering those developing countries where chocolate consumption is increasing. For example, countries like Indonesia and Brazil, two traditional exporter countries, are now net importers of beans from West Africa due to the rapidly growing domestic demand for chocolate.  In the 14 years between 2000 and 2014, grinding activities have increased by 11.6% in Europe and by only 0.06% in America while those in Africa and Asia and Oceania have more than doubled[10].

Nevertheless, despite this trend towards redistribution, the major part of dried cocoa beans produced in the world remains destined for exportation (55%).

Within Europe, the major grinders are Germany and Netherlands where respectively 9,6%

and 12,7% of the total world cocoa beans are processed. In Africa, the major grinders are also the main producers: Côte d’Ivoire (12.3%), and Ghana (6.3%).

Regarding the Americas, United States grind almost 8.3% of total cocoa beans, followed by Brazil

which processes almost 5%. Lastly, within Asia and Oceania, Indonesia is the biggest cocoa processor, being responsible of the 10.4% of the global grinding activities, increasing by 3% in the last 4 years[11].

It is important to make some comments regarding the actors that get involved in the cocoa processing at this point of the chain. Below, we present different categories of actors whose similar roles can be mistaken.

  • Cocoa grinders and processors are the companies that buy huge quantities of cocoa beans and produce semi-finished goods like cocoa nibs, cocoa liquor or mass, butter and powder. This category is dominated by big multinational companies like Barry Callebaut, Olam, Cargill, Ecom etc. Even though consumers are generally not familiar with these brands, their product is contained in the majority of the confectionery product available in the shops. Two processors, Barry Callebaut (which bought Singapore Ldt in 2012), and Cargill (after its merger with ADM in 2014, which has been acquired by Olam International in 2015), produce almost 80% of the world cocoa products.
  • Chocolate producers or cocoa manufacturers are those who process the beans and make chocolate and chocolate confectionery for the mass market. This category is represented by very popular companies like Mondelēz International, Nestlé, Mars, Hershey etc. In 2012, only five companies (Mars, Molendéz International, Nestlé, Hershey’s and Ferrero) accounted for 88% of the confectioner’s market.

Despite their massive market share, these giants are not the only ones that transform cocoa in chocolate. There are still some little companies producing craft chocolate on a smaller scale, usually of a higher/premium quality, but at a disadvantage to the bulk, industrial market.

  • By “chocolate makers” or “bean to bar producers” we refer to companies with a small processing capacity[12] that produce chocolate in small batches from fermented and dried specialty cocoa. Chocolate manufacturers and makers differ in terms of size and market: big companies aiming at the mass market on one side, and small companies producing high quality chocolate for a niche market of aware consumers on the other. Obviously, they use different equipment and techniques according to the beans’ characteristics, the products they aim to and the investment they can afford.
  • Finally, chocolatiers or chocolate artisans usually buy couverture chocolate (chocolate with a specific percentage of added cocoa butter) directly from chocolate manufacturers/processors. It is used for the production of chocolate pralines, truffle, bars and other final products. They are specialized in the very last part of the cocoa transformation, creatively involved to create sophisticated treats they generally cannot afford to invest in the whole cocoa transformation process.


The traditional manufacturers and consumers of chocolate are Europe and United States, with a consumption of 1,812 and 775 million tonnes respectively in 2013[13]. The EU accounts for almost 50% of world consumption of cocoa beans, importing 1.2 billion Euros worth of confectionery goods and products and exporting products worth over 4.4 billion Euros[14]. On the other hand, the U.S. chocolate industry consumes USD 1.4 billion in cocoa and cocoa products. Even if Western Europe remains the largest chocolate market in the world, a slow growth suggests saturation.

Analysing recent decades, we can summarize the general chocolate market trends by analysing two main tendencies: on one side a new rising interest in chocolate and confectionery products in Asian and South American markets, on the other the growth of niche specialty and certified market in countries where the consumption of conventional cocoa products is not increasing anymore: EU and North America.

According to Mondelez, in 2014 the following eight are the markets where the market growth is strongest, driving 70% of the world’s confectionery growth: Brazil, China, Colombia, India, Russia, South Africa, Turkey, and Vietnam. Russia is the only emerging market to feature in the top 20 consuming nations with the highest chocolate consumption among the BRIC and MINT nations. Turkey and India have been pointed out as the main actors of the future chocolate market. In Asia, Japan is the largest consumer market for chocolate confectionery, producing more than 90% of chocolate (with a manufacturer’s value of USD 38 million) and importing the remaining part, to meet the domestic demand, from U.S., Australia, Belgium, China, South Korea, France, Italy, and Switzerland. The other two major emerging markets are China and India. Chocolate consumption in China has risen robustly in recent years: in 2010, the population of China consumed 40,000 tons of chocolate, while nowadays it has risen by 75% to 70,000 tons. The estimated Indian demand, instead, has reached 45,000 tons in 2013. In Latin America, the largest consumer is Brazil, where consumption has touched 198 million tonnes in 2013, turning Brazil, a traditionally exporting country, into an importing one.

With regards to traditional chocolate markets, like EU and North America, luxury chocolate market of artisan brands is expanding. Chocolate products are turning from a mass product into a niche high-quality good whose social and environmental impact is a key element in consumers’ choice. As well as other food product, in developed markets the products’ origin is an increasingly important driver in the consumer purchasing decisions. The traditional cocoa consuming countries of Western Europe (Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Switzerland and the United Kingdom) as well as Japan are the main consumer markets for fine flavour cocoa, while the United States of America uses this type of cocoa on a smaller scale.

Drying structure in a big cocoa plantation in Brazil. The roof can slide to cover the beans or leave them under the sun depending on the weather and the sun’s strength.
Photo by Giulia Porrini

Since the beginning of the new century the international interest for certified products such as cocoa has grown considerably. This tendency results from an increasing sensibility towards social and environmental product impact, critical elements in the moment of purchase. Both production and sales of Fairtrade cocoa have been growing at a relatively steady rate over the last years (from 11% to 50% per annum from 2008 to 2011) and volumes of Fairtrade certified sales are expected to continue their rapid growth pattern. Public commitments by multinational companies and nation legislation will likely lead to reductions in the gap between supply and demand in the coming decades. A positive trend is visible also in the demand for the other kinds of certified cocoa, particularly for what concerns Organic cocoa and fine aroma cocoa. This is the reason why all stakeholders within the cocoa value chain, from the largest manufacturing multinational companies to the smallholder farmers in developing countries, are involved in this new tendency.

Many major chocolate companies recently started using certified cocoa. There are various reasons for companies to move to certified supply chains: supply security, demand from consumers, improvement of brand reputation, credibility of claims, transparency of (a part of) the supply chain, cost reduction in sustainability processes, and efficiency. On the other hand, there is confusion regarding the amount of available certified cocoa in the market. Some companies claim that they cannot increase purchases of certified cocoa due to a lack of supply. Standards Bodies[15] and farmers, on the contrary, indicate that production of certified cocoa is far higher than demand. Although there are valid potential reasons for this overshoot, the current significant differences warrant further research on this gap in claimed supply and claimed demand (Cocoa Barometer[16] 2012).

In 2008, Cadbury (now acquired by Mondelez, formerly Kraft Foods) was the first major chocolate company to declare the use of certified cocoa. Concerning the major manufacturers, each of them follows different strategies in defining sustainability: some will use certification of the standard bodies, some are working through their own projects, and others are combining both approaches. In 2009, Mars was the first major global chocolate company to commit to use 100% certified cocoa for their entire range by 2020, followed by Ferrero, Nestlé and Hershey which made their commitment to be compliant to renowned standards with some spatial or temporal constraints. Moreover, even at a national level, some countries have started implementing regulation concerning the import of certified product: the Netherlands, the global leader in cocoa imports, have committed to use sustainable cocoa for all domestic cocoa and chocolate products by 2025.

