São Tomé, and its sister island Príncipe, were once the biggest producers of cacao in the world. Over the last half century, however, cacao farming there collapsed. Today, the farmers of São Tomé are working to regenerate the country’s reputation, but this time with a focus on quality cacao rather than just quantity.
Visiting São Tomé and Príncipe today, one would find islands of incredible beauty. Yet, one would also see inactive and ruined “roças”, showing an architectural and economic vitality of the past that no longer exists.
Once the World’s Leading Cacao Producer
Back in 1913, despite being Africa’s second smallest country, São Tomé & Príncipe was the world’s largest producer of cacao, thus nicknamed the “Chocolate Islands”. More than a century has passed since the small West African twin island state held that title. Though a global demand for craft chocolate along with investments from Fair Trade companies have put São Tomé & Príncipe back on the chocolate map, it is rather unlikely that the tiny West African country will ever compete on an international scale again.
Over the last century, global demand for cacao to produce chocolate for global consumption has grown immensely. With a surface area of 1,001 square kilometers and a population of approximately 200,000, the Portuguese-speaking country would not be able to cope with the high volume of cacao needed by the global chocolate industry (World Bank, 2019).
One hundred years ago, when São Tomé & Príncipe emerged as the world’s leading cacao producer, the country had an annual output 36,500 tons per year, representing 12 percent of world production (Schwarz, 1932). Today, the world leading cacao grower is the Ivory Coast, producing around 2 million tons, with global output at over 4 million tons, according to the International Cocoa Organization (2019). Comparing those figures, it is evident that São Tomé & Príncipe has been displaced from the top spot it attained in 1913, predominantly due to the rapid surge in cacao cultivation and output over the last century.
Today’s leading cacao producers, the Ivory Coast and Ghana, not only have more land, but also a higher population with more experienced farmers, more financial resources, as well as international support than São Tomé & Príncipe could ever bring together, thus making it implausible for the country to return to the number one spot in world cacao production.
According to the World Bank (2019), “the limited number of people and workers in the country often prevent the efficient production of goods and services at the scale needed to meet the demand of both local and export markets.” It further states that since the country’s independence in 1975, agriculture production has declined and is no longer the main driver of economic growth. Today, however, agricultural goods, especially cacao, still constitute the bulk of the country’s export (World Bank, 2019).
A Bittersweet History
After 1450, São Tomé & Príncipe was one of the leading suppliers of sugar, however, it was ultimately a different crop that would transform its politics and demographics many centuries later (Mintz, 1986). Cacao trees were first planted in the country around 1822, when José Ferreira Gomes brought cacao seedlings from Brazil, introducing the crop as an ornamental plant (Schwarz, 1932). Approximately 1.5 metric tons of cacao were exported from the main island only twenty years later (Schwarz, 1932). By then, cacao had already replaced sugar cane as the primary crop. A few decades later, by the early 1900s, Portuguese colonizers were reveling in the fact that they had turned the small island into the biggest producer and exporter of cacao. Sending heavy volumes of the crop to Bourneville, London, Liverpool, and Hamburg, São Tomé & Príncipe was clearly transforming the world’s cacao market. With exports bound for major European chocolate manufacturers like Cadbury Brothers, JS Fry & Sons and Rowntrees & Co., the islands became famous in the global market with its cacao and coffee outputs (Schwarz, 1932).
Global demand for cacao was increasing and business was booming – a feat that could only be achieved through the labor of about 20,000 slaves.
Toward the end of the 19th century, William Cadbury, of Cadbury chocolate, began to investigate the supply chain of the cacao his company purchased (Kiesow, 2017). The investigation led by Henry Nevinson happened due to allegations that the British chocolate company was using slave-grown cacao (Higgs, 2013).
With the revelation of slave workers on cacao plantations, Western consumers reacted with shock and disgust and much of the production moved from São Tomé to the plantations of Ghana and the Ivory Coast, which did not make use of slave labor. As Ghana and the Ivory Coast had increased their cacao production to meet demand, many of the plantations in São Tomé were unable to sustain themselves. In 1975, after the country’s eventual independence, the once glorious plantations were completely neglected across the islands and subsequently, the cacao industry fell into disrepair (Leissle, 2018).
Under Portuguese colonial rule, production on the islands was dominated by a system of plantations known as roças (estates). A hundred years later, the colonial buildings still stand, but like the cacao industry, they are a far cry from what they once were.
After independence, in 1975, collapsing global prices and a lack of investment saw the pinnacle of São Tomé’s cacao-coated boom slowly melt away. Today, the roças lie in atmospheric ruins, with the jungle having now reclaimed many of the former plantations.
