The future of cocoa looks less than promising. While demand has doubled over the past two decades, supply has suffered. Farming cocoa is not as productive as it used to be due to deteriorating yield from aging trees. Child laborers are still harvesting cocoa in major growing countries. As families supporting the cocoa economy plunge into financial hardship, many from younger generations are leaving their native villages behind to pursue more rewarding careers. And just like some coffee farmers have never tried the coffee they helped grow, some cocoa farmers have never even tasted chocolate processed from their own beans. Of all the issues that plague the industry, the crux of the problem still hasn’t been acknowledged: the cocoa farmers’ crippling poverty. In a frustrating effort to boost productivity and feed the growing demand for chocolate worldwide, cocoa-farming families feel compelled to burn trees and plant more cocoa illegally in forest reserves. Their actions have accelerated deforestation and fueled global climate change. Cocoa consumers trying to navigate these issues may look for certification labels on their ingredients and chocolate bars, but myriad labels have added to the confusion and enabled loose sourcing practices among chocolate companies.
We looked at these challenges and couldn’t help but ask: What does it mean for cocoa to be made the right way by the right people for the right reasons?
Remove as many middlemen as possible between the cocoa farmer and market shelf.
Train farmers in field schools to study bean quality and reduce cocoa diseases.
Raise cocoa yields by improving farm productivity while avoiding deforestation.
Enable farmers to run safe and profitable cocoa farms.
Tackle child labor issues by facilitating access to education and raising family incomes.
Improve the social conditions of local communities in cocoa-growing countries.
Maintain transparency in social and environmental practices for the consumer.
Protect the natural and human resources that go into making chocolate.
Ensure human rights of those who support the cocoa economy.
Several cocoa companies have committed to going beyond the bottom line.
Meet chocolate brands that have made it their mission to hit the “sweet spot” between doing business and doing right by suppliers. Along the way, these brands are changing how chocolate is made and helping bring sustainability to the cocoa industry. All this while keeping the prices of their chocolate bars under $5!
Best for: Innovation in the Chocolate Industry
Based on the insight that some farmers have never tasted the chocolate made from their own cocoa beans, TCHO partners directly with growers in flavor analysis as well as cocoa production. In “sample labs” onsite, cocoa farmers use coffee roasters, spice grinders and modified hair dryers to extract samples and share tasting notes. The company’s single-origin chocolates replace confusing cocoa percentages with a user-friendly Flavor Wheel that features “goût de terroir” (the taste of place) from different regions – like Chocolatey from Ghana and Nutty from Peru. TCHO prides itself on creatively rethinking the production process.
Best for: Full Transparency in the Cocoa Supply Chain
Of all its sustainability endeavors, Theo values recognizing and revealing the true cost of food the most. Much like clothing brand Everlane, Theo believes its customers have a right to know how much it costs to make the chocolate they’re consuming. The company insists on full transparency and traceability along its cocoa supply chain and even posts its pricing matrix online. In its unique operating model, Theo assures farmers that the prices will not fluctuate, regardless of political unrest or global commodity prices of chocolate. For its Congolese cocoa, Theo tries to offer farmers a fair price while providing customers with a product they can afford.
Best for: Chocolate Made Entirely in Africa
Africa is responsible for producing nearly 70% of the world’s cocoa beans, but barely 1% of the world’s chocolate. Madécasse makes chocolate in Madagascar from the bean to the bar. All ingredients are locally sourced and the packaging is hand-wrapped. Founded by former Madagascar Peace Corps volunteers, this chocolate company focuses exclusively on developing the country’s economy and forming direct relationships with Fair Trade certified farmers. Madécasse helps responsibly harvest heirloom cocoa, which is one of earth’s rarest and oldest strains.
This bean-to-bar movement has been growing just as quickly in our own backyard.
Below are a few New York-based chocolatiers who are well on their way to redefining and disrupting the cocoa industry.
This Bushwick-based chocolate shop is serious about using raw, toxin-free ingredients sourced from sustainable farms all over the world. Its founders think of sustainability as a “moving target” and confess that they like “the planet” because “it’s the only one with chocolate.”
Meaning raw in Finnish, Raaka wishes to show the wild side of cocoa through its flavored chocolate while keeping social and environmental responsibility in mind. All its chocolate is sourced, winnowed, ground, mixed, milled, tempered, poured, demolded and wrapped by a team in Red Hook, Brooklyn.
Also based in Red Hook, Cacao Prieto is home to both beans-to-bar chocolate and beans-to-bottle spirits, made with single-origin cocoa from the Dominican Republic. Its sense of purpose stems from the simple insight that “making one thing the right way might just make the world a better place.”
By importing her cocoa beans from a locally run farm in eastern Colombia, Justine Pringle seeks out the best ingredients for the truffles and caramels she produces right at Nunu Chocolates, her Boerum Hill shop named after a nickname for little kids in her native South Africa.
Besides running a massive chocolate factory in New York’s Brooklyn Army Terminal, Jacques Torres also recently made the city home to the sixth chocolate museum in the world. “Choco-Story New York: The Chocolate Museum and Experience” shows that a delicate craft like chocolate-making is steeped in history. There, one can follow the cocoa bean’s journey from its Mayan and Aztec roots to chocolate’s modern iterations.
The Harlem Chocolate Factory’s owner and founder Jessica Spaulding produces responsibly sourced and locally manufactured handcrafted premium chocolate that elevates the stories and cultures of Harlem. Each bar is wrapped in original artwork celebrating the neighborhood’s unique offerings, from Lenox Avenue’s sweet potato pies to Spanish Harlem’s Mexican chilies and Striver’s Row’s champagne.
Image Credits: Cacao nibs photo by Leslie Seaton from Seattle, WA, USA (Nibs) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons // Nunu chocolates photo by Fort Greene Focus via Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0) // Historic Striver’s Row District photo by Beyond My Ken (Own work) (GFDL) or (CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0), via Wikimedia Commons