From the production point of view, the past years have seen a significant rise in certified cocoa production. Considering Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ Certified production, the share of certified beans has risen from 3.4 to 33% of the world total production in between 2009 and 2013. As to what concern Organic cocoa production, sources are contradictory: an estimation presented by ICCO suggested 0.5%of the world production, while according to the International Institute of Sustainable Research (IISD) the percentage of organic cocoa in 2011 was equal to 2.5%, namely 104,000 metric tons. The bulk of Fairtrade production is concentrated in Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Dominican Republic, Ecuador and Peru; while Latin America[17] produces 70% of global organic cocoa beans. Dominican Republic is the largest supplier of organic cocoa worldwide with an annual volume of 5 000 tonnes[18].

Dried cocoa beans in a bag, ready to be traded. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Discussion and Conclusion

As you can notice from this brief overview there is a strong juxtaposition between the small family-run farms where cocoa is produced, and the few, large multinational companies in the North hemisphere where chocolate is manufactured and consumed. These two worlds appear to be divided, far apart in terms of localization and characteristics.

Only 8 traders and grinders control approximately three quarters of the worldwide cocoa trade. Five companies (Mars, Molendéz International, Nestlé, Hershey’s and Ferrero) accounted for 88% of the confectionary market in 2012. These impressive numbers show the asymmetry in terms of economic power between the actors involved in the chain and, at the same time, the concentration of the companies operating the downstream activities. Technically, we can speak about a bi-polar governance, where one pole, and the most powerful, is represented by the grinders, who are located in both producing and consuming countries, and the second pole by the large chocolate manufacturers. In this scenario, farmers are not actively involved at any point in the balance of power.

Another key point characterizing the cocoa value chain is the uneven value distribution.

Considering the chain as a whole, the economic value is not generated by the raw material: almost the totality of the final product value is added by the companies carrying out the downstream activities, normally operating in big consumer countries. Looking at the value distribution in the chain we can see that only 6% goes to the producers, whereas the other 94% is divided among the actors implementing the secondary processing and distribution.

The 3 mentioned value chain characteristics, namely (i) the strong fragmentation and disarticulation between upstream and downstream activities, so far apart and badly connected, (ii) the high concentration of multinationals in the downstream market and (iii) the uneven value distribution between actors, explain and weaken the farmers position. They appear excluded, passive participant of the chain, with low or insignificant bargaining power, little or no opportunity to improve their position by themselves.

Still, the producers are the ones that bear all the risks related to weather, diseases and the other environmental variables as well as the fluctuation of the international price. Moreover, it is important to notice that the actual beans quality is created by the farmers. The quality in fact does not depend only on the cocoa variety and the weather condition, the 70% of it depends on human action. The crop maintenance, the harvesting timing and technique, and precise first processing activities strongly determine the quality. If these delicate activities are not carried out in the best way, it will not be possible to enhance the quality of the final product during the following stages.

In spite of that, in a market where the 80% of world cocoa products are produced by only two multinational companies (Barry Callebaut and Cargill), it appears clear that quality is not the main goal. In a market characterized by such a production rush, the farmers position and the way they work do not make any difference. Quantity and consistency are the most valuable variables. The actual cocoa taste becomes secondary, it can be corrected and “standardized” afterwards, in the processing factories. Reacting to this pressure, producers ended up focusing on productivity, at the expense of quality. This contributes to the increase of agrochemical use, intensive plantation areas at the expense of the rainforests, highly- productive cocoa clones at the costs of plants biodiversity, or, more and more frequently, it determines the shift in labour force and land use out of cacao into more profitable products or the abandonment of the cocoa plantation.

However, despite these being the general tendencies characterizing the global cocoa value chain, increasingly numerous are the examples of farmers or group of farmers that are investing time and energy to improve their production. Willing to focus and learn about the environmental impact of production and the reasons behind the implementation of agroforestry system plantations, they are more and more aware of the importance of the “first processing” activities. The promotion of training projects with cocoa producers, with the opportunity to invest in transformation equipment and facilities open the way to the improvement of production quality. This is the first step to enter niche market, with a short value chain and fair recognition for all of the actors involved. At the same time, the acknowledgement of the weaknesses within to the cocoa value chain by the consumers is of paramount importance, and is able to shift the demand, through more aware everyday purchasing decisions.

Giulia Porrini

MBA development economics



[1] Shank, J., & Govindarajan, V. (2004). Strategic cost management: The value chain perspective.

[2] FN Howes – African Affairs, 1946 – academic.oup.com

[3] A Booth – 2007 – Colonial legacies: Economic and social development in East and Southeast Asia

[4] Forecast by ICCO: file:///C:/Users/Giulia/Downloads/Production_QBCS%20XLV%20No.%201.pdf

[5] https://www.statista.com/statistics/235975/percentage-of-global-cocoa-production-by-world-region/

[6] ICCO is a forum established in 1973 by the UN, with governmental members from production and

consumption countries with the aim of administering the first International Cocoa Agreement. It is now the main world forum for the gathering and dissemination of information about cocoa, it promotes cocoa research

and studies of the economics of cocoa production, consumption and distribution and encourages development

projects concerning cocoa.

[7] May P., Vegro R., Menezes JA (1993). Coffee and cacao production and processing in Brazil.

Clay J (2004). World agriculture and the environment. Island Press, Washington

[8] This theme is further developed in the relative article “Cocoa production systems. Agroforestry system vs full sun plantation”

[9] The World Cocoa Economy: Past and Present, 26 July 2012. Published by ICCO – https://www.icco.org/about-us/international-cocoa-agreements/cat_view/30-related-documents/45-statistics-other-statistics.html

[10] Cocoa Market Situation_ICCO_2014

[11] worthy to notice that this big growth has being boosted by investments from by such firms as Cargill, Barry Callebaut and JB Cocoa.

[12] less than 200 metric tons of cacao per year

[13] ICCO 2013

[14] Economic Profile of the EU Chocolate Industry. World Cocoa Foundation, 2011

[15] There are 4 internationally accepted Standards Bodies: Fairtrade Labelling Organizations International, Rainforest Alliance, Organic, and UTZ Certified and they have the task of advising farmers on how to implement better farming practices, establishing protocols on dealing with environmental and social issues, implementing auditing and third party verification on these issues, and communication to consumers at the end of the trade chains, thereby creating a necessary level of assurance. Standards are defined after consultation and in close cooperation with various stakeholders in the cocoa supply chain, including farmers.

[16] Cocoa Barometer is a report evaluating cocoa sustainability efforts released by a consortium of European civil society organizations that includes Oxfam, Solidaridad and the VOICE Network. http://www.cocoabarometer.org/Home.html

[17] There are several explanations for the strong presence of Organic cocoa production in Latin America, including the traditional use of agroforestry production systems in the region, the production of cocoa for specialty markets and the existence of more direct supply chains in the region.

[18] FAO, 2009

Cocoa transformation: how many steps does a cocoa pod undertake to become a chocolate bar?

Giulia Porrini

 contact: giulia.porrini31@gmail.com

Everybody knows what chocolate is and that it is made of cocoa beans, but if you happen to find a bag full of beans, would you be able to make some chocolate out of them? Let’s analyse step by step what the whole process is, following the long journey of the cocoa beans from the plantation to the moment in which we find it in the shop in the form of chocolate.

