Trade for Development Centre is a programme of Enabel, the Belgian development agency.

Ecocoa: Chocolate melting deforestation in Cameroon

For the past two years, the Ecocoa artisanal and ethical chocolate factory has been offering ‘bean-to-bar’ chocolate, whose forest cocoa is imported in a short chain from Cameroon, with the dual aim of combating deforestation there and ensuring a decent income for cocoa farmers.

Launched in early 2022, the Ecocoa chocolate factory in Péruwelz produces artisanal chocolate that is good for nature, consumers and cocoa producers alike. “It may sound silly to say, but we’re a rather unusual chocolate factory in that we make… chocolate,” says Caroline Amorison, who heads up this young company. “It’s important to remember that only 5 to 10% of chocolate factories make their own chocolate, while the rest buy it from major groups like Barry Callebaut or Belcolade (editor’s note: Puratos) and are happy with simply reworking it. For our part, we opted for the ‘bean-to-bar’ approach, which means starting right from the cocoa bean.” Ecocoa sources these beans directly from Cameroon, via a short supply chain set up by EticWood, a Belgian consultancy firm specialising in forest preservation. “Several years ago, EticWood launched a project to regenerate abandoned or low-productivity cocoa farms in the village of Kongo, with the aim of producing forest cocoa. The logic behind the project was that if the forest became the villagers’ means of providing for themselves, then they would take even better care of it. To this end, a partnership has been set up with some 50 families, and small-scale facilities for fermenting and drying beans have also been built.”  

Growing cocoa in the shade of the forest has many advantages,” continues Caroline Amorison. “From an economic point of view, the method increases their lifespan, which reduces the need to renew cocoa trees and represents a saving for producers. What’s more, the cocoa produced is of higher quality and therefore of better commercial value. On the other hand, the shade provided by the forest reduces plant productivity and encourages the growth of fungi and mildew, so there’s a delicate balance to strike. Ecologically speaking, there are only positives: the other trees surrounding the cocoa trees not only store a significant amount of carbon, but the forest is also home to much greater biodiversity than ‘pure’ plantations. Finally, from a social point of view, maintaining forests around and in cocoa farms plays a vital role in preserving traditional ways of life.”  But once this phase had been completed, the next step was to find outlets capable of promoting the resulting product. “Ecocoa was launched for this very purpose,” adds the chocolatier.

Yields and remuneration on the rise

In the value chain, EticWood is responsible for the production of the cocoa beans, for example, by implementing natural methods to improve cocoa yields, taking charge of the bean fermentation and drying stages, and supporting the cocoa farmers’ cooperative. Once the cocoa has been bagged and sent to Péruwelz, Ecocoa takes over, handling the processing and marketing. Over the last two years, the chocolate factory has imported around eight tonnes of cocoa each time, which represents the bulk of Kongo’s production. “The price paid for the beans was twice the local market price (editor’s note: at the time, this was around EUR 1 900 per tonne). Added to this is the fact that we buy green cocoa beans, which are then processed in a post-harvest centre employing four people whose salaries are paid by EticWood. This means that growers no longer have to process the beans, but are better paid than when they did have to,” adds Caroline Amorison. Enough to help them achieve a living income? It’s still not clear at this stage of the project. “We work in very remote rural areas where there are very few opportunities to develop income-generating activities. As a result, the villagers either grow crops for their subsistence, or they have a little cocoa which they sell when buyers come along, at a price set by these buyers,” she continues. “What is certain, however, is that the jobs created in the fermentation and drying centre are well above the living income, and even above the legal scale, while the growers have seen their yields improve, as have their wages.”

The initial concrete impacts

To enable these cocoa farmers to further improve their living conditions in the future, EticWood is also working on various ways of diversifying their crops, and therefore their income. “In addition to consolidating the growers’ cooperative, which is now better organised and structured to better defend growers’ interests with other potential buyers of their choice, we have also carried out various production tests for non-timber forest products such as hazelnuts, wild mangoes and pepper, as well as dried fruits, including bananas and pineapples. And we’re looking for funding to take these projects to the next level,” explains the manager of Ecocoa. While it will undoubtedly be a few years before the project as a whole fully bears fruit in terms of the living conditions of Kongo’s inhabitants, some encouraging signs are already starting to appear, says Caroline Amorison with satisfaction. “My colleague, who has just returned from the area, told me she noticed that several people had built themselves permanent homes. It may sound silly, but for us that proves a certain level of success. It’s the first concrete impact. The fact that several women have become financially independent, thanks to their employment contracts at the bean processing centre, is also a step forward. What’s more, fewer people now seem to want to leave the village to look for work in town.”

Uncertified chocolate (for now)

To date, Ecocoa’s chocolate has not been certified organic or Fairtrade, despite the various initiatives put in place to promote sustainable farming and fair trade. “It’s simply due to the fact that we haven’t yet made a start on the process of becoming certified. We haven’t made it a priority so far, because we had other things to focus on first. In any case, we know that we are sustainable and fair,” explains the chocolatier. “But it would be a shame to close any doors. It’s clear that in the future, we’d like to have these labels, as some shops request them before they’ll sell our products.” As it happens, sales will be Ecocoa’s main challenge over the coming months and years. “We have various sources of funding, including support from European funds. But optimising sales is obviously our big challenge if we are to make our project work over the long term, because the more chocolate we sell, the more cocoa we can buy from producers in Kongo.” Another challenge will be to raise consumer awareness of the issues affecting the chocolate sector. “Consumers’ lack of knowledge about these issues means that they don’t always understand where the price difference between our products and those that are more ethically questionable comes from,” laments the Ecocoa manager. Educating the palates of less demanding food lovers will also be a challenge. “We strive to bring out the cocoa bean and its aromas. This appeals to chocolate connoisseurs, but the irony is that those who are used to very sweet chocolate may not like it.” And, as Caroline Amorison concludes: “If ethical suppliers are to gain a foothold, it’s essential to shed light on what goes on behind the scenes in this market. That’s why it’s vital for regulations to be pushed through, like those on deforestation, to weaken the most unfair players somewhat, I would say, and establish a greater level of fairness.”

Interview by Anthony Planus for Enabel’s Trade for Development Centre.
– Foto: Ecocoa

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