Cacao farmers across Côte d’Ivoire, the world’s biggest producer of the key ingredient for chocolate, are down in the dumps after prices for their commodity have fallen for the second year running.
Not so in M’Brimbo, a village in central Côte d’Ivoire which 11 years ago became a testing ground for organic cacao farming and today is prospering.
The local farmers’ collective, the Fair Cooperative Society of Bandama (SCEB), sell their high-quality produce at twice the market rate for non-organic cacao.
“When producers are trained and well-paid, they can make very good cacao in Côte d’Ivoire,” said Arthur Gautier, an agronomist who works for Ethiquable, a French company that specialises in marketing fair-trade products and buys SCEB’s harvest.
The chocolate made from their cacao is sold in French supermarkets under the brand “Grand Cru M’Brimbo,” a name that resonates with fine wines — “Grand Cru” means “vintage.”
Cacao growing was massively promoted by Côte d’Ivoire’s government following independence in 1960, becoming the backbone of the country’s rise as one of West Africa’s leading economies. Today, Côte d’Ivoire produces two million tonnes of cacao per year, equivalent to more than 40 percent of the world’s market.
But expansion has also come at a grim price for the environment and fuelled a dependency that ratchets up rural poverty whenever prices slump.
Around 90 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s forests have been destroyed, stripping away habitat for elephants and other species, and in some places herbicides and pesticides have lastingly tainted the soil.
Using techniques pioneered in Latin America, SCEB farmers weed their fields manually and have developed specific methods to dry and ferment cacao beans, helping to develop the chocolate’s signature rich taste.
Monitoring and certifying the process and ensuring traceability, right down to the individual bag of cacao, have been key to winning the confidence of consumers who are willing to pay more for a product that has quality and ethical values.
Ethiquable claims to sell a quarter of the organic chocolate sold in French supermarkets. Organic chocolate accounts for just eight percent of the national market, but is growing at 18 percent per year.
“Doing bio is harder, it requires more work and you need more labour,” said Solo Bony, a member of the cooperative. “But at the end of the day, you get a better return.”
Ethiquable pays the SCEB 1,850 CFA francs (2.82 euros) per kilogram, of which 1,350 francs goes to the producer, which compares with the current official price for non-organic cacao of 750 francs per kilo — a benchmark that in any case is not always respected.
Another boon is that this price is guaranteed for a three-year period — a welcome reassurance compared with the rollercoaster conventional market.
The “organic” label offers higher rewards than “fair trade” certification, issued for around 10 percent of Côte d’Ivoire’s production, which is for cacao that meets environmental standards and does not involve child labour.
An emerging worry in Côte d’Ivoire is about the health impact from farmers who use conventional chemicals to fertilise the soil and kill pests.
The cooperative’s farmers are testing safer formulas made from residues derived from locally-grown plants.
Farmers in the cooperative also get training in sustainable techniques — planting cacao trees in the shade of bigger trees rather than in the open, diversifying crops by planting fruit trees and by sowing legume plants, which take nitrogen out of the air and fix it into the soil, thus increasing its fertility naturally.
“A plantation of cacao trees drawn from older varieties, grown organically and using sustainable farming, provides better-quality cacao and higher yields, and produce over a timescale of 50 years compared to 20 years for a conventional plantation,” said Gautier.
The cooperative’s president, Evariste Salo, attested personally to the growth in wealth.
“I used to have a bicycle, now I’ve got a motorbike. I have been able to put my kids through school and build a house.”
By way of comparison, according to the World Bank, more than half of the five to six million people in Côte d’Ivoire who live on cacao subsist below the poverty line.
The cooperative produced 13 tonnes of cacao with 33 farmers in 2010, and this year is expected to produce more than 200 tonnes, with 264 growers.
It now has six employees and has just built a new headquarters and warehouse with a storage capacity of 300 tonnes, and is pushing ahead with a laboratory to test cacao quality. It has also funded a rural clinic and a school, and provides financial help for school fees and medical bills.
Ten other cooperatives in Côte d’Ivoire now produce organic cacao and others are expected to follow them. But their production is likely to remain a fraction of the country’s conventional output for a long time to come.