The long chain of processes that transform any commodity into the final product is called “supply chain”.  The supply chain is often compared to a river, where each activity is connected to the following one as the flowing water. As in a river, the long chain of transformation activities can be divided into two main phases: Upstream activities and Downstream ones (which, within the cocoa industry, coincide with the so-called Primary and Secondary Processing). In the cocoa supply chain, the upstream activities relate to everything that happens in the farm or in small shelters nearby and is operated by the farmers. This first phase includes land selection, soil preparation, weeding and pruning, pest and disease control, harvesting, pod opening, shelling[1] and the so-called post-harvest process or, in Spanish, beneficio which consists of fermentation, (washing), drying and selection.

The Downstream phase covers, instead, the industrial processing of the beans to obtain semi-finished and finished products. These are nibs, cocoa paste (or liquor or cocoa mass), cocoa butter, cocoa powder, chocolate and confectionery containing chocolate. These activities are generally carried out in factories by cocoa processors, chocolate manufacturers and confectionary industries; or they can be made in a more artisanal way by chocolate makers through the nowadays well-known beans to bar process. At the very end of the chain we can find also little chocolate producers or chocolatiers who buy cocoa mass from cocoa processing factories and make chocolate, pralines or other sweets out of it, avoiding the big investment in cocoa processing machines that would otherwise be necessary.

^ During the aerobic phase of the fermentation process, beans are moved regularly by the farmers to guarantee the uniform contact with oxygen. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

According to some supply chain analysis, we could add the Middlestream activities which concern the beans commercialization both at the national and international levels, involving wholesalers and traders.

This categorization will be useful to describe and localize the different activities along the chain. Skipping the technical analysis of the cropping management, in the next paragraph we will following the chain starting with the harvest.

When the harvesting time comes, cocoa farmers collect the ripe and healthy fruits with long handled knives, hooked sticks or machetes and put them together in small stacks. In order to pick fruits at the correct stage of ripening, recognizable by the change in colour, it is recommended to harvest every 15 days. Cocoa pods are sometimes left in the field for few days (pod storage), a practice which allow to assemble enough fruits in order to break them all on the same day. Cocoa harvesting is a long process that can last up to 3 months; however, it is important to avoid exceeding three days of storage of collected fruits  to prevent the germination of the beans which would affect their quality. Farmers usually sit in couple on the opposite sides of a fruits stack and start the break of the husk, “la quebra de las mazorcas”, how they call it in Spanish, in a regular and continuous rhythm. One cuts the external husk with a machete or a rock, the other opens the fruit, discards the husk and collects the wet cocoa beans separating each bean with his fingers. In this stage, it is crucial not to damage the beans while opening the fruit, since they would be likely harmed by the fungus or insect affecting the quality of the harvest.

Different methods are used to ferment cocoa; these wooden barrels can be turned with a handle, making easier the moving process otherwise implemented by hand as shown in the previous photo. Photo by Andrea Onelli

The wet beans[2] are put into timber boxes or heap into piles covered with mats or banana leaves, ready for the fermentation process[3]. Cocoa beans naturally begin to ferment when they come into contact with the micro-organisms present in the environment. These micro-organisms proliferate decomposing the pulp around the beans which, in turn, sets off biochemical and physical processes lasting three to seven days. We can distinguish two phases in the fermentation process: anaerobic and aerobic. In the first one, with no need of oxygen, yeasts start to process the mucilage sugars producing alcohol and carbon dioxide (CO2) in 24 to 48 hours. In the second phase, the temperature increases up to 45° C, yeasts decrease and acetic acid rises. Now the oxygen plays a big role: it is crucial then to regularly move the beans in order to guarantee that the beans get in contact with it uniformly. This process is very complex and always slightly different in timing depending on  a long list of variables: from the geographic area, weather and humidity, to the beans characteristics (like size, fat and polyphenols content); from the conditions which depend on humans (like the state of cleanliness of the fermentation boxes; the regularity in the beans stirring), to some environment conditions (like the presence of extra yeast, for example, in the banana leaves).

Formerly used to kill the embryo and avoid its germination, it is today well-known that the fermentation process is responsible for the development of the precursors of aromas and flavours that will be present in the chocolate. This makes this delicate stage extremely important for the production of good quality cocoa. After a year of work in the plantation, despite the fact this is just the beginning of the cocoa transformation, something going wrong in this stage would permanently affect the taste of the final product .

After the fermentation, the drying process takes place. During this process the beans’ moisture content drops from about 60% to 6-7%. It is a delicate phase and lasts for several days: it should occur slowly, to prevent the development of bitter flavours, but not too slow, to avoid the emergence of moulds and off flavours. The final moisture percentage is very important because it determines the beans’ shelf life: with a humidity higher than 8% mould can originate, below 5% the beans will become too dry and brittle. The drying process relies on the air movement and can be done naturally, operated by the sun, or artificially with the help of other heat sources, generally fire. Sometimes the process is made by the combination of the two.

^ Beans drying in the sun in Bolivia. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

When the sun drying option is selected, beans are spread out on a flat surface. In Africa, farmers use mostly mats, trays or directly the concrete floors; in the West Asia and South America, odourless wooden platforms are more likely to be seen. Sometimes wooden floors are covered by moveable roofs which protect the beans from the rain or from excessively strong sun in the central hours of the day. The beans are normally turned or raked in order to keep the beans separated and make them dry uniformly. Sun drying is used in countries where harvesting occurs in a dry period, like West Africa or the West Indies. In those countries where there is a lack of pronounced dry periods after the harvesting time,a  few alternatives are used by farmers who can afford it. This is a problem faced by cocoa producer countries in South America, South East Asia and sometimes in West Africa. One option is the use of greenhouses where they can achieve very high temperature and protect beans from the rain at the same time. Another option is related to more structured driers like a convection one: “the simplest forms of artificial driers which consists of a simple flue in a plenum chamber and a permeable drying platform above. Air inlets must be provided in order to allow the convection current to flow without allowing smoke to taint the beans”[4]. Slightly different artificial driers have been developed in different regions but, in general, the most important requirement for a cocoa drier to be good is to avoid the beans contamination from the smoke produced and prevent a too fast process (which would results a high acidity in the cocoa flavour). The weather itself, in terms of temperature and relative humidity, strongly affects the timing: the drying process normally takes about 5 to 7 days with adequate sunshine and little rainfall, but much longer if the weather is dull.

Unfortunately, in certain regions it is quite common to see cocoa beans drying in patios, on the soil, in the same area where animals are free to walk and graze. Cocoa beans, rich in fat, absorb odours very easily, so it is of paramount importance to provide a clean environment free from bad odour and animals (sadly, this is a fact that farmers are not always aware of).The primary processing activities are extremely important to obtain a good flavour profile and guarantee the cocoa conservation and transportation. Without them, in fact, beans would be too acidic and sour to make chocolate out of them. Moreover, if properly dried, cocoa beans can be stored in bags for months, provided the necessary environment: a fresh and cool place, and a controlled relative humidity of 60-70%.

Dried cocoa is then brought into designed warehouses in the biggest town near the plantation to be sold. Some of it will stay in local market whereas the majority will be bought by wholesalers, traders or directly by big multinational companies. The last step before the start of secondary processing is the selection process. Fermentation degree, moisture content, number of defects and broken beans, mouldiness, beans size, colour and flavour are some of the evaluated variables necessary to determine the beans quality. Imperative is the “cut test”, the evaluation process in which a sample of beans is cut lengthwise to infer about its internal coloration and the percentage of defective beans (mouldy, slaty, insect damaged, germinated or flat). These characteristics are related to the chemical composition of the bean and derive from the fermentation and drying process, determining the quality of the beans and their price.