Nationalization of Cacao Plantations
With the revelation of slave workers on cocoa plantations, which caused uproar in Europe and elsewhere, the cacao industry in São Tomé & Príncipe began to go under. The two world wars also affected the revitalization of plantations for cacao and coffee in São Tomé & Príncipe. Shortly after its independence in 1975, the government of the tiny West African country announced the nationalization of the cacao plantation complex, which allowed previous workers to own pieces of land in the plantation and harvest their own subsistence. Soon, however, it became clear that this was not the solution. Some would harvest, others would sell the land, and some would use the property for purposes other than harvesting.
Today, many plantations and their surroundings are home to squatters. This makes it obvious that the phenomenon of the houses being occupied is a direct result of people’s lack of means right after the independence and the nationalization of the cacao plantations by the Saotomeans. It was clearly a solution stemming from the lack of housing.
At the time of independence, about 90% of the cultivated area was occupied by Portuguese-owned plantations (International Business Publications, 2013). The boom of high cacao prices in the late 1970s boosted earnings by São Tomé & Príncipe. However, when the high prices collapsed, the country’s export earnings fell by over 70% between 1979 and 1981 (International Business Publications, 2013). Due to the sharp decline in cacao prices from the 1980s onward, the country’s cacao industry completely crumbled.
The government created state enterprises at the time of independence, in order to manage the nationalized cacao plantations abandoned by the Portuguese. Those enterprises, however, had a variety of problems causing the decline in cacao output and productivity. Weak management, lack of qualified manpower and investments, drought and falling global prices of cacao were some key issues. These problems caused the eventual collapse of the state-owned plantations virtually ending the island’s dependence on cacao.
In theory, even if the colonizers and other foreign companies invested in the country’s cacao sector and prevented its collapse, the island would not have been able to remain as the world`s largest cacao producer because of its tiny population and small land size.
Intervention by the United Nations
The collapse of the cacao industry on the islands remained until 2009 when the United Nation`s International Fund for Agriculture (IFAD) and Cafédirect started working with farmers on the island to produce Fair Trade cacao beans using a co-operative model (IFAD, n.d.)
The National Statistics Institute (INE) of the country stated that its cacao sales accounted for 93.5% of all agricultural exports. The remaining 6.5% of the list of agricultural exports was mostly made up of coconut, flowers, coffee, and pepper. Cacao exports rose from 2,794 tons in 2015 to 3,000 tons in 2017, according to the INE. Today, several farmers are growing organic or fair-trade certified cacao for the international chocolate industry, followed by a positive intervention by IFAD and its partners.
Leading French organic chocolate producer Kaoka, undertook a quick assessment of the country’s cacao sector in 2000 and concluded that the rich genetic origin of São Tomé cacao varieties could produce superior aromatic cocoa beans that would fetch higher and more stable prices than ordinary cocoa (IFAD, n.d.)
The results gathered by IFAD clearly show that by combining organic production and fair trade principles, Saotomean cacao farmers can greatly boost their income.
Chocolate (Factory) in a Box
Though cacao cultivation in São Tomé is over 100 years old, it is interesting to note that at no time was chocolate ever made on the islands. It has, in fact, only just gotten its first-ever chocolate factory, which resulted from a cooperation between a South African and a British business. The enterprises are HBD Venture Capital, an enterprise of IT billionaire and astronaut Mark Shuttleworth, and Coeur de Xocolat, a venture of British chef and master chocolatier David Greenwood-Haigh.
HBD has been investing in sustainable tourism on the island of Príncipe, by setting up a small chain of hotels and stimulating local agriculture. Given the historical circumstances, the obvious focus was on the revival of cacao production. The island has the ability to produce, limited-yield, single origin, superior-grade cacao of the highest quality. Since the land has never had pesticides or other chemicals applied to it, the island’s cacao production is naturally organic. The revival of commercial cacao production created the possibility of making chocolate locally on the islands. “HBD invited me to visit the island to advise and train a team of locals to make chocolate on Príncipe for the first time, keeping as much of the value on the island as possible (raise trade),” Greenwood-Haigh wrote in his blog. “We discovered that Príncipe volcanic soil produces rich-tasting chocolate with flavor peaks of red and yellow fruits, has a very intense and complex taste, rich in roasted cacao, and with lots of refreshing fruity notes, including apricot, red fruits, citrus” (Greenwood-Haigh, n.d.) One of the company’s services, which was also provided in São Tomé, is a so-called “chocolate factory in a box”. It supplied a shipping container that holds all the equipment necessary to launch a chocolate factory.
Thanks to this project, the chocolate facility can now produce natural cacao powder, cacao butter, cacao vinegar, roasted cacao nibs, and couverture, ready for conversion into bars, with all products being organic (Greenwood-Haigh, n.d.). Just like with the explosion of barista-made coffee, as well as craft beer, a similar trend has emerged in the chocolate industry. As consumers are becoming more interested in premium chocolate, they are also increasingly conscious of where their chocolate comes from. This makes it an exciting time for São Tomé & Príncipe and its local chocolate industry.
