West African cocoa has been scorned by craft chocolate makers, but a project in Sierra Leone and one potentially taking off in Liberia are proving that the region has plenty to offer to the bean to bar market
One could sometimes be forgiven for thinking that the cocoa in almost all bean to bar or ‘craft’ chocolate comes from Central or South America or Madagascar but think again.
As Dr Kristy Leissle, a scholar of cocoa and chocolate and author of an acclaimed book on cocoa told C&CI, producers in other parts of the world – including those in West Africa, who are sometimes scorned by the craft chocolate community – have potential aplenty, as chocolate made with beans from Sierra Leone demonstrate.
Dr Leissle has been working on cocoa since 2004, and has investigated the politics, economics, and cultures of the cocoa and chocolate industries, focusing on West Africa and the US craft market. Her book, Cocoa (Cambridge: Polity, 2018) explores cocoa geopolitics and personal politics. Dr Leissle is an Affiliate in the Faculty of African Studies at the University of Washington and lives in Accra, Ghana from where she spoke to C&CI.
“As a scholar of cocoa and chocolate, it is not often that I get involved on the trading side, but I have been working with the UK-based organization Twin & Twin Trading, whose vision is development through trade, facilitating specialty chocolate market access for cocoa farmer associations in Africa,” Dr Leissle explained.
“That means I help farmer groups to promote and sell their cocoa to specialty buyers who may be paying premium prices for quality, and who make these farmer groups visible to chocolate shoppers by putting their names on single origin bars.”
However, as she also explained, because of some of the preconceptions that exist about cocoa from West Africa – and ongoing concerns about child labour in some countries associated with the bulk cocoa market – it’s not easy getting fine cocoa from these countries in front of a buyer.
“Apart from Madagascan bars, it is relatively rare in the US to find specialty, single origin chocolate that uses African cocoa, at least compared with bars that use cocoa from Central or South America, or the Caribbean,” she told C&CI. “I started writing about the ‘invisibility’ of West African cocoa in premium chocolate some years ago. Little did I think at the time that I would be part of a team helping to promote the region to specialty buyers.”
Dr Leissle has now been working with Twin and with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), which is working to conserve the forest in Sierra Leone and the birdlife in it, for a couple of years. The first fruit of their joint labours is chocolate made from cocoa grown by farmers in Sierra Leone’s Gola Rainforest. With assistance from Twin and other partners, farmers in four chiefdoms on the edge of the Gola Rainforest National Park organized into associations to sell their cocoa.
“The Malema chiefdom, Gaura chiefdom, and Tunkia and Koya chiefdoms, which, being a bit smaller than the others, joined together to sell their cocoa,” she explained. “Together, these farmer associations are working to conserve the Gola Rainforest, which is home to many threatened and endemic species, including the pygmy hippo and important bird species, and to strengthen their cocoa business practices.”
Before Dr Leissle became involved Twin and its partners in Sierra Leone had been working for several years with the farmer associations to provide agricultural training and support best practice around cocoa harvest, fermentation, drying, and storage.
“My role has involved building capacity for farmer associations and the Gola staff around marketing, so that they can strategize from an informed position when negotiating with buyers,” said Dr Leissle, noting that in countries such as Sierra Leone and others in the region a dearth of resources means that government support for cocoa growers is weak and extension services to help farmers process the fine cocoa that they grow are essential.■ C&CI Read more
This article first appeared in the July’18 issue of C&CI, click on subscribe now if you wish to read the full story and other informative articles in the July and future issues of C&CI or log in here if you are already a subscriber.