Once selected and divided into categories according with their quality, beans undergo the secondary processing phase. At the very end of this phase cocoa will be turned into chocolate, the main commercialized product obtained by cocoa beans, but not the only one. The cocoa bean can in fact be divided into two components, each of which represents roughly half of the weight (depending on the variety): the fat and the dry cocoa solids. The first is the cocoa butter and is the most expensive beans component. It is used in the pharmaceutical and cosmetic industry or bought by chocolate manufacturer companies to be used as an ingredient. After the extraction of the butter, the dry cocoa solids are gradually refined until cocoa powder is produced. It is a fundamental ingredient in the confectionary industry, used for liquid drinks or sold to the final consumer. We will analyse the cocoa processing activities to make clear when and how these different products are produced. They can be made in many different ways, in industrial or artisanal methods, but the necessary steps are generally the same.

Before everything else, the receiving processing factory carries out a cleaning process in order to eliminate any contaminations such as rocks, nails or wood. It could look weird, but it is very usual to find an interesting mix of extraneous materials among the cocoa beans which, if anything, makes that cocoa bag heavier.

^ Artificial drying machine, heating the beans with the heat produced by the fire.
Photo by Giulia Porrini

A disinfection process also is necessary to make the beans completely clean and safe. Through a high temperature steam any microbial activity on the bean stops and they are ready for the roasting. In this process the cocoa beans are exposed to high temperatures with a variety of schedules in terms of timing and temperature. Often, though this is not the rule, people responsible to tailoring the ad hoc “recipe” for each received stock carry out an initial beans tasting, in order to obtain the best result according with the specific beans’ characteristics. After the fermentation, the roasting is the second crucial step for the beans to develop their potential flavours and aromas. During this process, in fact, the aroma precursors arisen during the fermentation change chemical and physical structure giving the way to the aromatic compounds that will remain in the cocoa until the final product.

Then, the cocoa beans are broken and grinded through a mechanical process and they are now called “nibs”. During this phase, the “testa” or “tegument”, which is a subtle shell which naturally covers the beans, comes off once the beans are broken down. The bean’s shell is much lighter than the nibs and is mechanically sucked. This process is called winnowing and is necessary since the shell is the part where harmful pathogens or heavy metal like cadmium are stocked. Moreover, it is suggested to remove the testa also for tasting reasons: it gives extreme astringency to the chocolate.

There is an additional process undertaken only in processing factories which handle a large amount of beans. It is called alkalinisation or Dutching process, since it has been developed in the 19th century in Holland by Van Houten, and entails a chemical treatment of the cocoa nibs with potassium carbonate to develop flavour and colour.

^ In the selection process, beans undertake the cut test.A sample of beans is cut lengthwise to infer about its internal coloration and the percentage of defective beans.
Photo by Andrea Onelli

In fact, by raising the pH, it reduces the acidity and sourness of the beans, increasing the solubility and dispersibility of cocoa in water (a key feature in chocolate beverage). Moreover, having discovered that the consumers are influenced by the cocoa colour in their purchasing preferences, big processing companies differentiate the treatment in order to obtain different colour from the same cocoa beans. Through this process they are able to make a darker/black powder to gradually lighter/brown ones, depending on the final product they are intended for. Needless to say, it strongly affects cocoa natural flavour and characteristics, deleting all its aromas. This means that this process offers the opportunity to cover all the defects and off-flavours of low quality beans generally used by big companies to produce chocolate mass products.

Alkalinised or not, the nibs are then refined, and their size is progressively reduced until each particle is so small to be imperceptible on the palate. Our mouth is able to perceive particles bigger than 30 microns, so usually cocoa is refined in order to be smaller than that, measuring on average around 25 microns. However, this is not a rule; the particles size varies a lot depending on the chocolate makers choice and the desired result. Moreover, the quantity of cocoa butter[5] strongly affects the mouthfeel, defined as the way a food or drink feels in the mouth, as distinct from its taste. The refining process can be carried out with different machines: in artisanal factories melangeur or ball mills are mostly used, whereas in bigger industries cocoa nibs travel through a series of roll refiners. Through this machine, because of the friction between the cocoa particles and the machine components in constant motion, the fat present in the beans warms up. The temperature raises and the warm compound gets increasingly similar to the chocolate texture. When it reaches a smooth and homogeneous consistency, it is called “liquor” or “cocoa mass”, but it is not yet chocolate.To be called chocolate in fact it must contain at least 1% of sugar, while the cocoa mass is still 100% cocoa.

At this point, different procedures can be undertaken depending on which product need to be produced. Cocoa butter can be now extracted by pressing the liquor, obtaining a solid mass called cocoa presscake with the remaining part of the cocoa beans. Cocoa powder is produced breaking the presscake, and industrially refining its pieces. Finally, adding sugar and other ingredients in the refining machine, we will obtain chocolate.

At this point, the list of ingredients necessary  to make chocolate should be considered.  As mentioned before, all you need to make chocolate is cocoa beans and sugar. Everything else is added by chocolate makers with special purpose in mind. Generally, cocoa butter in variable proportion is added to make the chocolate richer and shiner, improving also its meltiness. Powdered milk is added to obtain milk chocolate (whereas to make white chocolate it is an entirely different process[6]). The list of ingredients could stop here; especially if the beans are of good quality, chocolate makers do not want to cover the natural cocoa flavours. Often, among the ingredients we can find natural vanilla aroma, a natural aroma that combines well with cocoa, and soya lecithin, which helps sugar and fat to emulsify and mix harmonically.  When other ingredients are added, it is worth to wonder why; it is often the way to cover cocoa off-flavours and defects.

Once all the ingredients are properly mixed, chocolate just needs time to get to the desired consistency moving and turning in the refining machine. According to the chocolate characteristics, sometimes chocolate undertakes an additional step in a machine called “conche”. Invented in the 1880 by the chocolate maker Rudolphe Lindt, the conching machine contributes to correct chocolate flavour and affects its final texture. By agitating chocolate at more than 50◦C for few hours[7], the continuous mixing movement allows volatile undesirable compounds such as acetic acid to get dispersed and promotes flavour development, reducing the viscosity by further refining the particles. On the other side, if the conching is crucial to get rid of undesirable volatile elements, too much time spent in the conche could result in the loss of other positive aromatic notes. The speed, duration and temperature of the conching affect the chocolate taste and need to be adjusted according to the cocoa beans characteristics.

^ Winnowing process: cocoa nibs are separated by the testa, a thin shell surrounding the bean. Photo by Andrea Onelli

Now the chocolate is ready, but it is still hot and in a liquid state. Unfortunately, the way it solidifies is not negligible and only the chocolate solidified in a certain “shape” will be considered well done. The method that makes this possible is called tempering, which affect in particular the cocoa butter behaviour.

The fat contained in the beans can crystallise in a number of polymorphic forms, precisely six, each of which has different characteristics. The 5th form is the most stable and the only one able to give the chocolate those characteristics that determine a good quality bar. Good quality chocolate has a shiny, uniform aspect, and a distinctive sharp sound when the it is broken – the so-called “snap”. It is a stable product – harder and more heat-resistant- with a longer shelf-life and prevents the fat bloom phenomenon, the appearance of a white patina on the chocolate surface caused precisely by the cocoa butter migration[8]. Finally, a well-tempered chocolate will melt in the mouth in the most harmonious way providing the best tasting experience.

