The future of African chocolate is organic


Organic farming is slowly developing in Africa, the world’s leading cocoa producer. In a context of rising demand for both chocolate and sustainable products, switching to organic production might mean a brighter future for the cocoa producers of the continent.


Chocolate is a treat with ever-growing appeal for consumers in new parts of the world: over the past 20 years, demand has increased by 25% each year in Japan, 30% in China and 20% in India. Overall, global demand steadily increases by 3% every year; in 2011, cocoa production reached 4 million metric tons. The main producer by far is Western Africa, which provides two-thirds of world production (Ivory Coast being the biggest cocoa producer in the world). 95% of the time, producers work on family farms.

The rise of the demand for chocolate has been accompanied by increasing awareness, on the consumers’ part, about the environmental and social impacts of agriculture. Since the start of the 2000s, and even more so since the 2008 crisis, people have been asking more and more for sustainable products, i.e. goods produced with environmental friendliness and social benefits for the workers in mind. And in order to satisfy these demands, certification bodies have started to blossom, creating labels to help consumers make a choice in terms of sustainability. But there are still challenges ahead if the system is to work.

 The importance of reliable certification

Cocoa production is a good example of the issues facing sustainable agriculture and its certification: it mainly takes place in developing countries that have little or no certification standards, contain the biggest biodiversity reserves in the world, and where the living and working conditions of farmers are a crucial development issue.

Organic farming thus represents an opportunity for these countries to strengthen their competitive advantage on the global market, while protecting their ecosystems and the well-being of their people. What they need now is the development of organic farming, and reliable certification methods.

To continue with the African example, organic farming still needs to develop there: while the area of organic arable land was multiplied by over 20 between 2000 and 2011, it still only represents 3% of the world’s total area used for organic farming. But the African continent has huge potential. Because intensive farming has not really been developed, the soil remains relatively free from pesticides and other chemical inputs. In a 2007 conference on organic farming, the World Food Organisation (WFO) established that yield was higher for organic farms that do not have a history of using pesticides – which damage productivity in the long run. Africa also possesses potential with the 60% of arable lands that were still unused in 2011.

But cocoa producers throughout the continent are getting older and older (their average age is 50!). To convince younger farmers to continue production, organic certification seems like an efficient solution. “To convince producers to learn new techniques, train, and adapt their habits, it is necessary to reward their efforts with an incentive,” said Edward Millard, cocoa director for Rainforest Alliance, to the French magazine L’Express. “With fair trade, a producer benefits from a minimum buying price of $2,000 per metric ton, and a development bonus of $200/metric ton that can be invested in education, health or the farm,” added Magali Nauts, responsible for cocoa at Max Havelaar. Certification is usually carried out by bodies such as Rainforest Alliance, FairTrade and Utz. It constitutes a sort of “win-win” for everyone: producers increase their income, chocolate companies increase their sales, and consumers can buy safe, reliable and sustainable products.

But it is still not an ideal picture, as the reliability of certification is often questioned, in a context where developing countries do not have standards and where the business attraction of chocolate leads to some producers being certified even when they do not meet all the criteria. A recent study led by CIRAD (the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development) in 160 plantations in the Ivory Coast highlighted the inadequacies of the certification process (you can read an interview in French on that topic here).

But if these inadequacies are overcome (and they probably will be, in an effort to meet consumer demand), organic cocoa farming might represent a positive opportunity for small African producers.

Photo © Shutterstock / Sági Elemér