Quality over Quantity
Though it lost its title as the biggest producer of cacao in the world a long time ago, the people of São Tomé are slowly regenerating the country’s reputation. This time, however, with a focus on quality cacao rather than just quantity.
Over the past decades, the global chocolate industry has seen growing consumer demand for high quality products with clear origins. There has been a real shift away from the packaged, processed foods seen since the 1950s (Leissle, 2018). With that shift in consumer demand, craft chocolate, like beer and coffee before it, has gone mainstream.
Artisan craft chocolate, i.e. chocolate that differentiates itself by the type of bean, origin of the ingredients, flavor, and cacao content in the bar, has become a growing business. “Cocoa beans, like wine grapes, produce distinct flavors depending on strain and terroir, and showcasing that flavor is the goal of single origin chocolate” (Leissle, 2013, p.23). In the current decade, there are now more than 230 bean-to-bar craft chocolate makers, as well as a growing movement of fine chocolatiers (Martin, 2019).
Craft makers are traveling to new parts of the world, as they seek out new flavors in order to diversify their options. With its productive co-op schemes and historic cacao plantations, São Tomé seems to have been the perfect place to be rediscovered.
One of the first people to put São Tomé & Príncipe back on the chocolate map was Claudio Corallo. In 1997, the Italian coffee businessman purchased a disused plantation on the island and brought it back to life. For two decades, Corallo has been championing the island and its cacao produce, used in his dark chocolate bars, which he sells for a steep price of €16.50 each.
While Corallo owns Nova Moca, the biggest producer of coffee on São Tomé, he also owns Terreiro Velho on Príncipe, a plantation that produces the island’s best cacao. Corallo, who is famously known as the Chocolate King of West Africa, runs his empire from the islands and exports the bulk of what he describes as “the best chocolate in the world” to France, Italy, Portugal, and the U.S. This makes him one of just a few bean-to-bar chocolate makers working in Africa, rather than exporting the cacao beans to Europe, like his bigger competitors, where both the end product and real profit is made.
Unlike many of his competitors, Corallo does not believe in adding many things to his cacao, especially milk and vanilla.
Another famous chocolatier drawing attention to São Tomé & Príncipe is François Pralus, who produces the “Sao Tomé bar” featuring a map of the country on the front of the wrapper. The bar is advertised according to its “intense and distinct flavor”.
In 2014, the Kennyson group, known for its interest in the rural development of Africa, helped the revival of the century-old plantation of Diogo Vaz on São Tomé. Dating back to 1880, the plantation has produced organic certified cacao since it was taken over.
The plantation ensures the entire production process from the manual harvesting of the pod until it is molded into a chocolate bar (calling their process “Tree to Bar”) and wrapped in a delicate paper cover. This allows the plantation to guarantee traceability and an exceptional manufacturing quality.
Though it is doubtful that São Tomé will ever regain its title as the world’s largest producer of cacao, I believe the future of the country’s cacao industry is bright, particularly because of the work farmers on the island have done to engage a new generation in the industry.
Thanks to chocolatiers like Claudio Corallo, the country will continue to produce chocolate bars that allow its consumers to taste more than just its bittersweet notes. Biting into an artisanal product such as Corallo’s 100% cacao mass bar, one will taste earthy volcanic soil, sweet African sunshine, and, hopefully, a brighter, chocolate-inspired future for these divine islands after decades of neglect.
Multimedia Sources Cited
Scholarly Sources Cited
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Higgs, C. (2013). Chocolate Islands: Cocoa, slavery, and colonialism. London, UK: Penguin Books.
International Business Publications, USA. (2013). Sao Tome & Principe: Business Intelligence Report Vol. 1, Strategic Information and Opportunities. Washington DC, USA – Sao Tome
International Cocoa Organization. (2019). ICCO Quarterly Bulletin of Cocoa Statistics, Vol. XLV, No.1, Cocoa year 2018/19. Retrieved from https://www.icco.org/component/search/?searchword=sao%20tome&searchphrase=all&Itemid=101
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Leissle, K. (2013). Invisible West Africa: The politics of single origin chocolate. Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture, 13(3), 22-31.
Leissle, K. (2018). Cocoa. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
Martin, C. (2019). Lecture 12: Haute patisserie, artisan chocolate, and food justice: the future? Harvard University, May 1, 2019.
Mintz, S. (1986). Sweetness and power. London, UK: Penguin Books.
Schwarz, L. (1932). Cocoa in São Tomé and Príncipe. Retrieved April 25, 2019 from https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uiug.30112101553680;view=1up;seq=1
The World Bank. (2019). The World Bank in Sao Tome and Principe. Retrieved from http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/saotome/overview