The tempering process, then, guarantees a stable cocoa butter crystallization at its 5th form and can be done in several ways. Generally, it is carried out by a series of controlled thermal shocks. Once the chocolate is tempered, avoiding any further change in temperature, it is usually poured in moulds and let cool down through a refrigerated tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, the solid chocolate is taken out from the mould and ready to be packed.

^ Cocoa mass poured from a melangeur, a refining machine which gradually reduces cocoa solids up to 25 microns.
Photo by Andrea Onelli

At this point, chocolate will start a journey through ways of transport and shop shelves, ending in the consumer’ hands. During all this time, it is of paramount importance to prevent any further thermal shock: if a sudden temperature change wider than 10°C occurs or the temperature exceed 12°-16°C (the suggested conservation range temperature) it will be necessary to re-temper the chocolate again .

This was on overview of the long chain of transformation processes which the great majority of cocoa bean produced in the world undertakes. As you can see, within every single step there is a list of variables that permanently affect the final result. On the other hand, there is not a recognized set of rules describing the best practices, applicable everywhere to handle every kind of cocoa, with no exception. In respect of the raw material, every cocoa variety growing in every single area of the world presents peculiar characteristics and needs. In the same way, within the chocolate making process, every chocolate maker applies his own recipe, using different timing, temperature and machines. It is incredible to think how many different outcomes can be produced starting from the same cocoa beans.

The whole process is very complex, but it is crucial to understand that the quality is determined in the plantation, during the harvesting and the post-harvesting activities. Through the choice of the ripe fruits, the fermentation and the drying process, farmers are responsible of the cocoa quality and, consequently, of the final product. Chocolate makers can emphasize the aroma precursors present in the beans and produce the best chocolate according with the beans’ characteristics. They can moderately correct or make smoother the presence of some little undesired elements, but they will never able to change the taste.  They cannot create high quality chocolate without using high quality beans. This is something that escapes the mass understanding, the average consumer does not think about the role of the farmers when buying some chocolate. All the attention is focused on the art of a specific chocolate producers or famous chocolatier.

Knowing the cocoa supply chain better , the actors, and each of their role ,is definitely a way to better understand the treat everybody loves. Making chocolate is an art the starts much earlier than the laboratory where hands covered by white gloves work on it; it starts in the plantation, on the trees, around palm leaves and under the sun. Being aware of this gives us the power to understand the quality of chocolate products we consume and to give them the right value.

Giulia Porrini

MBA development economics



[1] The action of scooping the pods out in order to collect the wet seeds (enclosed in the pulp)

[2] Cocoa beans are called wet when they are still surrounded by the pulp or mucilage, before the drying process.

[3] In some places, as we saw in the Bolivian region of Beni, it is common to ferment beans inside a hanging bag, the so-called “fermentacion en sacos”. It is recognized that this is not the best practice since in this way only a small quantity of beans can be properly fermented, and it is not possible to turn the beans, crucial practise which keeps the grade of fermentation uniform among the beans.

[4] https://www.icco.org/faq/59-fermentation-a-drying/110-drying-cocoa-beans.html

[5] Not only the quantity of cocoa butter differs in different varieties, but also it is added in variable amount by chocolate makers/chocolatiers according to their preferences.

[6] the term “white chocolate” designed the product obtained from cocoa butter, milk or milk products and sugars. it does not contain any cocoa solids.  

[7] Beckett (2000) ST Beckett. The science of chocolate, The Royal Society of Chemistry, Cambridge (2000)

[8] Moreover, from a more technical point of view, it is easier to work with well-tempered chocolate since, once poured in the mould and cooled down, it shrinks. This means that it is easier to take it out of it and proceed with the packaging.

Cocoa production systems. Agroforestry system vs full sun plantation: pros and cons.

Giulia Porrini

 contact: giulia.porrini31@gmail.com

Agroforestry” is defined as a land use system in which woody species (trees or shrubs) are grown intentionally in combination with agricultural crops or cattle on the same land, either simultaneously or in sequence[1]. Emerged during the Green Revolution, this system has been considered a sustainable method, especially in the tropical area, given its similarity to the primary forest structure[2]. Since the 1980s it has been developed by learning from traditional indigenous systems to work more closely with the fertility of marginal lands through the use of less intensive cultivation and fallow periods.

Cocoa is historically native of the rainforest in the upper Amazonian region; recent studies prove that its consumption in this area dates back to even more than 5,000 years ago. Naturally then, cocoa trees grew deep in the forest in combination with other species, developing reciprocal beneficial relations. In particular, cocoa not only tolerates the presence of other plants, but also profits from them.  The cocoa tree takes advantage of both, the shade guaranteed by the forest canopy during its early stage and productive phase, and from a more nutrient rich soil structure.

When European colonialists introduced cocoa in Africa in the 19th century, they implement a different cropping system: the full sun plantations. This monoculture system, where trees grow in rows with no shade nor interaction with other plants, gradually replaced the agroforestry system given the higher yield provided. The increase in productivity is undeniable, but the literature seems to agree that it is only a short-term increase. As trees age beyond 15–20 years, cacao yields decrease due a series of factors determined by this system. In the long-term, in fact, the direct sunlight physiologically stresses the cacao trees, making them more susceptible to pests and diseases. In a monoculture, trees growing close together are usually clones, genetically identical duplicate of a mother plant originated from its asexual reproduction. The idea is to have more uniform plants and, therefore, fruits; but it also means that the plants react in the same way to bugs, bacteria or other external attacks increasing the probability of a rapid contamination in the whole plantation. Finally, the soil quality degrades, easily depleted of nutrients, requiring costly fertilizers to maintain production.

^ Wild agroforestry system in Bolivia. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

This drastic reduction in production often results in the abandonment of plantations and the shift of the agricultural frontier towards the surrounding forests. This means that applications of full sun cultivation system  have resulted, and still do, in a constant deforestation and rain forest degradation process. For example, in the Guinean rainforest of West Africa, an area extending from Guinea to Cameroon, identified as a global biodiversity hotspot, cocoa is the most widespread crop and full-sun system is currently the most used cocoa cultivation. Farms usually follow a model referred to as short-term “boom-and-bust cycles”. Primary or secondary forests are selectively cleared by burning, and cocoa is planted along with understory food crops. When, after 20-25 years of cropping, the production decreases significantly, plantations are abandoned, and the centre of cocoa production typically moves to other areas. A significant reduction of forest cover ranging from 1.2 to 2.2 million hectares between 1955 and 1993 has been proven, coinciding with the strong increases in cocoa and coffee production[3].

^ Tool used to prune trees and harvest low fruits. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Farmers do not always move to other areas; in some cases, they invest time and money to keep the old plantations productive. However, it must be pointed out that, while the overaged tree stocks can be rehabilitated by implementing various measures, problems such as declining soil fertility, farmer poverty and climate change adaptation call for more decisive solutions.

The agroforestry system, on the other hand, is recognized as a powerful way to benefit the plant health and quality itself providing ecologically sustainable land use. It combines economic requirements with sociocultural and environmental benefits.

The agroforestry system, also called cabruca system in Brazil, is an artificial imitation of a natural forest ecosystem where cocoa grows with other fruit and timber trees providing shade and affecting climate, humidity and soil. Besides the positive effects on the cocoa plant in terms of beans quality, which has been proven to depend not only on the cocoa genotype but also on the environmental conditions, this extensive cultivation provides a number of ecosystem services. 

It maintains the biodiversity of the flora and the fauna, can re-establish part of the destroyed forest reserves and protects the soil from the damage caused by sun, wind, and rain. It improves the soil structure increasing the nutrients availability which then enhance production. Finally, the protection and conservation of the forest is a crucial point to help to mitigate climate change through the sequestration of carbon from the air into soils and biomass.

