Mada­gas­car’s co­coa, a bit­ter sweet cash crop

Kuwait Times - - BUSINESS -

AMBANJA, Mada­gas­car: A mas­sive zebu cow lum­bers out of the trop­i­cal for­est in Ambanja in the north of Mada­gas­car car­ry­ing a heavy cart­ful of co­coa pods des­tined to be­come some of the most ex­pen­sive choco­late in the world.

“These red ones here, they’re of the Cri­ollo va­ri­ety, the most sought-af­ter co­coa in the world,” says Cyrille Am­bara­hova, a lo­cal smallscale farmer. Stand­ing in the mid­dle of his sin­gle hectare of co­coa trees-”100 per­cent or­ganic”, he says-Am­bara­hova uses a long, hooked stick to har­vest only the most ma­ture pods.

Co­coa ar­rived in Mada­gas­car in the 1900s, and to­day is still a low-vol­ume ex­port com­pared with the coun­try’s cof­fee, vanilla and shell­fish pro­duc­tion. With an an­nual pro­duc­tion of 7,000 tons, Mada­gas­car is still a dwarf in the global co­coa mar­ket.

But the va­ri­ety of the crop found on the is­land-the prized Cri­ollo-has earned Mada­gas­car a rep­u­ta­tion for high-qual­ity co­coa. And un­like the other lux­ury crop on the is­land, vanilla, co­coa can be har­vested year-round.

In Ambanja, where tuk-tuk rick­shaws eas­ily out­num­ber cars, the rhythm of life is dic­tated by the co­coa mar­ket. The zebu’s cargo was off­loaded in Am­bara­hova’s back­yard, and the process of crack­ing the pods and ex­tract­ing the beans be­gan.

Sticky and white, it was dif­fi­cult to imag­ine they end up as fine choco­late. Next, they are sold to col­lec­tors com­mis­sioned by large choco­late pro­duc­ers but small-scale pro­duc­ers com­plain they have lit­tle say in the go­ing price.

Un­fair trade?

Am­bara­hova joined a co­op­er­a­tive with sev­eral col­leagues to ne­go­ti­ate higher prices, but their ef­forts have borne lit­tle fruit. On the day AFP vis­ited Am­bara­hova’s farm, one in­ter­na­tional choco­late maker had bought his weekly har­vest for 2,600 ari­ary (80 US cents, 0.75 euros) a kilo­gram.

“The price that col­lec­tors pay now, it’s not the true price,” rails fel­low farmer Remi Jaofeno. “The price should be tripled, then it would be the right price.” A few kilo­me­tres away, on the 635-hectare (1,570-acre) Mava co­coa plan­ta­tion, the era of the zebu has long since passed and staff zip be­tween the trees in 4x4s.

Here, the co­coa is pro­cessed along an ef­fi­cient fac­tory line: an all-male team picks the pods, an all-fe­male team cracks them open, and a third team sorts them into large out­door trays.

Dry­ing out in the open air, the beans be­gin to give off the strong smell of the choco­late they will be­come.

‘Co­coa par­adise’

“We con­sider Mada­gas­car to be one of the par­adises of co­coa of the world,” says plan­ta­tion man­ager Thomas Wenisch. “We are rel­a­tively free from dis­ease be­cause of our iso­la­tion from the rest of the world, and our fairly se­vere dry sea­son helps slow down the de­vel­op­ment of mould.” But for all its ad­van­tages, Mada­gas­car’s role in choco­late pro­duc­tion largely ends there.

The bulk of the har­vest is ex­ported and pro­cessed abroad into the fine choco­late that in the streets of Paris can sell for close to 5 euros ($5) per 100-gram slab. The lit­tle that re­mains on the is­land is pro­cessed in the cap­i­tal An­tana­narivo and sold back to the few lo­cals who can af­ford it. “Most of the world’s choco­late is made with a co­coa that is not fine co­coa,” says Wenisch.

“And the com­pa­nies sell­ing (it) are the big ones-Lindt, Craft, Suchard, Mars-they make choco­late bars, sweets. And they’re push­ing to bring down the price of co­coa.”

Philippe Bastide, a co­coa ex­pert at the French Agri­cul­tural Re­search Cen­tre for In­ter­na­tional De­vel­op­ment, says the costs in­volved in buy­ing and trans­port­ing the co­coa did not jus­tify the profit mar­gins that the large man­u­fac­tur­ers en­joy.

“There are costs all along the chain of pro­duc­tion, but the Mala­gasy small-scale pro­duc­ers could re­ally get a fairer deal,” he says. —AFP

This file photo taken on Novem­ber 14, 2016 shows a worker sort­ing co­coa beans at the SCAK co­coa pro­cess­ing plant in Beni. — AFP

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