From cocoa cultivation of rare varieties to mass production
While chocolate used to be a luxury item for the elite, today it – in various forms – is an integral part of every supermarket. Originally native to Central and South America, European colonialists quickly discovered cocoa for themselves. The development of processing machines in the 17th century - which could process cocoa beans in large quantities into chocolate - enabled the further development towards mass production. While the cocoa drink was previously used primarily for representation purposes by emperors and aristocrats, the general public could now also access the sweet good. The consequence? An increasing demand for the raw material cocoa.
ripe cocoa pods on the cocoa tree ©Lydgate Farms
New growing areas for cocoa had to be found quickly, since the Central and South American growing areas could not produce sufficient yields. At the same time, there were and are narrow natural limits: cocoa only grows near the equator. The cocoa plant requires temperatures of at least 20 degrees – although it does not like heat – and a minimum amount of rainfall, which in turn must be distributed appropriately over the year. The European chocolate producers - British and French - therefore quickly identified their West African colonies as new cocoa-growing countries. The Dutch their colony Indonesia.
Where does cocoa grow?
And even today, most cocoa is grown in West Africa: over 60% of the world's cocoa alone comes from the Ivory Coast and Ghana, which is why the trade in cocoa is also one of the most important economic factors for these countries. The remaining 40% of global cocoa cultivation is distributed mainly between Indonesia, Ecuador, Cameroon, Nigeria and Brazil. It is currently estimated that cocoa is grown in a total of 128 equatorial countries around the world, with 118 countries accounting for only three percent of total cultivation. And
Harvesting cocoa pods with a machete ©Lydgate Farms
Cacao cultivation is an art in itself. To protect cocoa trees from pests and diseases, they need a lot of care. Cocoa trees grow particularly well in permaculture, although smaller producing countries have specialized in this. On regular cocoa farms and plantations, on the other hand, it is important to keep the areas free of other plants as far as possible.
How does cocoa grow?
This is still done today mainly through manual work. At the same time, new plants have to be constantly cultivated in order to grow seedlings. In countries like Ghana and the Ivory Coast there are over 1000 cocoa plants per hectare. Newly planted trees bear fruit after three years at the earliest, after about 5-7 years they have reached the optimum of their production potential. After about 20 - 30 years, the yield decreases - ideally the younger trees have then reached their production optimum.
freshly harvested cocoa pods ©Lydgate Farms
Harvest of the cocoa podIn contrast to many other fruits, the cocoa pods on the cocoa tree do not ripen at the same time. The harvest times therefore vary from October to April (this is the main harvest time) and May to August (ie the secondary harvest time). During this time, farmers identify the ripe cocoa pods, cut them directly from the branches with machetes, take them to central collection points, open them by hand and remove the cocoa beans from the shells. At this point in time, the cocoa beans still have little in common with the brown, fragrant cocoa beans, which some people also like to enjoy pure or caramelized . And
Before that can happen, however, there are still a few steps to be taken. Farmers separate the cocoa beans from the pods and prepare them for fermentation. This creates a certain amount of pulp waste, which great startups like KOA convert into super delicious cocoa fruit juice. You can find out more about the fermentation process of cocoa here. After the cocoa beans have been fermented in wooden crates for a few days, they have to be dried for several days before they are finally ready for further processing. All of these steps are extremely labor intensive, must be closely monitored and are still done by hand. In West Africa in particular, this small-scale work is mostly carried out by smallholders. The livelihood of entire families often depends on a few hectares of farmland.
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