From an economic point of view, the product diversification that agroforestry brings with it improves farmers livelihood by differentiating their source of income, and contributing to the family food security. Traditionally, in fact, cocoa is grown with bananas, plantains, peach palms, yucca and other tuber fruits, citrus fruits, vegetables, mango and other tropical local fruits as well as cattle and timber. Cocoa provides two harvesting times every year, a major one and a smaller one, which means that in a monoculture the family has no other source of income for the rest of the year. The agroforestry system instead allows farmers to have goods to sell all year around. Although this kind of products generally generates modest cash incomes, it provides farmers for the everyday livelihood at a low cash costs, extremely important especially in more isolated areas. Often in remote villages every farmer produces a number of vegetables and fruits along with cocoa and exchanges them all year around for what is needed in the family. They do it within the village itself, making a varied diet attainable with no need to go to the closest, likely distant, market where they go when cash or other goods are necessary.

Moreover, shade cocoa system generally uses little to no chemical inputs and is considered a “naturally organic” system. This eco-friendly practice is part of the indigenous culture: it is always been a habit rather than an aware choice. Agrochemicals are not available where they live and would be an important cost in the family balance. Nowadays farmers are generally more aware of the organic cropping benefits for their health and the environment well-being; nevertheless, it often happens that they are convinced by buyers to use chemicals to enhance the yield with the promise of a higher income the following year.

On the other hand, the intensive production system requires this kind of chemical input. Monocropping is generally associated with greater use of fertilizers, pesticides, modified soil tillage, and improved seeds in comparison with the traditional mixed crop systems.  Moreover, findings highlight the potential of agroforestry to reconcile ecologically sustainable land use with natural, cost-effective pest management[4]. Not only is the production organic, with positive effects on consumers, but it is the system itself that prevents diseases. Nonetheless, disease management activities are  required: farmers need to regularly operate plants control and pruning.  Surely, the use of agrochemicals makes the job easier for the farmers, but also puts the plants in a situation of dependence on chemicals input, with the negative effects on the soil health mentioned above.

^ Full sun plantation in Brazil. Photo by Matteo Pietrobelli

Farmers using intensive production techniques rely on chemical inputs, while they are not always able to afford them. They use cocoa revenues to purchase the inputs for this intensive monocrop farming. Specifically, according to a recent report, farmers with intensive monocrop fields sell double the amount of cocoa than farmers using non-intensive agriculture, and the inputs they use cost 29 times the cost of inputs for non-intensified agriculture[5].

Furthermore, monoculture threatens cocoa biodiversity. As already mentioned at the beginning, if a more uniform and consistent yield fulfils the commercial need for a mass international market, it has a negative impact on the biodiversity of a crop that can be extremely rich in variety. Instead of the more productive and disease-resistant clones used in the full sun system, cocoa trees inside a forest reproduce constantly, crossing their genotypes, and continuing to evolve according to the biological laws of the specific geographical area.

In all, we are facing the trade-off between the conservation of biodiversity, guaranteed by the agroforestry system, and the economic benefits deriving from a more intensive use of land, the latter encouraged by the demand for a growing volume of agricultural production by large processing and manufacturing companies. Strictly speaking, this is the trade-off between shorter-term economic maximization and long-term ecological sustainability.

Higher short-term yields from increasing areas under cultivation in this monoculture farming system have contributed to making whole countries rely on cocoa for their economic development. Take, for example, Côte D’Ivoire, ranked now as the top producer in the world. The negative consequences, including biodiversity loss, soil fertility depletion, and soil quality degradation are all apparent in there. These aspects have, incredibly, received very little attention, considering the type and magnitude of such agro-ecological consequences within the current context of climate change[6].

In order to provide a clearer idea of what was presented above, we compare the main characteristics of the two system in the next table.

Lower productivity per hectare Short-term higher productivity per hectare  
Naturally more disease-resistant plants Plants are more susceptible to pests and diseases
Cocoa variety preservation Use of clones
Rainforest conservation/destroyed forest reserves re-establishment, flora and fauna biodiversity, improved soil health and climate change mitigation Deforestation, biodiversity loss, soil fertility depletion and soil quality degradation
Farmers differentiated income, food security Reliance on cocoa yields twice a year
No agrochemicals Dependence on agrochemicals

Beside the economic, environmental, ecological, and health related analysis presented, a final consideration is needed regarding the importance of the role that cocoa plays in the culture and livelihood of indigenous producers. Cocoa, and the agroforestry system in which it grows, are not only an agriculture system, but the way of living of rainforest inhabitants. In their villages, this practise has been the same since ancient times, and should not be changed to meet the international demand for higher production.

In the future a lot of efforts are necessary in order to enhance cocoa quality, protect cocoa farmers and preserve the rainforest. In particular, it is important to work towards two directions.

On one side: know-how and expertise on sustainable agricultural practices, costs, and benefits need to be further developed and made accessible to producers and consumers. Climate change is a reality and if cocoa production is a mean to help mitigate it, everybody needs to be informed and act accordingly.

On the other, all the efforts to put in place sustainable initiatives need to be effectively communicated to consumers. When consumers buy chocolate at the supermarket, they rarely know about the way cocoa is produced. Nothing or too little about farmers and cropping system is communicated, and it is hard to make an aware and informed purchase choice. On the contrary, transparency and communication are the first step to build a trust relation between producers and consumers, in order to give a fair value to products deriving from a traditional, healthy and environment-friendly way of production.

[1] Montagnini, F., & Ashton, M. S. (Eds.). (1999). The Silvicultural Basis For Agroforestry Systems. CRC Press. https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=JGqjVR_gjbgC&pg=PA2&dq=MONTAGNINI+1992+agroforestry+system+definition&hl=it&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjWpK2g0qfjAhUjUBUIHbccCMcQ6AEILjAA#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] Smith, N. J., Falesi, I. C., Alvim, P. D. T., & Serrao, E. A. S. (1996). Agroforestry trajectories among smallholders in the Brazilian Amazon: innovation and resiliency in pioneer and older settled areas. Ecological economics18(1), 15-27.

[3] Tondoh, J. E., Kouamé, F. N. G., Guéi, A. M., Sey, B., Koné, A. W., & Gnessougou, N. (2015). Ecological changes induced by full-sun cocoa farming in Côte d’Ivoire. Global Ecology and Conservation3, 575-595.

[4] Riedel, J., Kägi, N., Armengot, L., & Schneider, M. (2019). Effects of rehabilitation pruning and agroforestry on cacao tree development and yield in an older full-sun plantation. Experimental Agriculture, 1-17. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/330911961_Effects_of_rehabilitation_pruning_and_agroforestry_on_cacao_tree_development_and_yield_in_an_older_full-sun_plantation

[5] Franzen, M., & Mulder, M. B. (2007). Ecological, economic and social perspectives on cocoa production worldwide. Biodiversity and Conservation16(13), 3835-3849.

[6] Tondoh, J. E., Kouamé, F. N. G., Guéi, A. M., Sey, B., Koné, A. W., & Gnessougou, N. (2015). Ecological changes induced by full-sun cocoa farming in Côte d’Ivoire. Global Ecology and Conservation3, 575-595. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2351989415000219

What does a cocoa tree look like?

Giulia Porrini

 contact: giulia.porrini31@gmail.com

According to the Swedish Linnaeus’s nomenclature, cocoa belongs to the family of the Malvaceae and to the genus Theobroma, from the Greek “food of the gods”. Theobroma Cacao is the species used to make the well-known and beloved chocolate, but it is not the only species.

There are other 22 known species assigned to the genus Theobroma. Among them, two species are cultivated or wild-harvested on a relatively small scale for human consumption: Theobroma bicolor, also known as mocambo or pataste, and Theobroma grandiflorum, commonlycalled Cupuaçu.

Both native of the Amazon region, they are nowadays spread in Colombia, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. Cupuaçu is the species which has the largest fruit and is consumed the most in Brazil. The pulp, particularly rich in flavour, is used to make juice or ice cream, whereas the seeds can be used to make chocolate, known in Brazil as Cupulate. This product is commonly commercialized in this country as a particular kind of chocolate, with its own sensorial characteristics. Being rich in fat, it also has found applications in the pharmaceutical and chemical industries.

^ The biodiversity of cocoa species is extremely high presenting a huge varieties of shape and colours. Photo by Andrea Onelli

However, Theobroma cacao is the only species widely cultivated with the biggest economic importance.

Traditionally, two main genetic groups have been defined based on morphological features and geographical origins: “Criollo” and “Forastero”. Criollo, from the Spanish “local”, is native of Latin America. It is considered the best in terms of quality and flavour, is less productive and more delicate. Its beans are white, very aromatic and low in bitterness. Forastero, from the Spanish “stranger”, is the most common in Africa; it represents the 85% of the world production, is highly productive and disease resistant. Its beans are purple, characterised by a strong bitterness and a less complex cocoa flavour. A third group, “Trinitario”, has been recognized as a “Criollo”דForastero” hybrids, probably originated in Trinidad. Furthermore, as a generalization, beans from Criollo or Trinitario cocoa tree varieties are considered fine or flavour cocoa, while beans from Forastero trees bulk (or ordinary) cocoa.

^ Cocoa flowers on a plant. Photo by Giulia Porrini

If this is the traditional, most popular classification, this is also a simplification of the reality which takes focus away from the amazing diversity of cocoas.  Cocoa is an outcrossing species and, especially in wild individuals, plants carry out the action of self-incompatibility mechanisms[1] in order to stimulate the development of the species (while the cultivated ones are generally self-compatible). This means that every plant is potentially different, and the species is constantly developing. The only way to know with certainty the genotype of every single plant is undertaking a DNA analysis, which is a long and costly process not accessible to cocoa farmers.

In 2010 a research published by Juan C. Motamayor, Ph.D. in Plant Sciences and expert in genetics and agronomy research, proposes a new classification[2] of cacao germplasm identifying 10 major clusters, or groups: Marañon, Curaray, Criollo, Iquitos, Nanay, Contamana, Amelonado, Purús, Nacional and Guiana. This new classification reflects more accurately the genetic diversity now available for breeders, rather than the traditional 3 groups categorization of Criollo-Forastero-Trinitario. Moreover, it is interesting to notice that the highest genetic diversity was found in the Upper Amazon region, which is universally considered the location of the putative centre of origin of Theobroma cacao.

A consideration regarding the term “Criollo” need to be done here. Considering the cocoa tree natural outcrossing mechanism on one side, and the human effort to develop more productive and resistant varieties by artificially crossing the varieties on the other, it appears clear how the pure criollo trees, already a minority, are less and less numerous. As already mentioned, being the most delicate and less productive criollo variety is the less attractive in a global market seeking quantity and uniformity. For these reasons, it appears clear how those completely pure white beans exceptionally aromatic consumed by the Maya and called Criollo are extremely rare. They maybe still exist, but can be found only in remote areas, where trees have no contact with other cocoa genotypes. The terms Criollo itself, which nowadays too often is present on the packaging of chocolate bars on the shelves, is used in a broader and generic sense, describing a local variety, probably descending from the actual criollo of the area, resulting from years of contaminations with other not-criollo varieties.

Cocoa tree is perennial. Evidences show that more than 100-years-old trees can still present vegetal development and fruit production[3]. However, cultivated cocoa trees older than 30 years seem to show a decrease in production. It is considered good practice then to replace the old plant to keep the plantation as productive as possible; and this can be made through two methods. Farmers can plant new seedling (sexual reproduction) or revitalize the old trees through grafting (asexual reproduction). The first option is the longest one since the seedling (a 3-5 months young plant generally raised in the nursery) will take 3 to 5 years to be fully productive. As anticipated, cocoa reproduces through cross pollination, which means that each seed is the result of the mixing of the DNAs of two different plants. Reproducing cocoa trees through seeds or seedlings, then, does not allow farmers to control the new plant genotype and, therefore, the new plant and fruit characteristics.  Grafting, instead, is a horticultural technique consisting in joining together parts of different plants by means of tissue regeneration. A young branch coming from a high-yielding plant (scion) is placed in contact with the lower part of an old and strong plant tissue (stock) in such a way that they will continue growing together. In this way, farmers purposefully choose the stock and the scion in order to obtain a productive, disease-resistant plant. The new plants will produce the exact copy of the fruits produced by the selected “parents” trees.

In addition, grafting is a time-saving option since the plant will be ready to produce in few months, compared to the necessary 3-5 years of the seedling. Since in the cocoa market the product consistency is a crucial feature, today the asexual reproduction is the most used method.

Leaves are oblong, leathery and up to 30cm long. Their colour varies depending on the variety, from pale green to rose/purple, and flowers and fruits grow directly from the trunk. Cocoa trees bear fruit and flowers year-round, although for cyclical weather reasons, two crops per year are generally identified: a main one and a smaller one (whose time in the year varies depending on the geographic position).

Cacao flowers are small and star shaped. They measure 1-2 cm in diameter and range in colour from snow white to rosy pink, yellow and red. They emerge fast through the bark of the tree and within less than 24 hours they are fully open and ready to be pollinated. The pollination is carried out almost exclusively by insect, tiny midges belonging to the family of Ceratopogonidae, genus Forcipomya. The synchronicity between the flowering period and the peak in the population development of adult Forcipomya allows cocoa plant reproduction. Is it also possible to pollinate the flowers artificially, by hands. However, through the pollinator Forcipomya cocoa plants were shown to be more productive[4].  This is the reason why some agronomists disapprove the use of agrochemicals, in particular insecticides.

Cocoa flowers stay open from late afternoon to the early hours in the morning, ready to be pollinated.  Nevertheless, out of more than the 100.000 flowers an adult plant can produce, only 5% are going to be fertilized and around 0,1% will develop in a fruit. If not pollinated and fertilised during this period of time, they will fall the day after; otherwise the embryo and ovule will start to grow. The pods reach the maximum size after about 75 days and will then mature for another 65 days, making a total of about 140 days after pollination[5].

^ Around 40 beans are arranged around the long axis of the pod. Photo by Luca Nogarotto

In general, it is estimated that it takes 4 to 6 months before a fertilized flower becomes a ripe pod, the cocoa fruit. Big and elongated like a football, or small and lemon-sized, cacao pods can vary a lot in shape and colour. From brilliant green to yellow, red, crimson and purple, they present numerous ridges running along its length, more or less pronounced depending on the genotype.

When you open a cocoa pod, you will find typically around 40 beans arranged around the long axis of the pod. They are embedded by a thick, mucilaginous white pulp. It is believed that it is the pulp what first attracted animals and humans to the tree[6], but you would be surprised to discover that its taste has nothing to do with chocolate. It has a sweet and sour taste, similar to some other tropical fruits, jackfruit to mention an example. In some countries the pulp is employed to prepare juice, liquor, beverages, ice cream, and jam but, rich in sugar, it is an irreplaceable ingredient for the fermentation process. This process is the first step of a long series of physical and chemical changes which will transform cocoa in chocolate. Interesting to know, fermenting separately a part of the pulp some people also produce vinegar!

The beans, each about the size of an almond, can be ellipsoid or oval-shaped. Inside each of them you will see the embryo (the precursor tissue of the new plant), which is made of 2 cotyledons, whose colour can vary from white to purple.

Naturally, the cocoa tree can reach 12-15m; it is rare but still possible to find trees in their full, considerable height in some remote places, when it grows wild and untouched by humans. However, when it is cultivated or managed by farmers, it is kept between 3 and 5m of height. By regularly pruning cocoa trees, farmers enhance the plant productivity and ensure an easier harvesting. Standing on the ground, farmers use 3-4m long sticks ending with a hook to cut the ripe fruits from the trees.

 Where trees are not pruned, cocoa collectors alone cannot reach the fruits. They climb a 4 to 5m high ladder, sometimes tied up to the tree with a cord for security, and, once on the top of it, they cut the fruits off with the same stick, usually a bit longer[7]. Fascinating practice, but also dangerous and physical at the same time.

In a cocoa plantation, where farmers work to keep the plants healthy and productive, a number of tasks are required. Constant weeding and disease control are of paramount importance and soil management activities are vital to ensure the necessary nutrients availability. We already mention the pruning and we can distinguish here 3 kinds of it, according to the tree age and condition.

^ Cocoa tree holds fruits and flowers at the same time. Photo by Giulia Porrini

Especially in a young stage, cocoa tree needs to receive a regular shape pruning in order to guarantee the development of no more than 3 main branches, according to the available space and light. Afterwards farmers carry out a maintenance pruning and a rehabilitation one when the plants have not been pruned for long time or are affected by diseases or fungus.

The cacao tree is extraordinarily sensitive, known to botanists as the “prima donna” (“first lady” in Italian) of the plant world[8]. It grows best in low-lying areas, up to a maximum of about 1000 m, although most of the world’s cocoa grows at an altitude of less than 300 m above the sea level. It requires rainfall evenly distributed throughout the year, with a range between 1000 and 4000 mm per year, but preferably between 1500 and 2500 mm[9]. Cocoa prefers high temperature, generally within 18–32◦C with 70–80% of humidity during the day and 90–100% at night. Because of its shallow root system, cocoa need protection against strong winds and storms that can damage the pods or the whole tree[10]. This is the reason why, especially in the early stages, they best grow surrounded by other species of higher trees which provide shelter and shade. The soil requirements for the tree are also very specific: it tolerates both acid or alkaline soil but excessive acidity (pH≤4) or alkalinity (pH≥8) must be avoided. A high content of organic matter and the presence of nitrogen and phosphorus are necessary, otherwise nutritional problems are likely. Because of these and other climate needs, especially related to humidity and rainfalls, cocoa trees grow exclusively in a very narrow geographic band near the equator between 20°N and 20°S. You can find cocoa trees in three different continents: Latin America, the native land of cocoa, Africa and Asia.

As mentioned above, cocoa plant is a delicate crop and a long list of harmful fungus and diseases poses a constant threat to the crop. The so-called witches’ broom disease (originated by the fungus Moniliophthora perniciosa) has devastated cocoa production in South America, Panama and Caribbean. Slow through the forest, it spreads extremely quickly in plantation. The most affected area has been the region of Bahia, in Brazil, where in the ‘90s it caused losses of up to 70 percent of production during a period of 10 years. Frosty Pod Rot (caused by the fungus Moniliophthora roreri)is spread mainly in all north-western countries in South America, triggering significant losses in production and even the abandonment of cocoa farms. Pod Rot, also known as Black Pod (caused by the fungus Phytophthora spp), develops rapidly on the pods under conditions of excessive rain and humidity. It generates global yield loss of 20-30% and tree deaths of 10% annually in both Africa and Latin America. Pests are also brought to cocoa trees by insects, like Cocoa Pod Borer (CPB), also known as Cocoa Moth (spread in Indonesia mainly) and mirids whose damage alone, if left not treated for three years, can reduce yields by as much as 75%. These are just some example of vulnerabilities which can destroy the entire cocoa production of a country if not quickly contained. To that, you can add monkeys, parrots, woodpeckers and other animals which, not surprisingly, love cocoa too.

This overview provides a general idea of the complexity of the cocoa production process. After that, through a long chain of transformation activities, chocolate will be ready to be consumed. Chocolate is a treat unrolled in golden paper; this makes it difficult to remember that cocoa is a seed, and chocolate is an agriculture product. As any other agriculture product, then, it is sensitive to many variables like weather, environment and human management. Exactly like wine. In the wine market, though, it is well-known that the origin, the fruit varieties, the climate condition of the year of production, the way the transformation process is carried out, the timing pattern followed during processing process, distribution and consumption, the way the wine is stocked etc. are all variables of massive importance which deeply affect the final product. Chocolate is not yet considered in the same way; the mass diffusion of the conventional cocoa in the market produced the habit to categorize chocolate only in 3 main products: dark, milk or white. This seems a quite simplistic/reductive vision. The three of them come from the same raw materials (the colour of the final product does not depend on the raw material, as happens with wine). Moreover, customers expect to find always exactly the same taste in a chocolate bar, every year, every bar, always. They forget to consider the incredible cocoa varieties, and the number of variables and conditions that hugely affect the cocoa and the chocolate produced with it afterwards.

What is lacking in the world of chocolate is the contact with its origins. The awareness, knowledge, even culture which connects and explains a chocolate bar through its varieties, its origin and its particular transformation process. It is a long and complex consciousness process, already happening, which will make consumers appreciate a chocolate bar in the same way they taste and savour a bottle of wine.

[1]Self-incompatibility is a widespread outcrossing system present in roughly half of the flowering plant species. Many hermaphroditic plants utilize this self-/non–self-recognition system as a mechanism to maintain genetic diversity within a population by rejecting self-pollen at the stigma surface (Hiscock et al., 1999; Hiscock and Tabah, 2003; Kusaba et al., 2001).

[2] Motamayor, J. C., Lachenaud, P., da Silva E Mota, J. W., Loor, R., Kuhn, D. N., Brown, J. S., & Schnell, R. J. (2008). Geographic and genetic population differentiation of the Amazonian chocolate tree (Theobroma cacao L). PloS one3(10), e3311. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0003311

[3] Ministère de l’agriculture, élevage de bétail et approvisionnement, CEPLAC. Implantation De la culture du cacao dans des systèmes agroforestriers. 2014 http://www.ceplac.gov.br/paginas/publicacoes/paginas/cartilhas_tecnicas/cartilhas/CT_18.pdf

[4] Forbes, S. J. and Northfield, T. D. (2017), Increased pollinator habitat enhances cacao fruit set and predator conservation. Ecol Appl, 27: 887-899. doi:10.1002/eap.1491

[5] Chocolate Science and Technology – Afoakwa

[6]Brenner G.1999, Inside the secret worlds of Mars and Hershey.

[7] We had the chance to visit a cocoa forest during the harvesting period in the Bolivian region of Beni. There, people leaving in Camiaco and the nearby communities harvest fruits once a year, leaving the trees completely untouched for the rest of the time.

[8] Brenner G.1999, Inside the secret worlds of Mars and Hershey

[9] Afoakwa, E. O. (2010). Chocolate science and technology. Blackwell.

[10] The protection is generally provided by other higher and stronger trees that naturally grow in the rainforest together with the cocoa trees.